Ghost Town

The Producer's Story

By John Collins

It started in March 1981 with a phone call from Jerry Dammers. He had heard a reggae record I had made at home in Tottenham, At The Club by Victor Romero Evans, and asked if I would be interested in producing The Specials. Suspicious that it was some sort of joke, I nevertheless agreed to travel up to Coventry a couple of days later to meet the band and was surprised to find that they were serious. They were surprised to find that I was white.

There were clearly tensions in the band, they needed somebody to unite around and they seemed keen to work with me. Jerry was disillusioned with high tech, expensive studios and liked my homemade approach and reggae credentials. He had found a small 8-track studio in Leamington and although it was a step down for The Specials, it was a step up from my 4-track home studio. It was decided to go there to record three songs for the band's next single. I was given a producer's contract for 2 points and an advance of £1500 which was a good deal for an unknown producer.

And so the experiment began. On the first day in the studio I wanted the rhythm tracks to be recorded: drums, bass, rhythm guitar and guide organ. The Specials usually recorded by all playing together live, but I was used to building a backing track bit by bit. They wouldn't have all fitted in the studio anyway. I got drummer John Bradbury to set up just his bass drum, snare and hi hat; and bass player Horace Panter to plug directly into the mixer, going for a Sly and Robbie sound. The other songs for the single: Friday Night Saturday Morning and Why? were also begun in the same way.

At this point, Ghost Town was too long, had just a drum lead-in at the start and no proper ending. I got Jerry to overdub a two handed shuffle on a Hammond organ that was in the studio. The rhythm was now sounding almost Jamaican!

The drums were mixed down (bounced) to one track (mono) as were the rhythm guitar and shuffle organ, freeing up tracks for more overdubs. The track laying and bouncing continued for a couple of weeks. Time wasn't a problem, the studio was relatively cheap and I was told by The Specials' manager, Rick Rogers, to "take as long as it takes".

When the backing vocals were added it still hadn't been decided exactly where they would be used so, to keep the options open, I got Jerry, Neville, Lynval and Terry to sing throughout the track - this was before samplers. This turned out to be very useful for the ending; by the time they got to the end of the track, 'this town is coming like a ghost town' had become an hypnotic chant.

After the tracks were laid, I spent the following three weeks at my house in Tottenham mixing and editing. I had to get an eight track tape machine to play the multi-track tape but continued to use my home-made equaliser and compressor units along with MicMix Master Room XL-305 spring reverb and DeltaLab DL-4 echo units going through two Teac mixers onto a Teac A3300SX 1/4 inch tape recorder.

Since there was no automated desk, I mixed each section of Ghost Town separately and spliced the sections of 1/4 inch tape together manually. To keep the 7 inch version close to three minutes long I decided to leave Rico's trombone solo for the 12 inch version. Other things I decided to leave out altogether including a "toasting" (reggae rapping) Terry Hall section - I thought the middle section ("Do you remember the good old days...") featuring Terry worked brilliantly and for me it was a case of "less is more".

It was at this stage I sorted out the beginning and end of Ghost Town by using my kit-built Transcendent 2000 synthesiser to make the ghost sound effect at the start of the final mix, fading up The Specials from Brad's drum count-in and fading down the synthesiser under Jerry's chromatic diminished chord sequence. At the end, I muted everything apart from bass, drums and backing vocals, dub style, and faded the ghost synth back up just before The Specials come to a halt, leaving the synth on its own again for a few seconds before the final fade.

2 Tone article