It was the year that Bob Marley died. Malcolm McLaren witnessed Afrika Bambaata spinning discs at a block party in the South Bronx. John McEnroe beat Björn Borg to earn his first Wimbledon title and Shergar won the Derby (which earned me a few quid). Charles married Diana but they never seemed as well suited as Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and while I’m on the subject of vile evil, the Yorkshire Ripper was finally caught and jailed for life.
The Guardian lauded Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark as ‘one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction’ and, at that year’s Oscars, The Elephant Man and Raging Bull both earned eight nominations although Ordinary People was somehow voted Best Film.
The higher echelons of the British singles charts managed to feature everything from Euro accordion nonsense (The Birdie Song) to O Superman by avant-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson, although neither of those tracks made it all the way to the top.
Number ones are, of course, usually rank rotten and 1981 provided us with regular reminders of this general rule. As the bells sounded in the new year, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma sat at #1 and trash like Shaddap You Face and Japanese Boy followed on.
But it wasn’t all quite as hellish. The bestselling single of the year was Tainted Love, an imaginative synthpop stab at a northern soul classic spoiled by Marc Almond’s head-nipping vocals. The Christmas #1 was The Human League with Don’t You Want Me but even better was The Specials’ finest moment, Ghost Town, a track that could rightly take its place next to tracks like Paint It Black; Sunny Afternoon; Hot Love; God Save the Queen (unofficially anyway) and Going Underground as one of the greatest records to ever top the British singles charts.
If Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco was an anthem attempting to reflect the peace and love optimism of the Flower Power generation then Ghost Town was a state of the nation address along the more depressing lines of unemployment, police racism and poverty in powder-keg Britain and as you likely know already, its tenure at number coincided with riots raging in Toxteth and around England including The Specials’ home town of Coventry.
A visit north of the border, though, has been acknowledged by Jerry Dammers as his key inspiration when writing the song.
‘In Glasgow, there were these little old ladies on the streets selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers,’ Dammers explained to Alexis Petridis in the Guardian in 2002 while discussing Ghost Town. ‘It was unbelievable. It was clear that something was very, very wrong.’
There was something very, very wrong in Britain in 1981 but I certainly never witnessed any little old ladies selling their household goods on any street in the city around this time myself.
My theory is that Dammers probably strayed around the edges of the old Paddy’s Market in the Briggait and somehow failed to realise that it was a longstanding market place. Maybe his visit was early in the day, just as trading was being set up.
Paddy’s, it would have to be admitted, was a dump. To the extent that it made the Barras look positively swanky.
Cluttered with all kinds of junk, clothes were often arrayed on stalls, crates, deckchair loungers, palletts or even just on sheets laid out on the ground. I would visit many a Saturday morning in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There used to be a good barber and you could occasionally pick up the odd interesting old record or unusual item of clothing in among the general kitsch and crap. Actually I miss Paddy’s and still believe the town became a little more bland the day that it was forced to close.
With a video shot by graphic art genius Barney Bubbles – who also designed record sleeves for Ian Dury, Generation X and Elvis Costello – this is The Specials with Ghost Town:
The Specials might have sang of all the clubs having been closed down but luckily this wasn’t true throughout the land – although I can think of a few cattle markets in Glasgow that should have been shut down back then albeit I lived in England for the majority of the year.
Maestro’s on Scott Street was not one of these even though there was an annoyingly high percentage of posers there on any given night – you know, the kind of person that read in The Face that jazz and salsa were going to be the next big thing and so immediately started dressing like Blue Rondo à la Turk. On the plus side there were always plenty of good looking girls there and you would hear an amazingly eclectic mix of tracks from electronic, post-punk and New Pop through to mutant disco and early Rap and Hip Hop.
Floor-fillers at Maestro’s and the cooler end of the club spectrum in 1981 included ESG’s Moody; Pete Shelley’s Homosapien, Pigbag’s Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag; DAF’s Der Mussolini; Computer Love by Kraftwerk; The Magnificent Seven by The Clash and this epic and audacious audio collage of tracks spun on the Grandmaster Flash’s double decks featuring bits ‘n’ pieces of Chic’s Good Times; Blondie’s Rapture; The Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache and The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight.
Released on Sugar Hill Records, here is the Grandmaster with The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel:
I did promise some more Scritti Politti in my last post but failed to find a decent video for their 1981 single The “Sweetest Girl”.
A sumptuous production with a sinuous and soothing bassline, this track was one of the great surprises of the era. Lovers rock meets Messthetics, the track opened the Rough Trade compiled NME cassette tape C81 – a much better compilation of music than the more famous C86 incidentally.
Instead of Scritti, here’s one of the most infectious tracks that you could ever hope to dance your ass off to, this is Pigbag and Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag:
The Top Ten (in no particular order)
The Specials: Ghost Town
Grandmaster Flash: The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel
Pete Shelley: Homosapien
Pigbag: Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag
DAF: Der Mussolini
Scritti Politti: The “Sweetest Girl”
Aztec Camera: We Could Send Letters
Simple Minds: Theme for Great Cities
Kraftwerk: Computer Love
Has 2016 produced as many notable tracks?
In a word? No.
Just Outside: Article 58 – Event To Come; The Passions – I’m In Love With A German Film Star; Vivien Goldman – Launderette; Laurie Anderson – O Superman; The Teardrop Explodes – Reward, Scars – All About You, Fire Engines – Candyskin; The Associates – White Car in Germany; New Order – Everything’s Gone Green.
I could go on.