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A new exhibition tracking Coventry’s post-war boom-time, the decline of its famous motor industry, and the city’s current resurgence as City of Culture opens at the Coventry Music Museum in May. What’s On caught up with venue director & curator Pete Chambers to find out more...
When 2-Tone ska band The Specials released Ghost Town in 1981, it captured the zeitgeist of the nation.
Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, and as unemployment edged past 2.5 million, the Coventry band’s brooding tune - with lyrics that expressed the frustration and anger of disaffected people all over the country - hit top spot as Britain’s cities burned, with riots breaking out in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.
The residents of Coventry may not have manned the barricades, but the birthplace of the nation’s motor manufacturing industry had taken a massive economic hit since the boom-time of the early 1960s, when the city was known as ‘Britain’s Detroit’.
As Coventry begins its tenure as UK City of Culture, the Ghost Town 2 Host Town exhibition at Coventry Music Museum documents the city’s fluctuating fortunes, both in terms of its social history and its music scene.
The museum’s director & curator, Pete Chambers, believes the new exhibition is a must-see show: “You can find out about Coventry’s fascinating post-war story - from ‘boom town’ to ‘ghost town’ and now ‘host town’ for the City of Culture - and how Coventry put itself on the map as a city.”
The show will certainly be a personal journey for Pete. A prominent figure on the Coventry music scene for the past four decades, he used to earn a living in the city’s most famous industry: “I worked at British Leyland and was made redundant. I was on the scrap heap at 23! We’ve got a reproduction of the foreman’s office at British Leyland in Courthouse Green, the Morris Engines factory. There’s a telephone, and my story is on the telephone.”
The impact of Ghost Town when it came out cannot be underestimated. Perfectly encapsulating the national mood of the moment, it was chosen as ‘single of the year’ by NME, Melody Maker and Sounds.
Pete first heard the song shortly after its release: “I was at the Rock Against Racism gig (22 June 1981), the last time we’d ever see The Specials with the original line-up in Coventry, and they played Ghost Town. It was at the Butts stadium, and it was an amazing gig.”
There was another artist from Coventry who also made quite an impression on Pete that day: “My outstanding memory, which still sends shivers down my spine, is when Hazel O’Connor sat dangling her feet off the stage as it started to get dark, and sang Will You. It was an amazing experience.”
Ghost Town turned out to be a final, albeit triumphant, farewell for the band that had launched 2-Tone Records (and with it, a dynamic new musical genre). Three of its members left to form Fun Boy Three.
Pete recalls that the group’s leader & songwriter, Jerry Dammers, had worked on the tune for quite some time: “It took him a year. He put a lot of thought and effort into that song, but it wasn’t a pleasant time and the band were falling apart. Jerry famously said, ‘I’m glad that The Specials stayed together long enough to actually make and release Ghost Town’, but it was a car crash while they were making it!”
The song’s accompanying video famously featured the band crowded into a classic Vauxhall Cresta. A recreation of the car has become a popular attraction at the museum - as has another piece of memorabilia connected to the song: “The Ghost Town car’s still there, as is the Ghost Town keyboard, where the song was written and on which it was played. People can actually sit in the car. Obviously we disinfect everything after everybody’s been in there.”
Ghost Town 2 Host Town features other notable artists from Coventry, and also focuses on the city’s role in the burgeoning progressive rock scene of the early 1970s.
“Although Coventry wasn’t particularly known for its prog rock bands, the first big prog rock album was Days Of Future Passed by The Moody Blues. Originally they were a beat band and had a big number one with Go Now. The man who changed their musical direction was a Coventry guy called Tony Clarke, who, as producer - and along with The Moody Blues - could be credited with creating prog rock.”
And for fans of TV favourite Dr Who, there’s also a focus on Delia Derbyshire - the celebrated Coventrian who was responsible for realising Ron Grainer’s memorable theme-tune for the series: “Delia was an electronic music pioneer, an absolute legend and a massive influence. Pink Floyd visited her at the BBC studios and loved what she did, and Paul McCartney wanted to do an electronic version of Yesterday.”
Apart from Coventry’s musical heritage, Ghost Town 2 Host Town also has something to offer visitors with an interest in the day-to-day life of the city: “This exhibition isn’t just about music. We’ve got information posters showing you how much you could buy a house for in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and things like that. We were the Motor City as well, of course, which fits in with the 2-Tone-Motown connection.”
Ghost Town 2 Host Town will be in place for the duration of Coventry’s period as UK City of Culture.
Pete is keen to stress that there are plenty of other attractions for visitors to enjoy, too: “It’s not just the museum. We’re part of the 2-Tone Village, which was built by fans, for fans. You’ve got the shops, the Coventry Music Wall of Fame and the 2-Tone café to explore as well as the museum.”
The Ghost Town 2 Host Town exhibition runs until the end of 2021. For further information, visit, covmm.co.uk
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