ghost towns

On October 10, 1980, Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech to the Conservative Party, something of a Top Ten hit for her followers. She spoke about repaying the “debt which had been run up by our predecessors,” the way predecessors do, what with their curiously unverifiable but limitlessly stupid antecedent behavior. After beating up the previous administrations a bit more, Thatcher celebrated investment “opportunities overseas,” which she said would “help to secure our living standards long after North Sea oil has run out.” It’s amusing to think Thatcher had any intention of bowing to the limits of nature or, worse, accepting a version of “the natural” that wasn’t based on the unnatural condition of state-supported monopoly. Because, hey, we’re all just selves, aren’t we? Look what you can do with a self!

Prosperity comes not from grand conferences of economists but by countless acts of personal self-confidence and self-reliance.

Just rely on that self and avoid what Thatcher called the “Socialist fantasy” of state support. To be clear, Thatcher only denounced state support for people, who have selves and don’t need the support that, say, banks and fragile supermarket chains need. “A property-owning democracy” was the goal for Thatcher, because citizens deserved “the right to the most basic ownership of all—the homes in which they live.” This “right” also represented “independence” which was also a synonym for “ownership.” Watch the black, get your money back.

They wanted to buy. Many could afford to buy. But they happened to live under the jurisdiction of a Socialist council, which would not sell and did not believe in the independence that comes with ownership.

Man, if only there were a bank loan behind the curtain. 1929, please call 2008 and send 1980 a fruit basket.

The Left continues to refer with relish to the death of capitalism. Well, if this is the death of capitalism, I must say that it is quite a way to go.

Thatcher’s speech writer, Sir Ronald Millar, gave her a punchline that lasted almost as long as the puppies of austerity in her kennel. Let her deliver it:


Two weeks later, UB40 released “The Earth Dies Screaming,” the first reggae single I ever bought. I was 13 years old and paying attention to English politics not because I was committed to any specific cause but because my mother is English and we’d just visited my relatives. England, especially London, had hella records. After coming back to Brooklyn and hearing the last thirty seconds of the UB40 song on WNYU, I went to Bleecker Bob’s and found the 7-inch.

The band whispers, rendering what seems like a summary of song, the edge of a drawing torn off and left on the table to suggest the absent whole. Ali Campbell sings from a hundred years in the future, reciting a diary entry written on The Last Day of The Last Year of People.

A warm dry wind is all that breaks the silence,
the highways quiet, scars across the land.
People lie, eyes closed, no longer dreaming,
the earth dies screaming.
Like scattered pebbles, cars lie silent waiting,
oil-less engines seized by dirt and sand.
Bodies hanging limp, no longer bleeding,
the earth dies screaming.
Your country needs you, let’s strike up the band.

Despite all odds, we must defend our land.
Half eaten meals lie rotting on the tables,
money clutched within a bony hand.
Shutters down, the banks are not receiving,
the earth dies screaming.

I read that this morning and froze.

In June of 1981, a few weeks after Bob Marley’s death, The Specials released “Ghost Town.” Nobody in The Specials has ever cited “The Earth Dies Screaming” as inspiration, but these two singles are a 1-2 sequence for me, a dyad that formed a layer of rebar in my perception of reggae. It bears noting that the gatekeepers of reggae would probably not admit either band into the canon.

I’d hit fourteen and politics were no longer abstract. I wasn’t thinking much, but I could listen. I heard reggae as an echo in the wasteland, a mournful response to our manmade disasters. There was a hub in England, both a transmission and reception point. The film Babylon, released in 1980, speaks in patois but happens in London. Black Uhuru are from Kingston but sing about London (and Toronto!) in “The Youth of Eglington,” the first track on Red, released the same week as “Ghost Town.”

England was soaked in dub. In 1978, XTC released Go+, a dub version of their second album, and it reached me before any “actual” XTC. In 1980, Andy Partridge released Take Away/The Lure of Salvage, which was another album of XTC dubs! (You’ll want to hit those YouTube links, as these albums have disappeared from streaming service and torrent sites.)

XTC albums were already dubby, especially their version of “All Along The Watchtower,” and when Gang of Four sang about Northern Ireland in “Ether,” their music sounded like backwards dub. Conclusion, at the time, being: bands that didn’t play reggae, even a little bit, also had to make dub, and reggae absolutely had to come in two versions. (In 1983, Black Uhuru put out The Dub Factor, which seemed like unacceptable delay to me at the time.) The first two Linton Kwesi Johnson albums I bought, in 1981, were Bass Culture and LKJ In Dub, which present the same tracks in vocal and instrumental iterations. Johnson was also super mad at England, so all of these bands and albums remained of a piece.

For a kid trying to understand music in 1981, the future was obvious. All bands were interracial and every album had two parts, the singing version and the dub version. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the enemies of the people and Jah was a post office box in Bethnal Green.

This playlist was my 1981 brain:

We have lot to get through, together, because we do have selves. Don’t wait for that to be verified anywhere.