There are few albums as ingrained in my head as GHOSTOWN, and while I thought it would be an easy one to rattle off a few words about, the act of unpacking this particular record on it’s 40th birthday transpired to be a slow and cautious process.
GHOSTOWN has long been associated with a certain reviewer mindset – one that meanders off into literary reference trainspotting and damning indictments of the world’s failure to recognise a masterpiece…
…And yes, I could reminisce about the very beige 70’s that spawned these songs – leather cased Pye radios playing the disposable Hermesetas of The Scaffold and Manhattan Transfer, sadistic Christian Brothers, Dracula ice pops, Brooke Bond Vanishing Wildlife cards, excrement coloured knitwear and garish election stickers handed to kids at the gates of mass… but the overarching question is – Am I obliged to write yet another cultural essay on “1970s Ireland bad – Radiators good”, especially given that this is an exile record, or should I simply break down the product at hand?
This not an album of my generation – I was seven when it was released on August 10th 1979 (after a year on ice while Chiswick got their act together). Without an airwave polluting hit single, there was no possible way for it to be on my radar at a time when the pop machine was all about “I Don’t Like Mondays”, Abba and that gig in the Phoenix Park featuring some mumbling Polish lad.
GHOSTOWN was something I discovered much later while self-educating on the backwash and backwaters of 1970s punk. Before reformania, CD reissues and revisionist punk history books, it was one of many records nobody except the target generation and a couple of Hot Press journalists seemed interested in anymore.
The TV TUBE HEART album from 1977 was an exercise in garage punk collectivism. Although the roots of individual songwriting strengths were identifiable, the album’s finest sonic ingredients were entwined and delivered as a gang effort – the only logical way to present an authentic punk debut.
GHOSTOWN seemed to do the exact opposite.
It encouraged and advanced the creative voices of Philip Chevron and Pete Holidai, willfully juxtaposing two unique styles of songwriting. Add to this the sophisticated production work of Tony Visconti and the result sounded like the band’s fourth or fifth and not their second album. This was what made it so special, not to mention problematic for those who wanted TV TUBE HEART Mk II from the band.
While GHOSTOWN plays it reasonably straight on the surface, it’s very definitely an album of potent frustration, and the slow release of ideas make it a deceptively subversive statement, functioning in a completely different weight class to the proto-punk energy of the debut.
Beyond MILLION DOLLAR HERO’s primary design as a powered-up pop track and the gateway to the album, there’s a definite undercurrent of balancing rock’n’roll dreams with how to navigate a nation of begrudgers that control the invisible leash. But where MILLION DOLLAR HERO was the logical spearhead single for the album, LETS TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER as the national pastime of encouraging mundane talk rather than shameful reality was always a curious choice for the follow-up. As a track with a refrain rather than a definite chorus, it’s an integral part of the album but seemed slightly unsure of itself when isolated on a 7” (whatever that decision process was).
JOHNNY JUKEBOX introduced a kind of sleeper anti-hero to the album with his “Why should I kick you when you’re down” attitude as a way of fighting fear and bigotry with frustrated compassion rather than more aggression.
The highly crafted guitar pop of CONFIDENTIAL gives little away about its intention, but there’s a hint that it addresses the detractive questioning of unexplainable creative pursuit.
THEY’RE LOOTING IN THE TOWN is one of the album’s key vignette pieces where lavish production and studio built ideas really come to the fore. Although this seems historical, and undeniably owes a debt of inspiration to the ransacking of Clery’s during the rising, there are lyrical elements that follow through into the 1970s and this is ultimately about the perennial cycle of contradiction. Subconsciously, it also seems to reference the landscape facing the Radiators and the notion that anarchy is when a community fails rather that when you write a circled A in Tippex on your clothing.
The B side of the original vinyl release opened with WHO ARE THE STRANGERS – Where the Philip Chevron penned tracks tend to map out darker lyrical themes for the album, the Pete Holidai tracks almost serve as the pop tones of a fictional band within that world, echoing some reality and taking creative liberties elsewhere.
The vaudeville stomp of KITTY RICKETS was the album’s most direct literary reference, demonstrating its creative broad strokes when issued both as an Agnes Bernelle single and a Radiators single during the album’s initial life cycle.
Standing magnificent and serving the bleak mythology of it all is SONG OF THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED. Arguably the album’s most ambitious piece of songwriting, it works best when left cryptic in its lyrical indictments. As testament to its resilience, the song survived the horrendous torture served out to it by Moving Hearts where it was stripped of all soul and converted into midweek car ferry entertainment.
WALKING HOME ALONE AGAIN could have been a successful single. This seemed like a more logical choice than LETS TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER, and the presence of a single edit in the extras suggests that Chiswick had it lined up at one point. Although SONG OF THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED and KITTY RICKETS are perhaps the most celebrated tracks from the album through other artist interpretations etc, WALKING HOME ALONE AGAIN, like a ghost pop hit, singularly encapsulates the mood and introspection of GHOSTOWN more successfully than any other track.
Rounding off the original album, the bittersweet torch song DEAD THE BEAST, DEAD THE POISON is an illustrious slow burning finale with its sweeping strings and perfect middle section. Interestingly, it’s the only track without reproduced lyrics (written by Jimmy Crashe) in the booklet.
Of course, the luxurious ability to offer opinion after the matter is a damning thing – If GHOSTOWN is imperfect, it’s in a detail of the 1979 sequencing of the album. Although necessity dictated a reshuffle for the 1989 Chiswick vinyl reissue to consolidate the addition of 2 new tracks, The triple opening whammy of JOHNNY JUKEBOX, MILLION DOLLAR HERO and THEY’RE LOOTING IN THE TOWN on that version always made more sense to me than the original MILLION DOLLAR HERO, LET’S TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER and JOHNNY JUKEBOX.
Immediately after the original 1979 album on CD1 is an assortment of single edits and flipsides. The first and most significant to Radiators lore is UNDER CLERY’S CLOCK (12-inch mix). Although there’s a time jump, UNDER CLERY’S CLOCK is intrinsically connected to the GHOSTOWN song cycle in that it reveals very different layers to several tracks ten years after the matter.
Next is PLURA BELLE, one of the great Radiators deep cuts with its wonderful lyrical flow and stacked harmonies, and the subtle recycling of TELEVISION SCREEN riffage was somewhat of an underlying resolve to the band’s history, bringing it all back to the start in a very ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ manner. There’s also an element of Pogues DNA filtering back into the Radiators here – Had this somehow ended on PEACE & LOVE instead of the 1989 GHOSTOWN reissue, it would undoubtedly be considered one of that album’s highlights.
Several single edits are followed by a handful of more interesting b-side fodder – BLITZIN’ AT THE RITZ (Live) recorded at the Roundhouse in February 1978 was the flipside of the MILLION DOLLAR HERO 7”. Interestingly, the audience participation antics that were edited out for the ALIVE-ALIVE-O! CD (1996) have been left in… I’m guessing this was behavior originally encouraged to aid the band in surviving Thin Lizzy audiences and/or to create a presence on larger stages. DO THE HUCKLEBUCK and TRY AND STOP ME were both flipside tracks for the LET’S TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER 7” and the wonderfully imperfect acoustic BALLAD OF THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED featuring Jimmy Crashe’s thick Dublin accent was the b-side to KITTY RICKETS.
CD2 is referred to in the booklet as “The Creative Pathway”. This is essentially an assortment of rehearsals, outtakes and other trainspotter fodder from the multi-tracks. Unlike the 40th anniversary reissue of TV TUBE HEART, there’s unfortunately no studio live demo of the entire set, but there are various preparatory recordings that make sense of the stylistic jump between the two albums.
The album rehearsals for JOHNNY JUKEBOX, CONFIDENTIAL and SONG OF THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED reveal raw guitar tracks rather than the highly polished productions on the album (it’s a pity these don’t have vocals), and the full demos for LETS TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER and WHO ARE THE STRANGERS demonstrate just how different some of the root ideas sounded – The later in particular has very different lyrics than the final version.
The next section is all 10 backing tracks without vocals. Clearly there’s super-fan merit to this as it shows off arrangements, strings, Mark’s wonderful bass playing and backing harmonies where these might have been obscured by the main vocals, but it’s not a long-term listening experience and worryingly paves a way towards Radiators karaoke!!!…
Following this are various recordings that build the intro to WALKING HOME ALONE AGAIN, and some impressive isolated backing vocal tracks for the detailed harmonies of THEY’RE LOOTING IN THE TOWN, SONG OF THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED, MILLION DOLLAR HERO and WALKING HOME ALONE AGAIN.
The final track of note is KITTY RICKETTS (Live @ Sportsman Inn, Dublin, 1979) and honestly, I would have preferred more post-1978 live recordings of the band than the 10 backing tracks earlier on CD2. There’s a distinct lack of live Radiators from the GHOSTOWN era in circulation and this suggests that there’s more in the vaults.
An awful lot of what-might-have-been is made about GHOSTOWN and the year it sat in the Chiswick vaults after completion. Undoubtedly, a 1978 release date would have made it even more remarkable, but seminal works are often too clever for commerciality and have a habit of remaining namedropped underdogs while the next in line capitalises – That’s just the cruel reality of it all.
Various singles were plucked from the album, but they were essentially great album tracks and were never going to pack a commercial punch like HEART OF GLASS or OLIVER’S ARMY or VOULEZ VOUS. Even when Chiswick had its taste of chart action, it was with Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and Rocky Sharpe and the Replays – hardly the high end of the artistic spectrum.
A cover sticker on this 40th anniversary reissue over 2 CDs declares it to be a record that stands alongside ASTRAL WEEKS. This seems unnecessary – GHOSTOWN commands its own space, preferably far away from the grumpy curmudgeons of this world.
…And the fact that it’s lauded and considered the best whatever by its fans is neither here nor there really – what’s telling is that this record was built to last and still sounds utterly unique after hundreds of spins.