In the early 1980s, it served as the music backdrop to the urban decay and high unemployment of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. But four decades on, “Ghost Town” by The Specials is experiencing a new lease of life on streaming services in the U.K. amid a coronavirus lockdown that has left towns and cities almost deserted and street life at a near standstill.
With bars, restaurants, venues and most stores ordered to close, and residents told only to leave their homes for a few specific reasons, music fans have turned to the ska classic and other songs with now eerily appropriate themes to try to make sense of these unprecedented times.
Streaming patterns just before and after Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 23rd seem to reveal much about the mindset of the U.K. as its residents adapt to life under the pandemic.
In a two-week period before and after the lockdown came into effect, weekly U.K. audio and video streams of “Ghost Town” increased by 73 percent, according to Official Charts Company data. The song, which originally topped the U.K. singles chart for three weeks in July 1981, reached a peak of 152,000 weekly streams in the first few days of the lockdown. Since then its weekly streaming total has continued to be more than 60 percent above pre-lockdown levels.
Over the same time period, the uncertain and surreal events also prompted a 49 percent rise in weekly U.K. streams for “Panic,” The Smiths’ 1986 release, on which lead singer Morrissey sings about “Panic on the streets of London, panic of the streets of Birmingham,” and asks, “Could life ever be sane again?” Of similar vintage, R.E.M.’s 1987 song “It’s The End Of The World (As We Know It)” has been growing even faster, with demand increasing by 278 percent to 413,000 streams in the first week of the lockdown.
Social distancing demands in an attempt to control COVID-19’s spread are also influencing U.K. streaming trends, most obviously with The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” As people are advised to stand at least six feet apart from one other, the 1980 U.K. chart-topper’s weekly streams have increased almost four-fold, hitting a peak of 205,000 weekly streams in the days after lockdown became a reality.
While increased plays for “Ghost Town,” “Panic” and other more somber songs might give the impression that the mood is bleak and despondent across Britain, the streaming numbers also suggest a real sense of community and optimism exists. Some 57 years after it reached No. 1 in the U.K. during the Merseybeat boom, Gerry & The Pacemakers’ cover of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is bringing much-needed comfort to a vulnerable and nervous Britain.
Some five weeks into the lockdown, the anthem’s weekly streams were 184 percent higher than before the restrictions came into force, while a new version of the song by Michael Ball and Captain Tom Moore debuted at No.1 on last week’s Official U.K. Singles Chart, although mainly because of download sales. Ahead of his 100th birthday on Thursday (April 30), Captain Moore recently raised millions of pounds for the British National Health Service by undertaking a sponsored walk in his garden.
As the U.K. has started to adjust to the new “normal” of enforced isolation and only occasional trips out, more uplifting songs are growing in popularity on streaming services. These include Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 hit “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” whose weekly streams have been 73 percent higher than before the start of the lockdown. Meanwhile, weekly U.K. steams have grown by as much as 83 percent for Bob Marley & The Wailers’ 1980 hit “Three Little Birds,” with many clearly taking solace from the reggae legend’s reassuring words that “Every little thing [is] gonna be all right.”