#FAT25 • Reading ’98: GhostTown • Cover
Exactly 25 years ago, The Prodigy performed at the Reading Festival in England. Apart from the Beastie Boys’ beef and Keith Flint’s provocative outfit, the gig is etched in the memories of many fans due to the live performance of a cover track, The Specials’ Ghost Town. Today, we delve into the details of this legendary track.
Contrary to popular belief, the live premiere didn’t occur at Reading; it took place two gigs earlier, on the 24th at a performance in Chile, followed by another performance on the 26th in Buenos Aires. However, it was after the Reading performance that the track started to be actively discussed in the media! The most interesting thing is that the last time it was played was not at Reading at all. The last time it was played live happened at the next and final performance of ’98 in Kiev, Ukraine on November 29th.
- 24.08.1998 – Teatro Monumental, Santiago, Chile
- 26.08.1998 – Parque Sarmiento, Buenos Aires, Argentina
- 29.08.1998 – Reading Festival, Reading, England
- 29.11.1998 – Palatz Sporta, Kiev, Ukraine
In short, the track made its debut in the year 1998 towards the end of the tour, even though it had been recorded much earlier. Official information indicates that the track was recorded in 1995 when Liam started working on The Fat Of The Land
Martin James: Liam did first started recording at the end of 1995 on thehigh of a creative burst. In less than two weeks he’d put down the main backbones to ‘Breathe’ and ‘Firestarter’, while he’d also finished two tracks in the shape of ‘Funky Shit’, a cover version of The Specials’ ‘Ghost town’. The latter track referred directly back to the pre-Prodigy lives of each of the band, when they’d each been into 2-tone and ska before the hip-hop revolution of the 80’s.
Original ‘Ghost Town’ was among the tracks loved by every band member, especially Liam himself, who spoke of it on numerous occasions. Maxim even expressed his fully fondness for the track in an interview:
XLR8R (15/04/2009): What is the first record you ever bought?
Liam: “We all bought a similar type of record…”
Keith: “Mine was The Specials’ ‘A Message to You, Rudy,” And then probably All Mod Cons by The Jam.”
Maxim: “One of my favorite records was ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials. I lent it to one of my friends, this rude girl, and she lost it. I was just so gutted. She was a hard one, a proper little rude girl with the monkey boots and the jeans and the crombie. The Specials records were everything to me. Lending your records out and someone losing them was like the end of the world.”
But curiously, the track didn’t find in result its place on the ‘The Fat Of The Land’ album, even though many media outlets wrote about it during that time:
Q Magazine (01/12/97): Liam used to admire the Specials because they looked so hardcore, so unapproachable, like a gang. Somewhere in the studio at the back of the house is his version of their Ghost Town, complete with drum’n’bass fills, which was going to go on the album, but didn’t make it because he felt “It wouldn’t be right”.
Regarding the track’s omission from the album, Howlett explained:
Martin James interviewed Howlett: The cover version was quickly shelved. Partly because Liam was particularly unhappy with his recording, but also because Tricky had co-recorded his version with Terry Hall as well and Liam felt that this would be too fresh in people’s minds.
Liam: “To be honest though, I’m not really that bothered that we dropped it,’ says Liam of the lost track. ‘I think maybe it’s a track that’s a bit too well known and it’s not easy to improve on the original. I think if you do covers they should be songs that you know you can improve on, so if you love the original then it’s going to be a waste of time. My version of ‘Ghost town’ was just like a copy of the original.”
Despite being set aside, the track wasn’t forgotten, and the band performed it live several times. Although from Liam’s perspective, he wasn’t completely content with the track’s live performance and felt it was better suited for a soundtrack:
Liam Howlett for Select (01/02/99): ‘Ghost Town’ were more just humor, really. They were tracks that were special to me when I was young, but they were never ever going to be released, they were only ever going to be played once or twice and then put on the shelf. So these tracks are definitely never going to be heard again.
The first thing that I want to do is record the ultimate ’90s punk anthem – just to capture that spirit and energy – but on an electronic tip. I still don’t think that I’ve achieved that. One thing I won’t be working on is that ‘Ghost Town’ cover we played at Reading. It might be used on a film soundtrack, but that’s it.
As many may know, the only soundtrack that Howlett managed to work on in the late ’90s was for the porn movie The Uranus Experiment, and ‘Ghost Town’ of course didn’t align well with such a movie. Eventually, track found its place in a studio release, specifically the NME compilation War Child Presents 1 Love, a charity album featuring various artists, which released 14th October 2002. The compilation comprised past number one hits performed by artists from the early 2000s and was released to celebrate 50 years of NME and also the 50th anniversary since NME published the first-ever singles chart in the UK.
For those unfamiliar, the New Musical Express (NME) is a widely known music magazine in the United Kingdom published weekly since March 1952. And ‘War Child’ is a charity organization assisting children affected by war in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. War Child aids children who have been disproportionately impacted by poverty, conflict, and social exclusion.
Liam Howlett in interview with Neko (17/12/03):
Neko: You’ve released an instrumental version of ‘Ghost Town’ on the Warchild album last year though.
Liam Howlett: That’s true. That one actually worked out quite well, cause what happened was, it was an old track that was done at Reading in 1998 and then the Warchild thing came along and it was like “record a cover version of a number 1 record”, and I was like “oh, as it happens, I’ve got this here”. And it was a charity thing, so it was a good vibe. So yeah, that’s true, but it wasn’t ever going to be on a Prodigy album.
So, to the delight of fans and in support of those affected by the war, the track was finally released. But few are aware that the version that was released differed from the pre-final version that was played in 1998, notably at Reading.
For instance, the part with some aggressive synths which starts at around 1:55 into the track has a different length in both versions: in the ’02 version, it ends at 2:20 and the classic ‘Ghost Town’ starts playing, whereas in the ’98 beta version it plays longer. The part with a fast pace is a bit longer in the beta version. It means that Liam had made several changes in the arrangement before the track was released in 2002.
The most interesting thing happened later, when in 2008 on Independents Day ID08 compilation ‘Ghost Town’ was released again, but this time in the very first version, which was played live in ’98. Yes, that’s exactly the same version from Reading! For what reason the authors of the compilation released the beta-version is unknown, but the fact is that the audio of the beta-version on the release was of insufficient quality, with a 16kHz cutoff. Such deliberately degraded audio quality is very common on all sorts of promo materials for familiarization, and not intended for release. It’s quite possible that the authors of the compilation released this beta version by mistake.
One more strange and funny fact: the same beta version of ’98 was released a year later in 2009 on the compilation Uncovered: A Unique Collection Of Cool Covers, but in a slightly edited form, something like EDIT-version. In fact it was the same ’98 beta-version with only some short parts missing. And two different edits were released on different versions of the 2009 compilation! For what reasons it was done, and whether these shortened versions were made by Liam himself – it’s unknown…
But in the end, a track that should never have been released at all was released in 3 versions:
- 2002 – Release with the final version of ‘Ghost Town’ / 2002 Re-arrangement;
- 2008 – Release with beta version, which was played live back in ’98;
- 2009 – Release with two almost similar “light” edits of the ’98 beta.
Additional thanks to: Canyon Hill, Split, Refeedzy Epxerts, Martin James
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