Christy Dignam of Aslan: Forty years of surviving in a crazy world

Dublin rockers Aslan are marking the end of the Covid crisis and their fortieth anniversary with a major tour of Ireland in the coming weeks, including two nights at Cork Opera House on April 8 and 9. Mike McGrath-Bryan hears stories from frontman Christy Dignam.
Christy Dignam of Aslan: Forty years of surviving in a crazy world

Aslan lead singer Christy Dignam at Live At The Marquee Cork.  They play Cork Opera House in April. Picture: Darragh Kane

“In 1979… how old are you?... Ah, Jaysus, you’re only a babby.”

So starts Aslan frontman Christy Dignam when he’s asked about his feelings on the band still being together some forty years down the line from kicking off in earnest on Dublin’s music scene, bringing a defiantly working-class sensibility together with a knack for anthemic, guitar-driven pop informed by the punk and new-wave movements.

“I was going over to Australia, right, me girlfriend at the time, who's now me wife, she had family over there. So we went over for a couple of months, and when we were over there, I loved Australia, I just loved the vibe, y'know, the freedom, worked to live, as opposed to lived to work. I said, 'look, we'll go back, and give (music) a year, just to get it out of my system. Then we'll come back here, we’ll get married, raise our family here in Australia, and we'll live our lives here'. My wife is still sitting upstairs with the bags packed, waiting for that idea to end (laughs).

It’s the ease with which Dignam relates to an interviewer that strikes your writer, a humility borne from years on the road, with the heavy lifestyle that attends. As much an entertainer to speak with as he is onstage, he’s not shy about levelling with people about the passage of time.

“To be to be even in a band for forty years, is f**kin' astonishing, I can't get my head around it. But, like, one foot follows the other. And you don't realise, y'know, when you when you're a youngfella, you think life is really long. But when it gets to my age, it's a f**kin' snap of the fingers, y'know? The years get shorter as you get older. If you'd said to me back in the day, youse are going to be celebrating their fortieth anniversary, I'd have pissed meself laughing.”

Aslan, playing Cork in April. Pic: Zak Milofsky
Aslan, playing Cork in April. Pic: Zak Milofsky

Hailing from the working-class Dublin areas of Finglas and Ballymun, Aslan formed in 1982, and began steadily gigging and building a loyal following before recording their first demo single, ‘This Is’, in 1986. A near-perfect pop song that made an immediate impact at the height of radio’s mainstream influence, its lyrics, speaking to the hardships of an Ireland mired in recession and buttressed by falsetto gang vocals that bust through macho rock stereotypes, it found its initial release through Cork label Reekus Records, the brainchild of former UCC Music Society head Elvera Butler - who found their own feet in the release of 1981 post-punk compilation ‘Kaught at the Kampus’. It turns out it wasn’t such a departure for either side:

“When we wrote 'This Is' initially, it was a real fast, rocky song. And I had a dodgy chorus at the end of it, y'know. At the time I was mad into punk rock, so we'd kind of gone from punk rock, into new-wavey... just evolving, if you like, but I still had that punk ethos and stuff. Anyway, I taught the lyrics of it were good, but I didn't like the chorus, or the melody, so we kind of shelved it. A few years later, then I heard Annie Lennox, and she was singing the song 'There Must Be an Angel'. (warbles) "No one on earth could feel like this, I'm thrown and overblown with bliss". I thought it was f**king amazing, all those notes in one word. I just thought that was really interesting. So that's where the chorus comes from: 'fee-ee-hee-ling'.

“Elvera was very honorable, she's a very, very honorable person. And any dealings we had with Reekus Records, we were always treated with great integrity. I met her recently at a punk rock gig here in Dublin, and she's still the same, she's a f**king lady. She's part of the old tradition, who just made records because they were good.”

The single vaulted to the number two spot in the Irish charts, aided by copious radio play on either side of the Atlantic, and secured Aslan a deal with the Irish office of EMI, for debut album ‘Feel No Shame’. Although it seemingly represented a break for the band at the time, that period of time wasn’t without its complications for the band, leading to their breakup later that year.

“It was a bit of a load of bollocks because up to then, your main ambition is to get signed. I remember being in Manchester Square, in EMI's offices, they brought us up to the top floor, big conference room, big table, poppin' champagne corks. I remember signing the deal, and leaving and thinking, 'is that it?'. I learned the lesson over the next couple of weeks, the hard work was only beginning. We hadn't gotten the album made yet. From then on it was nose to the grindstone.

“Before, we'd worked, and if one of us had a pain in our bollocks, we wouldn't rehearse that day. That was all gone. We had to get things done by deadlines, blah, blah, blah. At one stage, Billy had his hair blonde and my hair was dark. They were almost pushing us like the Black and White scotch whiskey of music. I said, f**k this. There's a lot of stuff I didn't like, y'know, being signed to a major label. But they were great, spent a lot of money on us.”

The pressure of the situation, and life on the road in the old major label system forced the band their separate ways, with Dignam pursuing a solo career, and the others carrying on as The Precious Stones. In 1993, however, after a charity reunion gig in Dublin, the band formally reassembled, and a deal with BMG swiftly followed, leading to the release of second album ‘Goodbye Charlie Moonhead’, as well as the inescapable success of leadoff single ‘Crazy World’.

“We all just got together and said, let's just do it. I was living in New York. I came back and the vibe was, come back, spend a week rehearsing for the gig, and that was basically it. I'd get back to New York, and I'd sign this deal with Epic, whatever the next adventure was. When I got back, it was like we'd never split up, five years just evaporated. I remember rehearsing the set, and it just fell into place within a couple of hours. So we didn't really need to rehearse, let's try and write some s**t. 'Crazy World', 'Where's the Sun', and another couple of songs came from that.”

Now I see what ‘Crazy World’ has, appreciate it now, it’s brought us all around the world and stuff

“A guy from BMG was at the gig, and he loved 'Crazy World'. I didn't really like it, I thought it wasn't a great song. We signed, and made the album. We had three singles on the album. 'Crazy World', 'Where's the Sun' and 'Rain Man'. We thought 'Crazy World' was a piece of s**t, so we threw that out first, and it was the big hit. So you never know. Now I see what 'Crazy World' has, appreciate it now, it's brought us all around the world and stuff. But I don't know what a good song is, what's going to connect with people.

“If you look at Rain Man, from a musician's perspective, it's a better song. It's technically better and more clever, but yer ordinary public don't want clever, and f**kin' good riffs. They want a melody they can sing along to. I made that mistake. I remember reading Sting in an interview one day, he says when he was young, he used to try and be as clever as he could with songwriting, put as much as he could into the songs, and he says, 'the older you get, the less you put into songs the better they are', and I understand exactly what he's talking about. It's the empty spaces, that makes a listener use their imagination, that's what makes a song a great song.”

Christy Dignam of Aslan at the Carling Rock Festival in June of 1986 at Lee Fields in Cork.
Christy Dignam of Aslan at the Carling Rock Festival in June of 1986 at Lee Fields in Cork.

These upcoming gigs, drawing not only from their first two albums but along their entire discography to date, are also the band’s first major gigs since the outset of the Covid crisis, including the aforementioned Opera House dates. The big return to the road marks not only an opportunity to celebrate the band’s time together, but for Dignam and company to reflect on and appreciate their connection with live audiences.

“So during the pandemic, we did this livestream for the INEC, and they put it out on the INEC YouTube channel. After they broadcast it, and two or three weeks later, the manager put it up on our Facebook page, right? I kind-of cringe when I see meself on television, right? And I nearly died, at how awful it was. I've always appreciated the audience, how important they are, you hear with the songs the way we get the audience to sing along and blah, blah, blah. Right? But I never realised how integral it was, to the whole thing, until the pandemic, because when I was looking at this, you're singing to just cameras, and there's nobody there.

“I feed off... say there's a thousand people at a gig in the Opera House. And 999 are going mental. Right? And you're in the corner with your arms folded. The whole gig is for you. The whole f**kin' gig is, I'll get that c**t by the end of the gig. But what that does, is it keeps you on your f**kin' toes. D'you know what I mean? It keeps your standard up. I said this at a gig lately, ‘ye’re as important as the drummer’, because it’s s**t without them.”

Aslan play Cork Opera House on Friday, April 8, and Saturday, April 9. For more information and tickets, head to corkoperahouse.ie.

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