CHRISTY DIGNAM AND ASLAN: THE SOUND OF THE SUBURBS

Following the recent cancellation of a planned live show by Aslan at Dublin’s Point Depot, a number of on-line clips re-surfaced in which Christy Dignam – the band’s frontman and spiritual leader – performs with and for other patients as he waits for treatment in a Dublin hospital. Christy has battled ill-health for many years and has routinely spoken about his long struggle to stay well. And those short pieces of crudely recorded film capture his life in microcosm: refusing to be beaten down by the hand he’s been dealt, gamely and defiantly centre stage, connecting, even at his most vulnerable.

Christy has never held back. Raised in Finglas on the northside of Dublin, he’s been Aslan’s chieftain for forty years. A fine storyteller and a terrific frontman and vocalist, he’s long mined those twin gifts to considerable effect, on stage and off. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Christy or his band to appreciate how magnetic a presence he is.

Aslan have always presented with their working-class credentials in the foreground, gallant outsiders who call it as they see it. In their fresh denims and leathers, and with what was initially a big, aspirational rock and roll sound, they were one of a number of local groups scouted during the mid-1980s in the aftermath of U2’s global breakthrough following the release of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. They scored an international contract with EMI Records and, in the spirit of Spinal Tap, partied often and hard: they were intent on enjoying their fame and vowed to have a good time all of the time. And as such, it was easy to draw them as a compound of familiar rock and roll shapes, warriors of the wasteland.

Christy and his band have long prided themselves on what we might refer to as their ‘authenticity’. ‘And I never sold my soul’, is how he pointedly concludes ‘My Crazy World’, his most recent autobiography, published in 2017, and the implication is clear. Aslan did it their way, for better, worse, in sickness and in health and, in so doing, stayed true to themselves. By his own admission, Christy spent two decades on and off of heroin, during which he consorted with some of the leading figures in the Dublin criminal network, at least two of whom have since been shot dead. Having spent parts of his childhood being fed from volunteer-run soup kitchens, I’m not sure if a life – in or out of rock and roll – comes any more authentic than that.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that through Aslan’s twin spokespersons – Dignam and his long-time sidekick, Billy McGuinness – the band has always championed old-school values: honesty, graft and what they determined to be quality song-writing. And woe betide anyone who dissed them or who disagreed with them on matters regarding such contested territory. Their targets were manifold and they’ve taken aim routinely: music radio programmers, U2, the British music press, manufactured pop music, Louis Walsh and the music industry generally. But Aslan were also peddling furiously beneath the water: in their world, crazy as it often was, the band’s priority for years was keeping its frontman alive. To this end, Christy Dignam is the great survivor of modern Irish entertainment and he has cheated death many times over the years.

Formed from the gut of two novice northside outfits, Electron and Meelah XVIII, Aslan began to generate real traction during a series of full-throttle live shows at The Danceline Club. That venue was run from the Revenue Commissioners Social Club on the northside of the city centre by ‘Steady’ Eddie Joyce and Pete ‘The Roz’ McCloskey, both of whom worked as civil servants and who also ran the small Danceline Records imprint. In the history of Irish popular music, Eddie and Pete are worthy of more than just casual footnoting. And so too the fact that the social club was eventually closed after a court action led by Senator David Norris: the preservation of cultural life in Dublin, which he has espoused for decades, clearly only extends so far and to so many.  

Alongside the likes of Cactus World News, Les Enfants, Light A Big Fire, Tuesday Blue, Blue in Heaven and Cry Before Dawn, Aslan were prominent in the first wave of what we can refer to as a post-U2 back-wash. This was a period during which many young Irish bands, with little or no practical business or music industry nous, were signed to British and American-based record companies on the age-old grounds of raw promise. Simply put, where there was one U2 they may well have been others, and a race was well and truly on to locate them. And these were golden years. Economically, Ireland might have been on its knees and, for a time, the country’s biggest exports were beef, young people and rock music. But as with the Irish beef industry, which also revolved around one major player, this period in popular Irish music is marked by commercial folly, expediency, cute hoorism and an obvious lack of quality control.

Musically, far too many of the emerging groups were defined by big, guitar-led anthems and a desire to replicate the sound sculpted by producer Chris Kimsey on Killing Joke’s fine 1985 single, ‘Love Like Blood’. On the promotions and marketing wing, meanwhile, a host of fledgling groups were captured in their promotional videos purposefully striding through the city centre late at night, lighting bonfires on Dollymount Strand and planting flags around derelict properties.    

This was certainly the case with Aslan. Mother Records, a local imprint run by U2, rejected what would eventually become the band’s excellent breakthrough single, ‘This Is’, and which was later issued on Elvera Butler’s Reekus label instead. For several years, Aslan would be as tarred – unfairly, as it happens – by the inter-parish enmity they apparently carried for U2 as they were for the music they made. Which was radio-friendly, chorus-focused rock and roll that was influenced, at least nominally, by classic Bowie, Pink Floyd, and The Rolling Stones. But that, in essence, had much more in common with The Alarm, the spirited Welsh band whose anthems for the aspirational working man saw them achieve a mainstream breakthrough on U2’s coat-tails.

In Christy Dignam, Aslan had a magnetic leader with a terrific vocal range. But trouble loved him too and never had difficulty in finding him. ‘How can I protect you in this crazy world’, opens Aslan’s best-known song, ‘Crazy World’, in which he addresses his family by holding a mirror up to his own body, one that has been well and truly ransacked. Like most of those caught in the throes of addiction, Dignam’s life was regularly pock-marked by chaos, much of which he lived out under the gaze of the public eye

He came to public prominence alongside the arrival of daily tabloid print media in Ireland during the mid-1980s, and into which his story fitted perfectly. He was ideal fodder for the red-tops: working class, smack-addled and with a decent line in patter, he was a regular presence on the front pages. His sacking by Aslan following the release of the band’s first album in 1988 – and his subsequent re-admittance five years later – was played out in the newspapers in a manner that was new and unique in Irish entertainment circles. A world in which, for decades, what went on on the road tended to stay there. It’s worth pointing out here that the Irish showband circuit that was at its peak between 1955 and 1965 – and the broader domestic entertainment sector more generally – has just as many of its own ghosts, bad seeds and appalling personal legacies. Most of these stories have long been buried, many more of them will never be told.      

Christy just put it all out there regardless, and recklessly so at times, a point I think the band now accepts as it enters the reflective stages of a long, complicated career. Aslan always gave great copy, and the singer enjoys the distinction of telling more or less the same story to two different biographers thirteen years apart. His life was first recounted in print by Neil Fetherstonhaugh in ‘This Is’, published in 2004, and then suitably up-dated – with less emphasis on colloquialisms and a few more names and details provided in the text – in ‘My Crazy World’, with Damian Corless, in 2017.

Both books go far beyond the often-constipated realm of standard rock music biography and, with Christy in full flight, are as much social histories of modern Ireland – specifically the development of the suburban sprawl on the northside of Dublin – as they are chronicles of a jobbing rock and roller with yarns to spin and scores to settle. Needless to say, that several passages in both books make for very difficult reading.

Dignam’s story is starkly brought home in one small, throwaway line towards the end of ‘My Crazy World’ when he writes that ‘if I’ve left out certain things its not to show myself in a shining light – it’s to avoid causing hurt to certain people and, in a couple of cases, to save myself from going to prison’. ‘Boyzone: Our World’ this most certainly isn’t.

Sexually abused from the age of six, much of Christy’s adult life has been blighted by addiction and illness and so it’s easy to lose sight of the scale of Aslan’s achievement against that backdrop. But with the singles ‘This Is’[1986] and ‘Crazy World’ [1993], the band has contributed handsomely to the canon of great Irish pop music and both releases are as important in their own way as, say, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ by Thin Lizzy and ‘Pride’ by U2. Re-invented over recent years as a cuddly grandfather in specs and now a regular fixture on ‘The Late Late Show’, it can be easy also to forget how formidable a vocalist Dignam was at his peak. A trained singer who worked with the veteran voice coach, Frank Merriman, his voice has been scalded over the years by lifestyle, illness and the inevitable onslaught of age. But to these ears, Aslan were at their most potent when Christy’s voice was at its most powerful, most notably on the band’s first album, ‘Feel No Shame’ [1988], produced by Mick Glossop, and it’s long-delayed follow-up, ‘Goodbye Charlie Moonhead’, released in 1994. Aslan’s considerable live prowess – with Christy at his most compelling – is captured on a live album, ‘Made in Dublin’ [1999], recorded at Vicar Street, and which was accompanied by a full documentary.  

In a previous piece here, I remarked how that when another fine band from Finglas, The Brilliant Trees, played live in some of the marquee live venues in Dublin city centre, they’d bring ‘a ‘large, partisan following into town from their hub out in the North-West’. In this regard, The Brilliant Trees were following a path laid down years previously by Aslan, who traditionally ‘mobilised a pretty serious audience that was far from the usual alickadoos’. Aslan’s often-stellar live shows in the heart of Dublin tended to be appointment-to-see events, into which swarms of travelling support made its way. If Aslan were crusaders, these nights were often religious experiences on alien territory for their most loyal banks of foot-soldiers.

Those same Dublin’s suburbs were also central to the band’s re-invention – Aslan’s Second Coming – during the early 1990s. With Christy back in their fold after an unsuccessful effort to replace him with a fill-in, Eamo Doyle, the band stitched itself back together with a series of semi-residencies in every suburban pub of scale around the capital. Not a single mega-boozer in Dublin’s outfield went untouched by an unplugged Aslan revue as the original line-up moderated its approach in order to [literally] keep the show on the road. The Towers in Ballymun, The Bottom of the Hill in Finglas and The Orchard in Rathfarnham were among a host of out-lying venues in the suburbs in which the band honed its stripped-back, cost-effective acoustic craft. And, more importantly, generated a constant revenue stream. Their audiences loved them for it, of course, but inevitably – and not for the first time – Aslan’s lateral thinking was greeted with the same kind of critical snobbery that had long accompanied them: from hard living rock and rollers to pub rockers.

Not, you’d imagine, that Christy or the band gave a fig one way or the other. Dignam has always been fiercely proud of his work and his band and one of the more interesting aspects of Aslan’s career is just how pragmatic they became the more of the industry they experienced. The driver for which, of course, has been something far more fundamental and existential. Because given the chaos that often characterised much of his private life, you’d have to imagine that it was in Aslan’s arms that Christy variously found at least some manner of certainty, protection, and release. To this end, his story is defined as much by a search for safety and his efforts to quell his self-doubts as it is by his music.

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