Christy Dignam addressed the Law Society this week as he received their honorary life membership award in recognition of his influence on the Irish music scene over the past forty years. Dignam, frontman for Aslan, has had a career in music spanning four decades, as well as being a strong advocate for drug addicts and the homeless in more recent years.
Dignam was born to a Fingal based working class family in 1960. Whilst cooking, his father used to listen to opera music so Dignam became very familiar with the genre and even used opera techniques later on in his career to maintain his vocal range. Dignam always had an interest in singing and took huge inspiration from Bob Dylan’s music, who showed him that you could write songs about your own life experiences. Dignam and a group of his friends formed a band called Meelah XVIII while in school that would later become Aslan. The band began to record music and experienced some early success, getting some playtime on 2FM and gigging around Dublin.
At the start, the band members also worked day jobs to help pay the bills, with Dignam working at Telefís Éireann. Dignam decided that if the band was going to be successful they needed to put everything into their music, which meant giving up their other jobs. Some of the members followed Christy and quit their jobs, while others refused and quit the band instead. When asked where he got the courage to leave his job during such tough economic times, Christy replied that it took no courage at all, he loved music so much that he knew to pursue it.
The band recruited some new members and began to record new music. Aslan soon released their first album which went straight to number one in the Irish charts and propelled the band into music stardom. The band members went from collecting unemployment benefit on Gardener Street to playing sold-out gigs overnight.
The record label, impressed with the band’s newfound success, organised for them to go on tour in America. Christy recalled how for each city they stopped in the label would organise a rep to meet them in the airport. These reps were meant to help the band feel at home and get them anything they wanted, but happy to please these rock superstars they were meeting for the first time quickly became a way for the band to source alcohol and drugs such as cocaine. Dignam developed a serious drug addiction and became a heroin user once back in Ireland. Christy’s addiction eventually led to his departure from the band in 1988. The band continued without him for a few months but quickly realised they couldn’t make it work and stopped playing gigs.
Eventually in 1993, after five years off the stage, the band was invited to play at a festival in Finglas which was struggling to attract sponsors and facing cancellation. The band decided to get back together and play to save the festival in their home town. The band was back together, and the rest, as they say, is history. Aslan went on to be one of the most successful rock bands in Irish history, recording three more number one albums as well as a number of hit singles, including their most well-known song ‘Crazy World’.
After he finished his address, Christy opened the floor to any questions the audience members may have had. The most interesting questions related to Christy’s views on how the music industry has evolved over his career. He also showed a more serious side, for example when discussing how little artists today receive for their hard work. Aslan spent months in the studio recording their latest album, putting in lots of work and very long hours to get it finished on time. Once it was released, it quickly racked up sales of forty-thousand units, but also had two-hundred and fifty thousand illegal downloads for which the band received nothing. He went on to describe how they found it near impossible to get the same album played on the radio as DJs felt that the music just didn’t appeal to their listener’s demographic. He also mentioned how ‘Crazy World’ received ninety-thousand streams in six months on Spotify, for which the band received just sixteen euro. As a band, they just have to get on with it and keep making the music they love to make and their fans love to listen to.
During the course of the evening, Christy gave two pieces of advice to take away from the talk. For aspiring musicians, his advice was to learn your instrument and make mistakes. One issue that he has with shows like the X-Factor is that someone shows signs of talent and people jump on them to try and make money. Once the first album flops they are cut from the label and are often never re-signed as they are seen as having failed.
His second piece of advice relates to living in the moment. He recalled a story when Aslan was asked to play support for David Bowie’s concert in Slane. They were huge fans of Bowie and had been hoping to get the gig, so when word came through they would be playing they were delighted. They had never played in front of such a large audience, and when they walked out onto the stage and saw the huge crowd of eighty or ninety thousand people they nearly froze. They felt under huge pressure to play every song perfectly and they were so focused on playing well that they didn’t really take time to enjoy themselves. Dignam talked about how he now likes to stop for a few seconds, no matter what he is doing, and take a mental picture for himself so that he can think back and remember everything he has done.
Christy and Aslan guitarist Joe treated the audience to a few songs before Christy posed for some pictures with his award. Before he left, an audience member asked one final question: ‘Would you do it all again?’. Christy looked at Joe, cracked a little smile and gave his answer; ‘Of course’, before Joe, looking back at Christy, confirmed just how close the childhood friends had grown over the decades with his response; ‘but only if it was still with him alongside me’.
By Kyran Brady – News Writer