INTERNATIONAL AWARD-WINNING LEGENDARY MUSICAL ARTISTE ALSTON KOCH REVEALS THE STORY OF HIS JOURNEY TO STARDOM
Words: Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Singer, songwriter, and actor Alston Koch is an award winning music performer who has earned himself the title of Asia’s King of Pop. Born in Sri Lanka, Alston traces his lineage to an adventurous German who arrived in Sri Lanka a few centuries ago and created a progeny which included many illustrious professionals from doctors to politicians. Alston who had his formal education at Wesley College was always drawn towards music. After performing in Sri Lanka as a musician for a few years, Alston ventured forth to Australia in the 70s where he formed his first band Dark Tan and penned his first single Disco Lady which became a resounding success earning him a clutch of awards and international recognition. Feted as a star in Australia, Alston rose to great heights in the music industry earning the respect of his peers both in Australia and worldwide. His star on the ascend, Alston has performed as a supporting act for ABBA and collaborated with musical phenomenons such as Alicia Keys, Lionel Richie, Air Supply, Bee Gees, David Bowie, Paul McCartney and other big names. Alston Koch is also the Ambassador for Sri Lankan Tourism, Climate Change and a member of the Grammy Academy USA. A combination of his charm, good looks and great personality won him the heart of former Miss Sri Lanka Yolande Ahlip with whom he has two children Danielle and Frederick James who is also an actor and singer. Commuting between Sri Lanka, Australia and the USA, Alston continues to be involved in the music and entertainment industry while promoting Sri Lanka at every given opportunity.
Where did you first perform in Sri Lanka?
My first noteworthy performance was in 1967 at The Lionel Wendt Theatre when
I shared the stage with Nimal Mendis and Sandra Edema who had just had success in England on ‘Top of the Pops’.
What was the first group that you played in while in Sri Lanka?
It was as far back as 1963 as a little teenager with a band called ‘The Blue Sapphires’.
What was the music scene like in Sri Lanka during that era?
The Sri Lankan bands in the 60’s played songs that were already popular by the internationally pop groups. At the time the audiences enjoyed listening to songs that they have heard on the radio. Original songs were rarely heard on the local bandstands.
What prompted you to leave for Australia?
I was always interested in originality in a performer and original songs. This prompted me to leave Sri Lanka to pursue a career similar to the recognized artistes at the time but being an original artiste competing with the best in the world.
Music is a very competitive industry. How did you manage to gain a foothold there?
When I first started knocking on record company doors in Australia, I was trying to sell myself as a singer who did great covers of the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and The Beatles who were hugely popular at the time. But I was told in no uncertain terms that they already had those singers and were looking for something original that would stand the test of time. At the time you were only taken seriously if you were signed to a recognized record label as was the case with all the successful singers at the time. I changed track and started writing my own material which began to open many doors for me. To enter the hallowed arena of professional music performers or songwriters otherwise known as the professional music industry you had to write an original song or perform with a recognized recording label such as RCA or EMI. After that you have to endeavour to get radio airplay and make the music industry charts. That is when you become a professional in the industry. I was signed to and recorded for RCA Records (Laser) worldwide.
What was it like to start all over again musically in a new country?
I immediately formed my own band ‘Dark Tan’ and started writing with my lead guitarist Chris Connelly. Not one to give up easily I went into the studio and self-financed the recording of an original song and was subsequently signed to RCA Records (Laser) almost immediately. Performances in some of the country’s best venues followed such as the highly popular W and Gatties International, Chequers Nightclub and Maxy’s New York to name a few.
In Australia you formed a band called Dark Tan with whom you managed to win many Awards. How long did it take to savour that success?
Dark Tan was a hard working ‘live’ touring band and we played in every big venue and arena sometimes to almost 2500 disco-loving fans at a time that loved to dance. Disco was the craze at that time and we have been credited as the purveyors of disco soul by legendary music historian Glenn A. Baker as we entertained through every big city to the large country towns throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. The band was so popular that the huge passenger liner P&O’s Oriana was renamed ‘The Dark Tan Disco Cruise’ in 1977 as we entertained with special shows on the liner throughout the Pacific.
What was the first hit single you had in Australia?
‘Disco Lady’ without a doubt was my first and biggest hit record and the music video was one of the very first videos specially made to promote a song in the Southern Hemisphere. I wrote the song Disco Lady in a garage at The Floreat Hotel in Perth and this song started the ball rolling for us firstly in Australia when it won the ‘The Best Original Song’ in 1977 at the ADDA Awards in Sydney and following this, Dark Tan won the best ‘Live’ performance from the Sunday Mirror Disco Awards and later that same year K-TEL Records presented me with a double Gold Disc on the hugely popular Thank God It’s Friday TV spectacular. This enabled Dark Tan to tour the world to sell out shows.
During the height of your success with Disco Lady you had the chance to play alongside pop phenomenon ABBA in 1976. How did you find that experience?
The ABBA TV special and The Best Of ABBA TV special was and still is the most exciting and exhilarating performance for me as it still stands as a television viewer’s record in Australia. Channel 9 invited us to be a part of that amazing record-breaking pop phenomenon ‘ABBA’ and the TV show broke all records at the time.
Of all the genres of music what drew you to disco music?
It was a genre of music just coming into popularity with movies like ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and as an Asian-born dark-skinned man I decided to call my band ‘Dark Tan’ considering we were all dark and tanned originating from Sri Lanka and India . I felt I could do something original within that genre of music. With 17 single releases on vinyl and 4 successful albums within the genre of disco music in the 70’s I was proved right that we could do something original within the genre of disco.
What were some of your achievements in Australia?
Performing many times on all the TV shows in Australia such as the very popular Countdown (ABC Network), Sounds (Channel 7), Bandstand (Channel 9), The ABBA TV Special and The Best of ABBA (Channel 9), The Ray Martin Show (Channel 9), Thank God It’s Friday (Channel 10), Countdown Revival (ABC), The Mike Walsh Show (Channel 9), Studio 1 (Singapore National TV), TRVI (Indonesia), Music Laden (Germany & Europe), The Trinity Network (USA) , CNN (USA) and Good Morning Australia (Channel 10). In latter years I was chosen by the Australian Task Force to write and perform on the America’s Cup album and write and perform the theme song that was televised throughout the World in 1986.
What are some of the major awards you have received?
I received numerous awards during my long career but some of the most important were the ADDA Awards and the ‘Gold’ and ‘Platinum’ Awards presented to me by RCA (Laser) and accredited ‘Platinum & Gold Awards’ from the governing body of Australian Music (ARIA). I was also awarded the State of California Senate’s Certificate of Recognition and Certificate of Special US Congressional Recognition for improving the lives of the communities in America. I was also appointed as the Global Ambassador for Peace from the Arts for Peace Awards (USA) and World Artist of the Year Award at the G.O.D. Awards in New York presented at the United Nations Headquarters. I was also inducted into the Grammy Academy in 2015. In Sri Lanka I have been awarded the Sri Lankan of the Year (Ada Derana) and Global Entertainer Of The Year 2018.
From singing you moved to acting playing the lead role in According to Matthew. How did you land that role?
Well! from what I was told by the director and the producers they couldn’t find anyone else. I think they took a huge risk as I had no experience in acting whatsoever. However, secretly I knew this was no big deal. I have been on stage all my life and every time you are on stage you are playing a role.
What do you want to leave as your legacy?
My music, my movies perhaps, and my clean disciplined lifestyle which is no drugs or alcohol in a free world for our children and our children’s children.
This article first appeared in the Hi!! Magazine of June 2019 (88th issue)