The Afghan Whigs Biography
Last updated: 06/28/2009 12:00:00 PM
The Afghan Whigs new album is here. It's called 1965 and it's the group's first album for Columbia. It's intelligent, well performed, and - more importantly - a rump-shaker of epic proportions. Eleven years into this thing, the Whigs have pulled out all the stops and give it to you straight - no chaser. Also no remorse, no regrets and no sleep, either.
Recorded in New Orleans amidst typical Whig-ian turmoil and controversy, 1965 proves once and for all that this is one of the great rock & roll bands walking (and/or stumbling) around on this planet.
Greg Dulli, the Whigs' street-fightin'-man songwriter and lead singer, says "Guilt takes a back seat to lust on this album." Never one to make excuses for his libido, Dulli gets to the heart of the matter on 1965. He boldly engages in the battle of the sexes on this new record, sometimes as conqueror but just as often as the conquered. Beneath it all looms a wealth of amazing, hook-laden riffs and melodies. It's the most accessible, catchy, rockin' thing they've ever done.
You see, I've known these guys since even before they started making noise in Cincinnati in the late 1980's. I grew up a healthy spit away from Dulli in a working-class suburb of Hamilton, Ohio, and got to know him better when our bands started trading gigs in town. The first thing Greg said to me, after seeing my band play for the first time, was "You guys suck, but there was nothin' on TV tonight." I bought him a beer, the first of many throughout our friendship. I came to admire him for saying whatever he was feeling at the time, his exposed-nerve worldview and, most of all, for his loyalty to the people and things he believed in. In many ways, Dulli hasn't changed at all; the bullshit detector is still set on high.
The Whigs got started when Greg hooked up with D.C. transplant John Curley and Louisville, Kentucky, guitar-savant Rick McCollum. Dulli and Curley had played together in a pre-Whigs punk band, The Black Republicans. The new group began gigging around town immediately. They honed their playing skills and began writing songs in earnest during a summer-long residency at The Squeeze Inn, an off-campus lesbian bar. The inimitable personalities began to emerge there in that 30' by 40' stageless room: Curley - the stoic bass thumper, given to fits of reckless abandon (and laughing); McCollum with Gibson Firebird slung perilously low, always the perfect mixture of style and substance; and Dulli - voice cracking & fingers bleeding.
Greg's half-hour-long on-stage cigarette breaks, complete with running commentary on sexual politics and attempts at matchmaking which at first enraged, but later fascinated the clientele. We had running bets on how long it would take them to get tossed out of the gig, with most people betting a couple of weeks (I said a couple days). They lasted all summer and became such a smash that they were asked to preserve their handprints in fresh concrete out front of the club. I walked by the place the other day, and they're still there.
We all knew these grubby misfits were something special. Only an idiot (or jealous members of rival local bands) could fail to see that the band was surely destined for bigger things. There was way too much character up on stage to be denied. Dulli got drunk, joined in fights in the audience (or started them), and insulted all the tastemakers and club owners in town. It was hilarious and totally punk rock, and many of us found ourselves totally enamored with the Whigs.
They were so broke. I was working at Bogart's, the city's 1000-seat showcase night club, and I was always letting them in free, even "hired" Dulli on a couple of occasions to get him some extra bucks. He never really worked per se, but all the crew guys loved to hang out with him, so it was cool. He would insult the dinosaur musicians who played the club, asking them "Now? who are you exactly?" He stole beer and food from the dressing rooms. He let all of his friends in through the back door. He was once chased down the backstage hall by a winded Meatloaf, who was yelling "That son-of-a-bitch took my vodka, man!" I've got plenty more juicy anecdotes, but I'm saving them for my unauthorized, tell-all biography.
Dulli's budding career in the rock & roll production biz was halted as the Whigs began playing more and better gigs, drawing bigger and bigger crowds. They pooled their funds and recorded Big Top Halloween which they released on their own Ultra Suede label and sold at gigs. The album (now a big collector's item) whet our appetite. They also began making believers out of punters in nearby towns, and were soon brought to the attention of Sub Pop Records in Seattle. In this B.N.N. era (Before Nirvana Nevermind), Sub Pop's signing of the Whigs created quite a stir; they were the first non-Northwestern U.S. band to record for the label. By the time the Up In It album was released, the group had been hard at work touring all of the shitty clubs in fly-over country and had in the process developed into a force to be reckoned with as a performing unit.
One indie rock crit wrote that the Whigs were "...the most cartoony band in all of hairdom." I always loved that quote, and I think the band did too because it meant that they had enough presence to be considered "cartoony" in the first place. I can remember a Whigs gig in Cincinnati about six months after the album was out: total abandon; packed club with lots of people we had never seen before in our local hangouts. It was a very exciting, totally heady time for the Whigs and their friends. That first taste of the elusive rock & roll dream would not be their last.
The Congregation album nurtured the budding legend. The group's love of soul music began to come to the fore, and it was a delight for us to watch Dulli begin to impose his personality and its inherent idiosyncrasies on an unsuspecting public. Rave reviews followed. The Whigs toured the States and went to Europe from the first time. I'd get postcards from Amsterdam and Brussels with illegible scribbles on them; at least they cared enough to try to write I thought. Then, after one last Sub Pop release (Uptown Avondale - a strangely sentimental nod to the American soul music they care about so deeply), the Whigs and the Seattle label amicably parted ways.
The Afghan Whigs signed with a major and began work on the brilliant Gentlemen album, a quantum leap for the band. Containing Dulli's best lyrics and the band's most powerful playing to date, the album made me realize that not only were the Whigs a great band, but they were a uniquely great band. They sounded like no one else.
There were network television appearances, more touring, more triumphs and headaches. By the time of the release of the Black Love album, their second and last for that major label, the Whigs were used to press accolades and ecstatic live audiences, yet there were dark clouds on the horizon. The group members had poured their hearts and souls into Black Love. Dulli came to understand that he was painfully purging some demons by writing this album. "Black Love was me trying to wake myself up from a bad dream," he said. The album was texturally complicated, cerebral, and very beautiful. It was a shock that it didn't connect with a wider audience, although history will bear out the true worth of Black Love, especially in the context of the Whigs' body of work.
The Whigs were very excited to tour with Neil Young and played their collective asses off, but after continuing disappointments, they decided to pack it in for awhile. They didn't play together again for a year. I had some pretty intense conversations with a strangely reserved Greg Dulli during this period, and I knew, I just KNEW that my friends were getting ready to do something about it. Always close, but now living in different places (with only Curley left in Cincinnati), the Whigs did what they had to do: they requested and negotiated a release from their label. They brought in long-time friend Michael Horrigan to fill the vacant drum throne, and got back to work.
They were tired of people bummin' out their good time. They were sick of people messin' with their good life. . They wanted this new album to be more concise, more rockin', more upbeat. It was their goal to create a stripped-down, concise piece of rock.
1965 is all that. "Somethin' Hot", the album's lead track, starts with a slow burn and culminates with an incendiary chorus that serves as a musical release to the tension created by the verses' incessant riffing; sounds like a radio single to me. "Crazy" features the legendary Alex Chilton doin' some tasty background vocal work and, especially noteworthy, McCollum's totally brilliant guitar lines add to the song's playful lope nicely. Plus, Dulli manages to rhyme "therapy" with "pharmacy", and that's pretty damn cool in and of itself. "Uptown Again" is another wolf in sheep's clothing. Did I mention that this is Rick McCollum's best playing ever? And did I mention that John Curley is a total asskicking, melodic innovator on bass here and throughout 1965? How about the fact that Michael Horrigan sounds like he's been in the Whigs for 20 years, or that his snare hand is as solid as, well, a rock? Damn!
And it continues? Whether or not the 22 second "Sweet Son Of A Bitch" was actually recorded "as it happened" in Greg's bedroom is a debatable subject, but I wouldn't - or will not - put it past him. "66" is my favorite tune on the album right now. Catchy as the flu, it starts immediately to paint some pictures in your mind: "You walked in/just like smoke/with a little come on, come on, come on in yer walk?" "Citi Soleil" is a Stonesy mid-tempo number that will hook you in the first couple of bars and continues the album's optimistic theme? Shall I continue?
"John The Baptist" is positively anthemic. The chorus' fantastic wordplay is buoyed by a "Nawlins" horn section extraordinaire, led by the Re-Birth Brass Band's Roderick Paulin. Outstanding arrangements and soulful blowing by Paulin & Co. show up several times on 1965, but this track really highlights his beauty and power. "The Slide Song" is one of the album's more historical Whig-like compositions, and McCollum once again shows how technical expertise and raw emotion can co-exist when playing guitar. "Neglekted" is sexy and funky with guest vocalist Susan Marshall turning in (as she does on "Somethin' Hot," among others) a truly gorgeous performance.
Marshall and Dulli not only sound like they've sung together before, but they also sound like they've both been through the tension and release brought forth by the lyrics. "Omerta" slinks along like a hooker with pride, and has some more great lyrical moments. I, for one, plan to help make "shuffle off to Buffalo" a new term for getting your head. Think you'retired of "yeah, yeah, yeah" choruses? You won't be after digging "Omerta," which is anything but a "Stone Temple sob story." Just listen, will ya?
New Orleans was a good idea for the Whigs. It got them away together in a new place and helped them focus on the task at hand - making great music together. Curley said that being in The Big Easy eliminated a lot of distractions for the band but, he adds, "you have a lot of new distractions to worry about down there." Indeed, they did get a little nuts down south. The combination of living in the French Quarter, hanging out and jamming with some great musicians, and the city's legendary reputation and vibe made it the perfect locale to get it together and create. The Whigs' hard-earned penchant for landing on their feet after troubled times returned.
They definitely had the gris-gris, which is always a good thing to have when you're fixin' to welcome some insanity into the proceedings on the bayou. Indeed, it got so crazy that even Rick McCollum (who is the nicest and most mild-mannered guy I know) got thrown in the 'Nawlins pokey on the last night of Mardi Gras. Curley dutifully bailed him out. Dulli was M.I.A. for a few days near the end of the sessions. He mysteriously returned with a strange instrumental called "The Vampire Lanois" which puts a rap on things (in an economical 41:32, I might add). I asked Greg what this title meant, and he was very hesitant to discuss this. I did manage to get out of him that the song's inspiration was 3000 years old and slept in a casket covered by dirt from his homeland of Acadie. I wanted to know more, but Greg stopped me, fearing certain preternatural events that could take place if he continued to discuss it.
If this sounds like it was written by a fan, o.k. then, because it was. Play this motherfucker and tell everyone you know about it.
Dan Reed Louisville, KY., USA