The Afghan Whigs‘ first Sub Pop full-length, Up in It, has a Midwestern scrappiness that recalls the Replacements at times, but lead singer Greg Dulli‘s first love was the soul and funk he grew up with, and legend has it the first record he bought as a child was the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. It wouldn’t take long to hear more of that in the band’s records as they sought to distinguish themselves from their labelmates.
The next record, Congregation, pushes further into that sound. The title nods to soul music, whose influence is all over the record, as does the album cover, which suggests Black music cradling white music. It is a big swing that might garner controversy now, but the Afghan Whigs have never been afraid of pushing buttons and have clear reverence for their influences.
The final Sub Pop release from the Afghan Whigs is Uptown Avondale, a covers EP that underlines the inherent lyrical darkness in soul classics like “Band of Gold” and “Come See About Me” by turning them into bleak but addictive dirges that highlight the sadness in the lyrics that lie beneath the peppy arrangements. Compare the original versions of the aforementioned songs to the Whigs’ covers, and you’ll never hear them the same way again. Transforming past and current soul songs is a staple of the Whigs’ live sets, and they continue to record covers of iconic soul and blues songs, too.
Around the time the band signed to Elektra Records, lead singer Greg Dulli experienced a traumatic breakup. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, but not all breakup albums are created equal. Dulli’s served as the basis for one of the most searing explorations of romantic entanglements ever recorded. Five years later, the Afghan Whigs came out on the other side of addiction and label turmoil to deliver 1965, a triumphant roar of a party record that doesn’t sacrifice the sinister undercurrent.
Gentlemen and Black Love are purposely structured song cycles, and Dulli’s film school roots are evident in their liner notes, which contain credits such as “shot on location” rather than “recorded at.” Black Love took its lyrical inspiration from crime fiction giants like James Ellroy and films like Blood Simple. For 1965, the band set aside this fixation on continuity for a rousing, lusty set of songs that play more like a singles collection than a plot-based plunge into darkness.
Released in October 1993, Gentlemen is the record that will forever define the Afghan Whigs, and it is their most concise statement. Still, five years later, 1965 would present a renewed, revitalized Whigs. They were always a band out of time, but they have built a legacy. There are dozens of better-selling but much lesser-regarded records from the 1990s, and plenty of those groups are not drawing a devoted fan base out for shows 30 years later.
While other bands in the alt-rock boom were clad in flannel and hitting the fuzz pedals, the Afghan Whigs started dressing in all black, and photo shoots favored bourbon and cigars over cheap beer and cigarettes. In the video for “Debonair”, an unsettling snapshot of Ohio that predates Harmony Korine’s Ohio opus Gummo, Dulli and the group are dressed in suits like the Motown acts they revere, and the song recalls the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. Dulli floats through the other scenes in the video almost like the angels in Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire, except that one of the most quotable lines in the song is “Tonight I go to hell for what I’ve done to you.”
Gentlemen didn’t do the numbers Elektra was hoping for, but 30 years on, it is still a gut-punch of a record where no one walks away unscathed. Dulli’s lyrics are part of its enduring power, which diverge from the misogyny of the 1970s rock that influenced the band and the emo that would soon follow. Before toxic masculinity was an everyday term, Dulli’s characters critiqued bad male behavior. Even the tracks that read as bravado at first, such as “Gentleman” and “Be Sweet”, have an undercurrent of self-awareness and self-loathing lacking in other artists’ work. 1970s and 1980s rock typically didn’t even consider the other person, and 2000s emo only sought to paint the other party as the enemy and the source of the singer’s pain.
Gentlemen’s centerpiece is “My Curse”, a lacerating counterpoint to the rest of the record. Scrawl lead singer Marcy Mays’ vocals ache as she describes the complex feelings associated with trying to end a toxic relationship with Dulli’s character. Her character is no angel, either, but making space for her voice is one of the record’s highlights.
The Gentlemen follow-up, Black Love, leaned harder into the funk and soul sounds of Gentlemen but was even less commercially successful. It was supposedly inspired by the book Spoken in Darkness. Dulli studied film in college, and as he did with Gentlemen, the record is a song cycle with a storyline, this time a noir. Around the same time, Dulli was turning up in the late Ted Demme’s films Monument Ave., where he has a minor role as a gang member, and Beautiful Girls, which features the Afghan Whigs playing in a bar scene. They contributed two covers to the soundtrack, and Dulli oversaw the music for the film.
While Black Love also received favorable press, and the Afghan Whigs continued to draw crowds for their incendiary live shows, the radio breakthrough didn’t happen, and it wasn’t Dulli’s concern, anyway. He didn’t like playing the game, doing in-store appearances that weren’t a good fit, and playing showcases for radio stations that barely even played their music. In the 33⅓ book on Gentlemen, Curley said, “If you say no to everything, then they [the label] won’t care. They’ll move on to the next band because they’ll think you’re a pain in the ass.”
Much like the challenge of cutting a great trailer to draw in the audience, it wasn’t easy to pick a song to introduce the rest of the world to Gentlemen or Black Love. All of the songs on each record just work better when experienced as part of the whole. Both albums have memorable music videos but failed to break through to heavy rotation on MTV, garnering a few weeks each on 120 Minutes. The Whigs did not sound like any other music in that era.
Disheartened and dissatisfied with Elektra, Dulli began work on a solo project called the Twilight Singers, which would debut in 2000 and become his main concern while the Whigs were broken up. He was in his worst mental and physical condition while working on The Twilight Singers, and the 33⅓ book on Gentlemen describes Dulli directing the production work from a bed in the studio. He has said in interviews that he more or less went to New Orleans to die. At this lowest point, he decided to take a trip to Hawaii as a hail mary and came back renewed, reinvigorated, and determined.
Soon after, the Afghan Whigs and Elektra had an acrimonious split, and they signed with Columbia Records. For their first and only release for the label, 1965, the Whigs recorded in New Orleans, which is evident in the songs’ soulfulness and energy. Where Marcy Mays was a wounded counterpoint on “My Curse”, Susan Marshall’s vocals add vibrance to songs like “Somethin’ Hot” and “John the Baptist”. 1965 is the sound of Dulli and the band reinvigorated. On the third track, “Uptown Again”, he states the mission: “Untie me now, I’m ready to get down.”
Where Gentlemen opened with “If I Were Going” and Black Love with “Crime Scene Part One”, 1965 kicks off with the aforementioned “Somethin’ Hot”, a live staple and joyous come-on of a song whose guitars still have that desperation in their bounce as Dulli sings “I wanna feel good, you make me feel good” right before the piano kicks in to take the song to its end. This song fits with “66” and “John the Baptist” as a sort of seduction trilogy.
If “Somethin’ Hot” is the come-on, “66” is the stakes being raised. It is preceded by an interlude of indiscretion that sets up its beat. In a just world, this song would have been enormous. The hook in the verses and propulsive beat that fuels the chorus should have made this the song everyone was waiting to hear at the radio showcases, but it was released as a subsequent single and didn’t take off with radio stations keen on rap-rock and teen pop. To kick off the second half of the record, “John the Baptist” seems like a climax, seeing the flirtation of “Somethin’ Hot” and “66” through to its end. The track builds and explodes repeatedly as Dulli howls, “Let’s get it on.” The saxophone solo pushes Dulli’s final line, “I got the devil in me, girl,” to the background.
Where Uptown Avondale highlighted the darkness lurking below Motown classics, 1965 hews more closely to the Motown playbook, hiding darkness within the catchiest of songs. “Crazy” is another hooky highpoint in the Afghan Whig’s canon, but “What’s gonna happen to you now? Therapy? Pharmacy?” is the line that stands out the most in a song that otherwise could have been a Supremes hit. Where “Crazy About You, Crazy Without You” would have sounded like a suicide note on Gentlemen, here it is more like the way Diana Ross would have sung it, leaving us to discover the desperation ourselves.
“The Slide Song” and “Neglekted” are the two songs that sound most like the Elektra releases, but they seem alive in a different way here. You can feel the New Orleans oozing out of “Neglekted”, which slinks along like a forgotten Prince song, and “The Slide Song” would fit nicely after “My Curse” and just before “Now You Know” on Gentlemen.
1965 ends with an epic two-part sendoff of “Omerta” and “The Vampire Lanois”, an extended instrumental that functions similarly to “Brother Woodrow” on Gentlemen. “Omerta” is the Antihero’s Journey, an odyssey of sleeplessness fueled by a classic Nas lyric, bad drugs purchased from snotty ravers, and a call to become divine. It is a triumphant final statement from a man who sounds resurrected and almost literally was. The instrumental march that concludes the record is pure New Orleans, and one can imagine it soundtracking a procession. While Gentlemen and Black Love have received the anniversary reissue treatment, Gentlemen, fittingly for its 21st, 1965 has yet to get its due, despite it being filled with live staples and fan favorites.
Unfortunately, 1965 also didn’t connect at the level Gentlemen did, and while the band retains a devoted fan base to this day, the Afghan Whigs broke up after this record. Dulli went back to work on the Twilight Singers, who released several well-regarded records that kept the Whigs fanbase satisfied. They will be properly feted later this year with the release of a career-spanning, deluxe box set. He also collaborated with Mark Lanegan on the Gutter Twins, an even darker night of the soul than his other projects. The Whigs got back together to record two songs for a retrospective and played some shows in 2012 with Dulli, Curley, and original guitarist Rick McCollum, who exited before Do to the Beast was released in 2014 as the proper Afghan Whigs reunion.
In Spades followed on Sub Pop in 2017, and then the band found a new home at BMG. In 2020, Dulli released a solo album that takes some interesting risks and finds him continuing to incorporate contemporary pop influences in songs such as “Lockless”. Last year’s How Do You Burn?, named after a getting-to-know-you question favored by the late Mark Lanegan, possesses many of the same qualities as 1965, opening with the blistering “I’ll Make You See God” and sounding more like another great singles collection than a cohesive statement. “Domino and Jimmy” sees the return of Marcy Mays and is a sequel to “My Curse”. Closer “In Flames” works as a fitting summary for the record and for the Afghan Whigs. Hopefully, we haven’t heard the last of them.