John Curley; Greg Dulli; Steve Earle (replaced by Paul Buchignani, replaced by Michael Horrigan); Rick McCollum
A SOUL-INFLUENCED grunge act, Afghan Whigs’ career was hampered by the personal troubles of Dulli, the group’s principal songwriter.
Guitarist/vocalist Dulli reportedly met lead guitarist McCollum in an Athens, Ohio, jail cell on Halloween in 1986. After recruiting drummer Earle (like Dulli and McCollum a student at the University of Cinncinati) and bassist Curley, a photographer with the Cinncinati Enquirer, the Afghan Whigs gained a loyal live following in the late ’80s, and released their début album, Big Top Halloween (1988), on local independent label Ultra Suede. Combining ’70s rock with angst-ridden lyrics, the album drew the attention of grunge label Sub Pop, who signed the band at the turn of the decade.
The Whigs’ first Sub Pop release, Up on It (1990), produced by Jack Endino, was followed by a lengthy tour, on which Dulli developed pneumonia and marked paranoid tendencies. Retiring to his LA apartment, Dulli set to work on writing the band’s next album, as well as a screenplay and several short stories. The result of this spurt of creativity was the underground hit Congregation (1992), which drew the attention of the major labels and saw the band sign to Elektra after releasing a final EP on Sub Pop, Uptown Avondale (1992), a selection of covers of R&B and soul standards, including Freda Payne’s ‘Band of Gold’ and Dallas Frazier’s ‘True Love Travels on a Gravel Road’.
Gentleman (1993), the group’s major label début, saw the band delve further into Dulli’s personal traumas, and was again widely ignored by mainstream audiences, although the single ‘Debonair’ was heavily rotated on MTV. An extended break followed, before the release of Black Love (1996), another essay on self-loathing with heavy soul riffs. The first album to feature new drummer Paul Buchignani, Black Love included covers of The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ and ‘Lets Get It on’ by Marvin Gaye. Two further EPs followed on Elektra, Honky’s Ladder and Bonnie and Clyde, before the band moved labels again, signing with Columbia and recruiting another drummer, Michael Horrigan.
Their sixth album, the soul-informed 1965 (1998), saw the band at last achieve a degree of commercial success, though it was marred by a brutal attack on Dulli at a Whigs’ gig, which left him unable to perform for several months.
© Phil Hardy, Dave Laing, Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, 2001