The Afghan Whigs were a rock band formed in 1986 that broke up in 2001. The group mostly consisted of vocalist and rhythm guitarist Greg Dulli, bassist John Curley, lead guitarist Rick McCollum, and drummer Steve Earle (replace by Paul Buchignani in 1996 and him with Michael Horrigan in 1998). They released six albums and a handful of EP's, mostly recording for Sub Pop, Elektra, and Columbia.
The sound of The Afghan Whigs is tough to describe; it has changed substantially over time. Their early stuff sounds like a garage-punk band, something like The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., or Mudhoney. On the other hand, their later stuff is quite literate and soul-inflected post-punk, perhaps drawing comparisons to The Smashing Pumpkins later work. To say that they are varied is an understatement. Perhaps the most fitting description would be that they are a rock & soul band, much like The Rolling Stones were during the 1960s and 1970s before they descended into campiness and near-self parody over the last twenty years. In fact, if I had to point at an album most like the Whigs' sound as a whole outside of their own discography, I would be quite tempted to point at The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. Regardless, the Whigs are an excellent rock band with a strong soulful side.
According to the band, the Afghan Whigs were born in 1986 in a jail cell in Athens, Ohio, where University of Cincinnati student Greg Dulli met Rick McCollum one rowdy Halloween night.
After tinkering for the rest of 1986, the band began to form in early 1987 with the addition of Steve Earle on drums and John Curley on bass. With a full lineup, the band began to play a number of clubs around the college town of Hamilton, Ohio, and quickly built up a following due to their raucous live shows. The group released their first album, Big Top Halloween, in 1988 on Ultra Suede, an independent label owned by John Curley. The album was prototypical garage punk: it mixed power chords and angst-ridden lyrics into a blender of audio confusion and anger. This album attracted the attention of the burgeoning Sub Pop label from the Seattle area, who signed the band. The Afghan Whigs were the first non-Seattle band to join the label, which would become huge in a few years with the grunge explosion.
In 1990, the group released their Sub Pop debut, Up In It. On tour supporting the album, Dulli came down with a bad case of pneumonia, sparking a bout of paranoia that resulted in Dulli retreating to his L.A. apartment, where he refused to come out. During this year-long Brian Wilson-esque period, Dulli's creative powers kicked into high gear and he wrote prolifically; a screenplay, short stories and volumes of material for a new Whigs album. That album was released in 1992, Congregation, a sonic example of a manic depressive personality if there ever was one. It became a pretty big underground hit (I remember vividly hearing it several times in 1992, mostly among people jumping face-first into the nascent grunge movement) and as with any band with any popularity associated with Sub Pop in 1992, they were immediately snapped up by a major record label, in this case, Elektra.
In 1993, the band released their Elektra debut and their most well-known album to date, Gentlemen. Consisting mostly of songs about the dark side of relationships, it was a huge underground hit, spawning their biggest individual hit song Debonair. Somehow, though, the album didn't quite catch on with a mainstream crowd, and Dulli suffered another bout with paranoia. He locked himself into his apartment again for the better part of three years from 1993 to 1995, watching the movie Blood Simple over and over and over again. During this downtime, Steve Earle left the group and was replaced in 1996 as the group re-emerged, by Paul Buchignani.
The band recorded and released a new album in late 1995 and early 1996, and in March it was released. Black Love was perhaps as dark as its predecessors and it includes my personal favorite Afghan Whigs song, a cover of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On. However, it didn't catch on as well as Gentlemen, and after a couple more EPs on Elektra (Honky's Ladder and Bonnie and Clyde), the label dropped the group in 1997 by mutual agreement.
After a regrouping, including dropping drummer Buchignani with Michael Horrigan, the band recorded their sixth album, 1965, in October 1998. This album was much different than the earlier stuff; it infused a huge amount of soul and hip-hop flavor (something that was just barely sneaking in on their last album) into their sound. Again, it didn't catch the world on fire. After this, Greg Dulli founded a side project called The Twilight Singers in 1999, who released an album, Twilight in 2000, which hinted greatly as to what was to come.
In February 2001, the rest of the band (besides Dulli) released an announcement announcing that the band had ceased. Greg Dulli made a statement to the contrary shortly afterwards, but since then, the band has not been seen in any respect. It is probably fair to say that we have seen the last of the Afghan Whigs.
They will probably be best remembered for their great 1993 album Gentlemen and the song Debonair, but their whole discography is quite good and varied. I particularly enjoy Gentlemen and the two subsequent albums, although 1965 is really a change of pace.