October 5th, 1993, The Afghan Whigs released their fourth album, Gentlemen, through Elektra Records. The Afghan Whigs formed in Cincinnati late in 1986. Bonding over their love of classic rock and R&B, Greg Dulli, John Curley, Steve Earle, and Rick McCollum got to work forging their sound. In 1988, they released their debut album, Big Top Halloween. Self-released on the band’s own Ultrasuede label, only a thousand copies were initially pressed.
One of them managed to capture the attention of Jonathan Poneman, the co-founder of Seattle-based label Sub Pop, which signed The Afghan Whigs in 1989. The band came of age with their subsequent two releases, 1990’s Up in It and 1992’s Congregation. These albums bore all the hallmarks of the explosive early ’90s underground alternative rock scene. Still, they stood out due to the strong Soul and R&B influence coursing through each track.
Greg Dulli talks about why The Afghan Whigs stood out among the rest of the Sub Pop roster, “We were literally from 2,000 miles away. When I went to Seattle for the first time in ’89, something was happening there, an energy I never felt anywhere else. It was pretty remarkable to watch. I was a fan of many of those groups: there was a great power there. We were never in any competition with the Sub Pop bands because we were trying to do something different. But the first time I saw The Fluid, blew my mind. First time I saw Mudhoney, amazing live band. Tad is an amazing live band. Nirvana is an amazing live band. So it was an exciting time to be part of that, but we were not trying to be that in any way, shape, or form. We were cruising toward our own thing.”
After an exhaustive tour in support of the Congregation album, the band jumped to the big leagues – and a major label – with the release of Gentlemen on Elektra Records.
“After Nirvana’s Nevermind hit, there was a feeding frenzy from the major labels, who were looking for guitar bands, and the Sub Pop roster was a hot target of many of those labels, so we were pursued by a dozen labels at least?” said frontman Greg Dulli, “However many there were back then, I’m sure I talked to all of them. And I let people buy me things and fly me places, all kinds of things. That’s what you did as a young, poor rock ‘n’ roller, you know?”
The Afghan Whigs didn’t seem to harbour the same self-flagellating conflict regarding the jump to a major label most alternative rock bands of the early ’90s struggled with, “I liked that Elektra was small, I liked their roster, I liked their history, and I liked Bob Krasnow, who was the president of the label at the time when we came over,” remembers Dulli “His involvement at King Records with James Brown was of interest to me. Elektra was cool, and it seemed like a good place to do what we were about to do because we knew what was coming.”
Those reference points were essential to The Afghan Whigs in choosing Elektra Records. R&B and Soul were as much a part of the band’s DNA as nihilistic alt-rock. One look at their chosen attire told you a lot. The GQ stylings of The Afghan Whigs couldn’t have done more to segregate themselves, donning sports coats, button-downs, and loafers amid the prerequisite flannel, denim, and Doc Martens of the early ’90s. While their contemporaries dealt in distortion, sludge, and teen apathy, the Whigs were likelier to integrate R&B, funk, and dark musings on obsession, sex and betrayal into their songs.
“‘Gentlemen’ is the only record I can remember writing on the road”, Dulli recalls, “Writing began while we were touring Congregation; that was the longest tour I’ve ever done, Two hundred shows, I think. We just kept on going. We went to Europe probably four times. We kept going, going, going, and we were writing songs as we went.”
By 1992, The Afghan Whigs had honed their darkly seductive sound into something richly compelling. The songs the band and Greg Dulli brought to Ardent Studios in Memphis for the recording of Gentlemen were taxed with spiritual exhaustion and laced with self-exposure; Dulli’s dark meditations examined the extent to which he could explore the dark psyche of the ’90s male.
The album opens with the sound of howling wind and distant percussion. “If I Were Going” is a subdued but menacing intro to the album. A lone guitar enters over the howling gale as Dulli sings in a whispered threat, “What should I tell her? She’s going to ask; if I ignore it, It gets uncomfortable; she’ll want to argue about the past.” The song goes on to reference the lyrics of a later track on the album “Debonair,” Dulli explains that “Debonair” was written before “If I Were Going.” That lyric, “And it don’t bleed / And it don’t breathe / It’s locked its jaws / And now it’s swallowing…” I wanted to use it more meditatively, almost as an overture. I liked the introduction for what would come to be intimate before it got all stormy. I’m telling you this story in a quiet bar.”
The title track, “Gentlemen”, is a masterclass in ’90s alt-rock noir. Its dark, sleazy tone is infectious and infinitely cool. “I stayed in too long, But she was the perfect fit, And we dragged it out so long this time, Started to make each other sick,” Dulli sounds wounded on “Gentlemen,” self-identifying as both the culprit and victim in this relationship, Dulli paints a none too idyllic picture of life on the edge.
“Be Sweet” contains one of Dulli’s most famous couplets, “I got a dick for a brain, and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.” He has been praised and vilified for such stark renderings of dysfunctional relationships. Lyrically, he’s always been an over-sharer; his brutally honest depictions of broken relationships, particularly on Gentlemen, are, for some, hard to stomach. “I don’t feel the need to defend anything I’ve written,” he says, “How is ‘I’ve got a dick for a brain hurting anyone?’ I’m talking about me. Whenever Gentlemen got accusations of misogyny, I’d be like, ‘Give me an example?’. There isn’t one because it’s all about me and what a shit I am. If anyone should be offended by Gentlemen, it is me. I am the shit.”
Guitarist Rick McCollum wrote the riff to “Be Sweet,” Dulli explains the moment the lyrics came to him, “We were playing it in a soundcheck in Paris. A lot of the time, I would freestyle vocals, and I remember being day drunk and spitting out that whole first verse in the soundcheck and immediately took off my guitar and wrote it down on the back of a notebook. I had no second-guessing of what it said.”
“Debonair” is another incredible, intense rock song. Dulli has been quoted as saying the inspiration for the song’s riff comes from two unusual places, “Debonair” was my attempt to marry the riff from “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5, to the chord progression of the Twin Peaks intro,” he explained in 2014.
It makes perfect sense once you hear the song; its foreboding atmosphere drags its funky undercurrent into the dirt. A third element makes this musical concoction so vital: The Afghan Whig’s unmistakable delivery. Sleek without being slick, emanating a dangerous undercurrent and sexy as hell. The band’s sound is pulp noir at its finest.
The languid, atmospheric drone of “When We Two Parted” follows. “I should have seen this shit coming down the hall/ Every night I spent in that bed with you facing the wall,” reflects Dulli as Rick McCollum’s burned-out guitar rendering the frontman’s frustration and weariness palpable.
“Fountain And Fairfax” is another devastatingly powerful rock song. The song’s title comes from an intersection in West Hollywood. Dulli explains, “There’s a place called Crescent Heights, a Methodist church where they do AA/MA meetings, and a friend of mine wanted to attend a meeting. He was having some difficulties in his life and asked me to go with him, and I did. I heard some poignant testimony there and saw a couple up there who looked like they were auditioning for an acting job. And I was repulsed by that, to the point I was moved to write a song about it.”
The song opens with a bouncing pedal-point guitar riff. Its descending melody snakes toward the pit of hell. McCollum adds some seasick slide guitar. Dulli sings, “Angel, I’m sober. I got off that stuff just like you asked me to. Angel, Come closer. So the stink of your lies, Sink into my memory.” The slow swell of strings and a remarkable dynamic interplay between McCollum, Curley and Earle buoy the song’s cinematic sweep. Dulli’s passionate vocals are razor sharp, cutting to the quick of the subject matter with charged precision.
During “What Jail Is Like”, Dulli’s voice, like that of a method actor, imbues his role with maniacal levels of detail, taking on the tone of a paranoid and agitated animal as he cautions, “I’ll warn you, if cornered/ I’ll scratch my way out of the pen.” Dulli says of the song’s message, “When you’re sad or angry, or things aren’t going well in your life, and in your mind, you’re looking to place blame. You shoot all the rounds at everybody else — that’s a slippery moment. That song is blaming others for my problems, and I had yet to examine my own culpability.”
“My Curse” is an enthralling mid-tempo song packed with pathos and yearning. It’s also not sung by Greg Dulli. Marcy Mays of the band Scrawl delivers a commanding vocal performance, giving the song’s subject matter a crushing weight. “I felt at that point I had gotten too close to the record in my mind,” explains Dulli. The album lyrically was primarily written about Dulli’s then-relationship ending. “I felt that the woman in question deserved a voice in the proceeding. And when I looked at the lyrics — this goes back to the culpability — I fully accepted the blame and handed it down to the young lady.”
Dulli adds, “Marcy Mays had been a confidante of mine; we had toured together, and I was a huge fan of her voice. She was the only person I considered, and I’m grateful she accepted my invitation. I remember when we started doing the song, I sat in the studio trying to direct her, and she tried it a couple of times that way, then told me to get the fuck out of the studio and have lunch and let her do her thing. In almost every way, that song put me in my place, and the performance of “My Curse” is all Marcy Mays.”
“Now You Know” is seductive; its aggressive sound never spills into chaos, always keeping a distant cool. Violently thrashing over plinking pianos until the song’s legs finally give out, Dulli sings with resigned desperation into a bleak silence: “Now it’s through.”
“I Keep Coming Back” is a cover of a song by soul singer Tyrone Davis. “It was a song I listened to almost every night before I went to bed,” recalls Dulli, “I would listen to it repeatedly; it was very comforting. I felt like it was the counterpoint to the violence that came before it on the album. It was sweet, it was honest, it was vulnerable. It put everything that came before it into a focus and finality.”
The instrumental “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer” closes the album in a spectacular, cinematic fashion. Sweeping strings glide through waves of plucked guitars. Its gradual build is emphatic, rising skyward and exploding in cascading percussion, piano and guitars. “I wanted to have a film score ending; I wanted something that would run while the credits ran,” said Dulli. “A piece of music that would play as the credits ran in the movie of my mind. I thought of it as a piece of film score.”
Gentlemen is hands down one of the most unique and stunning rock albums of the ’90s. It’s unflinching in its honesty and delivery. Alice In Chains took an unwavering look into the abject darkness of addiction on 1992’s Dirt; with Gentlemen, The Afghan Whigs are equally determined to fix an unflinching gaze onto the iniquity, immorality and, at times, depraved state of human relations.
The band’s ability to soundtrack Dulli’s musings is outstanding. The album is filled with memorable hooks, rollercoaster dynamics and emotional depths. Gentlemen remains a beautiful outlier due to its unlikely fusion of sounds and uncompromising view that relationships and breakups are as much about anger and resentment as wallowing and pining.