March 4th, 2011 By mbreen | Music | Posted In: Local Music

Flashback: MTV, Whigs and the Next Seattle


I first started writing about the fine artists making music in Cincinnati in the early ’90s, just before The Afghan Whigs released their breakthrough Gentlemen album on Elektra Records. The timing of my unexpected entry into "music journalism" coincided with the unexpected rise of the Cincinnati music scene's national profile. Today, my pal David Pescovitz (who actually made my unintentional career as a writer/editor possible) sent me a YouTube clip that brought back a rush of memories from that time period. Below you can take a look for yourself at the MTV News piece about the Cincinnati scene, a weird and telling moment in contemporary Cincy music history.

When Nirvana broke through with Nevermind in 1991, the band really did change music. Besides killing off Hair Metal and setting the table for Alternative and Punk music’s entrance into the mainstream, they turned the regionalism prevalent in underground music (what later became “Alternative” and “Indie”) into a marketing concept for major labels. Fans of “College Rock” (as it was called, because college stations were the only ones to play it), Punk and other non-mainstream styles always understood that if they enjoyed a few bands that came out of a particular city or region of the country, they might find more bands there that were also up their alley, kind of like how trusted independent record labels can be reliable sources for good new music. Of course, this wasn’t something that popped up in 1990 —Philly had its Soul, Kansas City had its Jazz, D.C. Punk was its own genre and Detroit has, over time, been a focal point for fans of R&B/Pop (Motown), pre-Punk (Stooges, MC5) and Garage Rock (White Stripes, Detroit Cobras).

Nirvana’s huge success gave some label A&R person the big idea to dig through the rest of the Seattle scene for gold and suddenly it became the thing to do for major labels. Bands from Seattle were signed willy-nilly (sometimes for ridiculous amounts of money) in the feeding frenzy. The result was a few one-hit wonders and a lot of bands that just broke up rather than dealing with the headaches of an unsuccessful major label band (including paying back those huge advances they never recouped with sales). Bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were already on their way when the labels all started sniffing around Seattle.

Like Dischord in D.C. or Touch and Go in Chicago, the independent label Sub Pop helped build the sound — Grunge, as it were — and image of Seattle organically (not that the label founders didn’t know what they were doing). They were a part of the Seattle community and loved the music being created in their town, so it was natural to build the label around that. The major labels clumsy invasion of the city to essentially accomplish the same thing Sub Pop did was never going to work.

At about the same time as Seattle was being raped by the majors, the labels also expanded their targeted scouting efforts to other cities. If one band broke out of Chapel Hill, NC, then there just had to be 10 more that will have the exact same chance at success, right? The media was happy to advance the theory — always looking for a good angle, magazines, newspapers and TV outlets began to trumpet cities with good local music scenes as “The Next Seattle,” just as they’d once burdened young Folk singer/songwriters by proclaiming them “The Next Dylan.”

Since the Whigs, already an established band in Alternative music circles (thanks, ironically, to their albums for Sub Pop), were beginning to receive airplay on MTV and press in big-time music magazines, the “Next Seattle” spotlight came to Cincinnati.

That the Whigs, an amazing band with a decent national following but one that wasn’t exactly selling records on a Nevermind level, inspired all of the attention shows just how frantic the labels were to not miss out on “The Next Nirvana.” Spin magazine pushed the concept in a “Where’s Next” round-up of potential musical hotbeds. I even got some national work out of it, writing a couple of sidebar pieces to a larger story about the wealth of musical talent in the Queen City for the briefly revived Creem magazine.

Then MTV came and filmed the segment posted below. Though everyone would probably deny it today, it was pretty exciting. A lot of musicians were psyched that they just might be able to make some money doing what they loved. And maybe they’d be on MTV like the Whigs to boot! Daydreams were in overdrive.

The most visible label to come looking for “The Next Afghan Whigs” was Island, who sent two A&R people on a cross-country trip to find acts to sign. The label’s reps (a man and woman) even came to me, as a writer who covered Cincinnati music regularly, to ask for suggestions about who to book at a big two-night showcase for Island at then-Ground Zero for the local scene, Sudsy Malone’s. There was a lot of hopeful, nervous energy surrounding those shows. A lot of people thought it was their shot.

But the pair (who, I’d like to note, were actually very cool and seemed like genuine music fans) never inked any band that played those two nights. As far as I know, the Dallas band Tripping Daisy was the only artist Island signed from the whole countrywide search. (That band did well enough, with a couple of modest radio hits. And without those two well-intentioned A&R folks, the world would never have been given the Polyphonic Spree, Tripping Daisy singer Tim DeLaughter’s later band project.)

Once MTV and Island left town, the idea of Cincinnati as the next big music hub slowly faded away. Bands like The Ass Ponys and Throneberry (both featured in the MTV piece) did score record deals and got a taste of success, but, like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, they were headed that way before MTV came to town.

It didn’t take long for the whole experience to sink in and I (and many others) began to realize that, even if the labels’ plan worked and they were able to find five Nirvanas in every city in America, it wasn’t going to happen for Cincinnati. And the reason became a badge of honor for Cincinnati music. There were hundreds of bands in Seattle that fit the “Grunge” tag, but what did “Cincinnati music” sound like? Perhaps more than any other city scene at the time, that was an impossible question. Like the Akron scene that once produced Pere Ubu, The Dead Boys, The Waitresses and DEVO, Cincinnati’s music scene was (and remains) special because there is no unifying sound. The isolation of the Midwest and the creativity of our unconventional music makers result in the creation of some very unique music. The local bands popular at the time of the MTV coverage didn’t try to sound like whatever was hot and hyped at the moment, nor did they sound like anything else in town, something that has carried over through today. Look at the bands in town getting national attention right now. Any of them sound anything alike?

That lack of cohesion killed Cincinnati’s “Next Seattle” chances. In fact, while other towns probably had a better shot at making it as the next national hotspot, lack of cohesion is why that city-mining experiment by the labels was a failure. Besides Seattle and perhaps a couple other cities, a music scene isn’t built around one particular style or sound. That’s just the nature of real creativity; if there was a “Cincinnati sound,” where all the music sounded similar, we’d have a scene devoid of original ideas and full of opportunistic copycats, not true-to-self artists.

There are certainly musicians who mimic, be it a bigtime band or one doing well locally, but those more contrived acts don’t last long because fads fade fast (just ask all those Ska and Swing bands that formed when that music had some mainstream attention). In Cincinnati at least, if a new band popped up and sounded like whatever local band was popular at the time, they’d be snubbed, shamed and/or ridiculed by their peers. And those more derivative and formulaic acts that do make it either leave town or develop a “We’re not a local band” attitude, playing down any connection they have to the city.

It’s funny to think about this in the age of “Everything! Now!” With easier exposure to so much more music (thanks, Internet!), influence and inspiration can come from a million more sources and the chances of a city developing a cohesive “sound” are on par with the chances of that roomful of monkeys with typewriters producing a Shakespearean play. As a music diehard who appreciates originality, this is a great thing. But I’m used to it. Music in Cincinnati has always been blissfully diverse and the best artists are the ones who’ve followed their own vision and will never be the sort easily described with a concise statement like, “Oh, they sound The Arcade Fire.” While it makes my job a little harder (“They sound like The Arcade Fire” would require no real thought and allow me to throw the thesaurus away), it’s also what makes it so amazing.

This clip (filmed largely in Corryville, in and around Sudsy Malone’s) also shows that Cincinnati musicians keep going like the Energizer rabbit and make music because they love it and can’t imagine not doing it. Among the artists featured in the segment, The Tigerlilies are still going strong as a unit (though they’ve since gone through about 20 or so guitarists), Randy Cheek of The Ass Ponys is in The Fairmount Girls (and most of the rest of the band still plays, too) and Jason Arbenz keeps rockin’ with the band Goose with his Throneberry bandmate Paul Cavins. Sudsy Malone’s and the concept of Corryville as music central, on the other hand, have been dead for quite a while.

Keep watching after the first segment for another great flashback moment, a different MTV News piece about The Afghan Whigs when the band was on its Gentlemen run featuring footage from a great concert at Hara Arena in Dayton that included fellow Ohio greats like Guided By Voices, New Bomb Turks and headliners The Breeders, riding high at the time with their Last Splash album.

03.17.2011 at 02:39 Reply
Great retrospective Mike. That was an exciting time - not because of the fleeting national attention - but because there were so many great bands who had forged their own musical identities, like you describe. no one based their style or approach on anyone else's...though it would have been pretty badass if ALL the drummers would hvae donned massive chrome bumpers across their kits! Thanks for your words Mike.


05.16.2011 at 02:29 Reply
As the former bass player for a Cincinnati band that "made it" (loose definition being signing a recording contract with a major label), July for Kings, I take exception to the broad generalization you made about bands that were labeled "derivative and formulaic" by the elitist "indie scene" in Cincinnati, you being one of the main culprits. When we started making waves in Cincinnati initially, it was the elitist attitude given us by the movers and shakers in the local scene, like the 97X programming managers, that fostered any development of any sort of attitude of us being above the fray, so to speak, in the context of attention from record companies. In fact, the truth is we LOVED Cincinnati and the diversity of the scene (Readymaid is still one of my favorite bands), and mainstream music lovers in Cincinnati loved us. And we never "left", nor did we ever try to distance ourselves from the city itself. If there was ever any distancing done on our parts, it was from the snobbish, elitist scene-makers telling us, and bands like us, that we weren't wanted in Cincinnati.


06.02.2011 at 11:22 Reply
Wow, bitter much? The fact that you assumed I was talking about JFK says a lot. I've learned when words like "elitist" and "snob" are used, it's usually the sign of an inferiority complex. You shouldn't feel so bad, you were (are?) in a good band. Sorry that you feel CityBeat didn't celebrate your accomplishments enough. You loved Cincinnati and mainstream music lovers loved you, Why are you still so bitter that you weren't accepted by the "cool kids"? And if it was because you were so seriously wronged by the "indie scene" that record companies noticed you (which is pretty laughable, but OK), why isn't this a "Thank You" note? I wasn't thinking about JFK in particular, but yes, you've made my point. Your MCA contract came because you sounded like Matchbox 20 or whatever was hot at the time. And, at least judging from your singer's solo work, you grew out of that and developed your own sound. The people who loved the Swim album will all remember the band very fondly, in the same way they remember that kick ass 80s cover band at their wedding reception. The bands remembered 50 years from now won't be the ones that drew a crowd because they played something familiar and, yes, derivative and formulaic. I'm sorry you can't see that now — i would think with the progress the band has made creatively, you might have knocked that huge chip off your shoulder by now. Oh well, maybe in 20 more years. At least in terms of Middletown music history you guys are giants!


09.20.2011 at 09:55

Funny that the author is allowed to make ad hominem attacks on someone who criticizes the article and then reserve the right to screen any further responses.


09.20.2011 at 09:15 Reply

First and foremost, I want to be clear that my posts here are my own opinions, and are in no way indicative of the feelings of the current or other former members of July for Kings.  My name is Jason Morgan, and my time with the band ended in 2003, so no, I'm no longer in JFK Breen.  And I didn't assume you were talking about us, only that our particular relationship with the Cincinnati indie scene created a causal dynamic antonymous to what you portrayed in your article, and I wanted to share that.  As a band that could have been potentially lumped into the category you created ("mainstream" bands desiring distance from the Cincinnati scene), I wanted to clear up any potential incorrect perceptions about JFK in particular for readers who may remember both the era portrayed in this article as well as the bands who were later members of the scene.  Further, our attention from record labels was garnered through a whole lot of hard work and grass-roots self-promotion, combined with a misguided decision to sign a "deal with the Devil", so to speak, in our contract with one Mr. Ken Lewis.  It in no way was generated nor influenced by the Cincinnati music scene giving us the cold shoulder, so please try not to think yourself so influential and important.  As for your 80s cover band dig, I guess people feel pretty much the same way about the relevance of the Whigs, the Cincinnati music scene, and you; remembered fondly and wistfully from times that have long since passed.  Your amateur-hour psychological diagnosis of an inferiority complex is laughable (please point me to empirical evidence that usage of those terms in fact indicates some sort of complex), and your dig at the end of your comment is revealing.  At least, at the end of the day, I was out there on the stage sweating music from my pores (as derivative and formulaic as it may have been, it was our own), traveling the country on a record company's dime, performing in front of crowds of 20,000 .  Meanwhile, you were on the sidelines in Cincinnati, writing about the people you wish you were talented enough to be.  I shit pieces of writing that could pass for journalism after a good meal.  Musical succes, on the other hand, took hours of hard work and dedication, both with the instrument and away from it.  Your snobbery is unfounded, and smacks of years of self-delusion regarding your relevance.  If you'd like to continue the mudslinging Mr. Breen, well, I'm your Huckleberry.


09.20.2011 at 12:52

The delusion is, even more clearly now, yours. I wouldn't have responded at all were it not for your insults. You basically repeated yourself in this comment, with a few extra insults and vulgarities. Congrats, you win the internet.


09.20.2011 at 04:51

What "insults" were there in my original post?  Did I attack your character?  Did I take shots at the relevance of the work you do in my original post?  No.  You're a troll, not a journalist.  Grats on that.  I guess you got the better of me.


09.20.2011 at 05:01

Actually, why not just have your site admin delete this whole exchange?  It would probably be better for you and I both.


09.20.2011 at 05:25

Let it go, rock star. I'd never delete any of this — I have to much fun showing people what an idiot you are. The vast majority of people who use words like "elitist" are suffering from a serious inferiority complex. And if you really think your old band is more relevant than the Afghan Whigs, or that me or the people who worked at 97x are "eltist" because we didn't fawn all over your band (that's like saying Mortons Steakhouse is elitist because they won't serve you a Big Mac), we can't even begin to have a discussion because you haven't a clue what you're talking about. BUT I work at 811 Race St., downtown, if you'd like to speak about it in person.


09.20.2011 at 06:14

So we're resorting to name-calling now?  How professional.  And again, it would be nice if you could cease the character attacks unless you can provide evidence that my usage of the term "elitist" is directly correlated with an "inferiority complex", whatever that means anyway.

Of course I don't think JFK was more relevant than the Whigs.  And I never expected any "fawning" from anyone.  But don't pretend that using the words "derivative and formulaic" to describe our music at every opportunity wasn't just your way of writing us off as not cool enough or whatever.  It would be like a food critic in a review saying a restaurant's food is good if you're into McDonald's; a passive-aggressive, snarky insult.  Was I wrong to take it as such?  As for 97X, does whoever the program manager was at the time telling Sledge to "get that Creed-sounding shit off my radio station" one time when he was playing us not sound at least a little bit elitist to you?  Of course, comparing yourself and them to a fine-dining restaurant and our music to McDonald's really just proves the point I've been making.

Now, as for your invitation to discuss matters in person, it's tempting.  Of course that just might elevate our little tiff into all new territory, and no one would want that.  Would they?


09.21.2011 at 11:19

I apologize, Jason. This all got kind of out of hand. We each were in different places during this time period and have different perspectives. I was wrong to respond the way I did. I sincerely aplogize for the name calling and attacks on your work with the band (and the band's work in general). I do genuinely respect the work behind and accomplishments of JFK, though my words here in the comments suggest otherwise. I wish you the best of luck. And the invite stands if you'd ever like to come downtown and talk about anything. Lunch is on me!


09.21.2011 at 01:02

In turn, I extend an apology for the attacks on your work as a writer and escalating the comments in the manner that I did.  It wasn't my intention in my original comment to attack you personally, but reading it now and thinking about it I can see how you could have construed it as such.  The tone of my second comment was vitriolic, and truth be told I'm a bit embarrassed by it.  The truth does in fact hurt, and I will admit that yes, I am still a little bitter by the way we were treated by "the scene", and the passage in the article did seem to apply to JFK during the time I was with them because I was told by a couple people who were well connected that quite a few other bands regarded us in the manner you described.  At this point, I know I'm just repeating myself, but I just want to be clear that I'm not trying to prove myself right or you wrong or whatever.  My hope is to convey why I made my original comment in the first place, and why I said what I did.  Best of luck to you as well.