Hailing from Sherburn Village, County Durham, England, twin brothers Gary Miller and Glenn Miller (who were once referred to by a UK journalist as “the Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of Folk Music”), formed The Whisky Priests in August 1985 as teenagers with no previous major musical experience, but a burning creative vision. With an original line-up made up of old school friends, they played their first gig in their hometown of Durham, at Fowlers Yard, on 4th October 1985. Within two months, and after only two gigs, they had recorded their first original song, 'Danny's Hard Life', written by Gary, for release on 'Twelve Go Mad In Durham', a compilation album of local Durham-based bands.
The band's first serious line-up of Gary Miller, Glenn Miller, Bill Bulmer, Michael Stephenson and Sticks recorded two 12" EP's in 1988, 'No Chance' ("Accordions on acid... compulsive dementia", Sounds, UK), and 'Grandfatha's Fatha', both independently released on Gary & Glenn's own newly-formed Whippet Records label. This line-up served a hard-touring apprenticeship which took them all over the UK, helping to build The Whisky Priests profile throughout this formative period.
Michael and Sticks departed in late 1988, during which time legendary Whisky Priests bass player and singer Mick Tyas joined the band, becoming a mainstay of the line-up for many years and a popular on-stage presence. In 1989 the band augmented their ranks with the addition of fiddle/northumbrian pipe player, Pete French, particularly enhancing the traditional North East of England folk music flavour of the band at that time. Signing to a professional recording and publishing company, Celtic Music, this line-up recorded The Whisky Priests debut LP 'Nee Gud Luck', recorded live in the studio and mixed in a handful of days for the 'princely sum' of £900(!) ("The contemporary folk masterpiece" Rock 'N' Reel, UK).
Coinciding with the release of 'Nee Gud Luck', The Whisky Priests made their first tour outside the UK, with a highly memorable and groundbreaking tour of Germany, leading to a return trip at the beginning of 1990. The band's reputation as an outstanding live act spread like wildfire, leading to further tours in many different countries. After this, The Whisky Priests never looked back as a live act. The band's show-stealing performances at Cambridge Folk Festival in 1990, for example, where they were hailed as “the stars of the weekend” by Colin Irwin writing for The Guardian, were an incredible triumph considering they featured an unrehearsed, emergency line-up that had necessarily been put together at the last-minute for the band's festival appearance, after four previous members had departed shortly before the event was due to take place. By this time the popular Kevin Wilson was now a member of the band.
Immediately following this success, The Whisky Priests soon came to be in great demand on the European festival circuit, going on to perform regularly at numerous festivals, including a headlining performance to 20,000 people at the Rockspektakel in Hamburg in 1992. Perhaps even more significantly, the band was courted by a number of major international record and management companies. Their recording and publishing contract with Celtic Music (which was to prove a nightmare over the ensuing years), however, prevented the possibility of accepting any offers, so the band, therefore, turned its attention to mainland Europe, touring tirelessly throughout the continent for the next two years.
While the band's live reputation continued to spread, there was a necessary gap of 3 years between The Whisky Priests' debut album and its follow up, 'Timeless Street', in 1992 ("Haunting, insightful songs. Gary Miller's original lyrics are as appealing as the melodies to which they are set", Dirty Linen, USA), due to the bitter long-term legal dispute which had developed with Celtic Music, though in the interim, as a contactually-agreed stop-gap, a compilation album of the by then deleted 12" EP's, 'The First Few Drops', was released in 1991.
Towards the end of 1993, after an out-of-court settlement with Celtic Music at the High Court in London, Gary & Glenn Miller, as co-directors of Whippet Records, once again owned recording and publishing rights to their entire back catalogue, giving their career a fresh boost, though ultimately severe and irrepairable damage had already been done by the legal dispute and their recording career never fully recovered. Determined to make up for lost time, however, between 1992 and 1996 The Whisky Priests managed to self-fund, self-promote and self-release 5 albums of new material in 5 years to critical international acclaim and play over 600 concerts in 16 different countries, whilst appearing many times on TV and radio throughout Europe.
By this stage, The Whisky Priests had become universally renowned for their live shows : -
"A Whisky Priests show is the sort of stuff to make your hair curl; honest, earthy, loud, raucous and tremendously uplifting" (Folk Roots, UK).
"They are as unique as a band who are truly unique can be - you'll never see another live band to touch them" (Manchester Evening News, UK).
"Live the band is in great form: energetic, full of atmosphere and inspired" (Oor Pop Encyclopedia, the Netherlands).
The time now seemed ripe for the band to display its unique skill on a live album. Released in 1993, 'Bloody Well Live!' ("A great document of one of the UK's most enjoyable acts at their sweaty best", Outlook, UK) became the band's most successful and widely acclaimed album reaching the Top 5 of many Independent National Charts throughout Europe. The 'Bloody Well Live!' Tour proved to be their most intensive and demanding, yet successful, tour to date, taking in 72 sell-out concerts across Europe in 3 months, interspersed with numerous TV, radio and promotional in-store appearances. The Whisky Priests was now rightly recognised as one of the hardest working bands anywhere.
1994 proved to be another productive year. They immediately followed the success of 'Bloody Well Live!' with a new studio album, 'The Power And The Glory', ("Masterly and memorable writing... an authority that sets them apart", Rock 'N' Reel, UK) and two EP's, 'When the Wind Blows, Billy Boy', and the German-only release, 'Dol-Li-A', in response to huge popular demand for this crowd favourite. In the same year, Whippet Records re-issued The Whisky Priests first three albums in repackaged formats, with bonus tracks and extensive liner notes.
In a bold and inspired move, The Whisky Priests broke further new ground in 1995 with 'Bleeding Sketches' ("An absolute must for anyone seeking a bit more than meaningless lyrics and musical nihilism", The Edge, UK). This time round Gary stepped down from lyric-writing duties for an album entirely featuring the lyrics of acclaimed contemporary Tyneside poet Keith Armstrong, set to music by Gary & Glenn. The album brought further acclaim, displaying the unique depth of the band's originality and demonstrating their eagerness to experiment and take risks along with their ability to explore and develop their creativity to its full. Around this time Nick Thompson was a member of The Whisky Priests touring band.
Meanwhile, Gary was now being hailed for his own songwriting talents : -
"Gary Miller is a great songsmith, with a remarkable sense for catchy tunes and sharp lyrics. As a song poet, there are few in the world today to match him" (Green Man Review, USA).
"Miller has the glorious knack for penning irresistible choruses & coupled with a lyrical depth beyond the norm & a strong commercial ear, his worth as a composer ought to be worth its weight in gold" (Geoff Wall, Folk on Tap, UK).
"Miller actually writes great songs with words that mean something and are usually substantially rooted. His ability as a songwriter who captures folk sentiment and communal memory must now be unquestioned" (Simon Jones, Folk Roots, UK).
1996 saw another major overhaul of the band's line-up with three new members joining Gary & Glenn to record ‘Life’s Tapestry’ ("their finest album to date... ranks alongside anything the whole folk-rock movement has ever produced”, Rock 'N' Reel, UK; "highly recommended", Dirty Linen, USA). Although the album was hailed by many critics as their most accomplished to date, many of the band's long-term fans felt alienated by the album's more ambitious musical direction. It also became painfully evident that all three new members were totally unsuitable; not only causing major problems behind-the-scenes but openly damaging the band's previously untarnished image and vision through deliberate public acts of sabotage. Furthermore, by this stage in their careers, fatigue and disillusionment had severely dampened Gary and Glenn's enthusiasm and motivation and their normally solid vision and direction had temporarily slipped. Both openly admit that this period was a low-point for them in terms of morale and commitment and the cracks were becoming increasingly evident at the band's live shows. As a direct result, many deserted the band's hard-won fanbase.
Gary and Glenn eventually came to their senses and dismantled this troublesome line-up in order to refocus, put this temporary blip behind them and start again. It is a testament to their determination and endurance that they were able to come through such a difficult period and yet still be driven to continue to push their vision forward, when many would have given up and walked away. In the meantime, after the stresses caused by the ill-fated 'Life's Tapestry' line-up, Gary and Glenn decided to rest the band for a while in order to lick their wounds, take stock, rethink and reorganise.
1997 therefore saw a self-imposed reduction in touring, which allowed for the development of long-planned additional projects, including an imaginative stage play/musical conceived by Gary, with a number of the project's songs later being recorded for the band's 1998 album, 'Think Positive!'. This period also saw the live debut of a stripped down offshoot of the band for more intimate venues, featuring Gary & Glenn as 'The Whisky Priests Acoustic Duo', touring to great success throughout Europe (although they were lucky to survive an unprovoked violent gang attack in Slovenia that left them both hospitalised with broken bones). The need to continue the band's forward momentum and to keep building on its accelerating success rate plus the ever-increasing demands on the brothers' punishing schedule at the time, however, prevented these projects progressing further...
In 1998, The Whisky Priests returned to its typical hard-touring schedule with yet another all-new line-up joining the Millers, reinvigorated and revatilised with a newfound passion and energy, together with the highly acclaimed 'Think Positive!', which eventually helped to win back a lot of old fans who had become disillusioned duing the ill-conceived 'Life's Tapestry' era, and drew in a host of new ones : -
"Their most assured and confident album to date" (Rock 'N' Reel, UK).
"The most considered Priests album to date" (Folk Roots, UK).
"The band's finest moment to date" (Taplas, UK).
"Heavy doses of wit and a spot of wisdom" (Time Out, UK).
"Powerfully energetic and totally committed - their masterwork" (J'OR, Eire).
In 1999 The Whisky Priests released its second live recording, again from the Markthalle in Hamburg (though the band had initially considered Amsterdam for the location), at a concert on 10th October 1998. This time '"Here Come The Ranting Lads" - Live!' was available on both video and CD in a bid to further promote and enhance the band’s incredible live reputation. Unfortunately, however, an equipment malfunction during the recording meant the latter part of the concert failed to record. As a result, not only did the planned double CD release fall through but also the more energetic second half of the performance, showing the band in a more relaxed and representative light as the live force they were rightly acclaimed as, never saw the light of day. Despite this setback, the CD and video were heavily and successfully promoted by two epic tours throughout both halves of 1999.
"If the acid test for a live album is whether or not it makes the listener feel they missed a real event, then this succeeds due to one track alone. 'Mother, Waiting' lasts more than 12 minutes, double the length it should be, with the audience singing the chorus way after the official end and forcing the band to reprise it not once but twice - one of those magic moments that actually does transcend the limits of audio. Well worth checking out." (The Big Issue In The North, UK).
"Close on 70 minutes of wonderfully sodden, ranting in-yer-face folk-punk-rock from arguably its finest practitioners. A glorious celebration of many of the Priests golden anthems... Essential." (David Kidman, Tykes News).
"16 tracks of total commitment... it's wild and great fun... however all this mayhem hides some serious talent. The playing is tight and precise. The whole performance has a refreshing sense of integrity about it. There are no space fillers and make weights here... it's music with guts and conviction." (Folktalk, UK).
"If only all live albums were like this." (Independent Catalogue, UK).
The Whisky Priests celebrated its 15th Anniversary in 2000 with a special expanded reissue of the band's landmark 1993 live album 'Bloody Well Live!'. The 'Bloody Well Live! Special Edition!’ double CD featured the concert in its entirety. Also in 2000, together with the acclaimed Joseph Porter of legendary band Blyth Power, Gary and Glenn Miller formed an acoustic trio Mad Dogs and Englishmen, releasing a critically acclaimed CD ‘Going Down With Alice’ and performing 33 live shows around Europe. It was the beginning of the end for The Whisky Priests, however, and the band’s final studio recording was the track ‘Full Circle’ written specially for a various artists compilation CD, 'A Full Head of Steam', in 2000. The eponymous 'Full Circle' EP was finally released on the band's own Whippet Records label as an official Whisky Priests single in December 2012, as an intended precursor to the band's mooted, yet ultimnately ill-fated, 2013 reunion and relaunch.
Regrettably, The Whisky Priests never performed a warranted ‘Farewell Tour’, as a burnt-out Gary and Glenn decided to take an unannounced and indefinite break in 2002. A handful of ‘reunion’ shows were performed for a couple of years afterwards, with the band performing its ultimate show in 2004. Also, despite its best efforts, the band had never quite managed to break out of Europe as a live act (for example, a planned tour of the Far East fell through at the 11th hour due to circumstances beyond the band's control, and a US tour ‘almost’ happened but not quite, after the American tour promoter got cold feet and decided the States wasn't quite ready for The Whisky Priests!).
Despite a loyal international cult following and high critical expectations, The Whisky Priests failed to achieve mainstream success, continually bedevilled by bad luck and setbacks galore, not least of which was the constant reshuffling of the band line-up, with more than 50 different members over the years. Constantly setting high goals with limited budgets and resources, their well eventually ran dry and a change in personal circumstances meant the band eventually, and inevitably, ran out of steam, quietly disappearing into long-term hibernation.
The Whisky Priests’ legacy remains through its substantial back catalogue and the extreme fondness by which The Whisky Priests' unique concert performances are remembered by those fortunate to have seen the band at its live peak.
"They deserve to be heard by millions" (B-Side, USA).
In 2017, following a number of previous false starts during 2013-2016, The Whisky Priests announced firm plans to reunite for a small number of Reunion Shows throughout Europe in 2018, together with further plans to reissue their entire back catalogue as a 12-disc box set, containing all studio albums, many with with bonus tracks (6 CDs), two live albums, including a double live album (3 CD's), an album of early Singles and EP's (1 CD), as well as an album of Demos coupled with an album of Radio Sessions (2 CD's).
For updates on upcoming reunion shows, keep checking the Gigs/Tours page.
Meanwhile, watch this space!...