October 27th, 1998, The Afghan Whigs released their sixth album, 1965, on Columbia Records. “New Orleans, the bars, the clubs just kind of have a way of drawing you in, but at the same time, there’s so much music going on everywhere, on every street,” Whigs guitars Rick McCollum said of recording 1965 in the Crescent City, he adds, “I think we put out our best album with 1965, it captured all the nuances that we’d learned writing songs together throughout our life as a band. It wasn’t a shift in any direction; it was a logical step. We meant to make an album that was timeless and had quality throughout, and we accomplished that, which I’m proud of. Every album before 1965, you could’ve written off a couple of songs from each of them; this one, you couldn’t.”
Formed in Cincinnati in 1986 by the core trio of bassist John Curley, frontman Greg Dulli, and guitarist Rick McCollum, The Afghan Whigs combined edgy rock realism, audacious personality, gritty soul immediacy, and swinging musical chops. Their rock and R&B soup propelled them to the top tier of Cincinnati’s music scene, later capturing the attention of a small, fledgling label out of Seattle called Sub Pop, who signed the Whigs in 1989.
A flurry of stellar albums followed: 1990’s Up In It, 1992’s Congregation, 1993’s Gentlemen and 1996’s Black Love. During this run, the Afghan Whigs’ output was an impeccable streak of powerful tales from the darker side of the human psyche set to a highly expressive musical backdrop. They stood out in a sea of nihilistic, down-tuned alternative rock. Their musical promiscuity served them well.
They started in clubs playing Motown covers; their style had more in common with The Temptations – all sharp suits, tight riffs, and expertly controlled rhythms. But, by Dulli’s admission, his personal life was a mess for much of that period, and his early lyrics read like dispatches from the frontline of his private hell – funny, vicious, self-lacerating.
“I’ve got a dick for a brain, and my brain is going to sell my ass to you,” he notoriously sang on Be Sweet from their defining 1993 album Gentlemen. One imagines Dulli writing those words in blood and other fluids on dirty cocktail napkins in horrible dive bars at four in the morning.
After completing the tour for the band’s 1996 masterwork Black Love, Dulli spiralled. A deadly battle with hereditary depression ensued, which triggered nerve damage and desolation so deep he checked into a Seattle hospital for treatment. “I had shock therapy,” Dulli admits. “I had no choice. The pain was intolerable. I couldn’t stand up straight. I had trouble walking on my own. You’re not supposed to be that debilitated at 32.”
“I’m still a little nervous talking about it,” he continues, “But the therapy helped considerably. “I had some memory loss, but surprisingly, I forgot only the unpleasant things. And then I hooked up with a great psychiatrist. Now I’m Happy Gilmore.” With his symbolic rebirth, Dulli edged the Whigs even further toward pure soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues as he and the band relocated to New Orleans to begin work on 1965.
“I’ve written, maybe one album when I was happy, and that was the Whigs record 1965. That album has the happiest songs I’ll ever write. R&B is all about remembering how to feel joy again, to celebrate.”
1965 is an album of edgy rock songs that feeds off the spirit of New Orleans’ unpredictable character while pushing the limits of the band’s soul influences. “We were going to call it Stand Up To Get Down,” John Curley said. “But it took on a life of its own, and the more classic Whigs themes began to creep in a little bit. It’s definitely a lighter, happier record than the last few.”
Lighter and happier in the world of The Afghan Whigs is, for most bands, their darkest work. There is a palpable joy at play on 1965, but it’s always tempered with the threat of exposing a darker underbelly. While Dulli and the band throw a hell of a party, it’s always one wrong turn from a dark alley. This dichotomy makes for an exhilarating ride.
New Orleans’ rich musical heritage added new dimensions to the Whigs’ sound. Recording took place in an old mansion converted into a studio by Daniel Lanois. King’s Way Studios, located in the city’s exotic French Quarter, sits at the precipice of New Orleans’ cultural cauldron. The band invited local luminaries such as horn player Roderick Paulin of the Re-Birth Brass Band to contribute their talents.
To help inject a new pop edge, the band brought in Alex Chilton, cult hero and the former leader of the seminal power-pop ensemble Big Star to sing backing vocals. “I just called him and said, ‘Can I send you this song, and would you think about singing backups on it?'” Dulli recalled. “And he’s like, ‘Yeah, send it over.’ And then, he didn’t call for a couple of weeks. And I was like, ‘Oh fuck!’ And then, he called up and said, ‘When do you want me to come over and do it?’ So he rode over on his bike to the studio; it was a good day.”
Dulli produced (and financed) the album while the quartet was without a record contract, eventually signing to Columbia Records. Writing on drums, bass, and piano, he declared “anything but guitar.” While the album’s instrumentation isn’t as reliant on guitars as the band’s previous efforts, they still form the bedrock of 1965’s sound. What is remarkable about the album is how the introduction of strings, brass sections, piano, and keys enhance rather than distract from the core rock sound. Many ’90s rock bands dabbled in adding these elements in a vain attempt to shoehorn some spice into their sound but ultimately achieved the musical equivalent of oil and water. The Whigs’ DNA was so rooted in soul and R&B that the blend sounded natural and vital.
The album opens with the sound of a match being struck, “I want to feel everything about cha baby,” announces Dulli on “Somethin’ Hot.” Susan Marshall’s euphoric gospel backing vocals lift the song to a fever pitch. A rolling barrelhouse piano augments the band’s tight syncopated riffing. The groove is as slippery and hot as a New Orleans heatwave. As openers go, “Somethin’ Hot” is a perfect prologue.
“Crazy” opens with the sound of a party going off just below the mix; the song’s slow, sensual crawl glides laconically through a haze of smokey percussion, stabbed and arpeggiated guitars and a serene, engaging vocal from Dulli. Rick McCollum’s slide guitar is of particular note, creating an essential hook that stays in the memory long after the final note has rung out.
“Uptown Again” opens with a flurry of strings before igniting into a blazing rocker. Its riff accentuates the second beat of the bar with stabbing chords, leading to an unusually infectious drive. Dulli sounds resigned, imploring that the song’s protagonist “Should never left me on my own.” before urgently delivering the chorus of, “Baby, untie me now, I’m ready to get down, Get down and move around.”
After the twenty-three-second interlude entitled “Sweet Son Of A Bitch,” we get the beautifully realised “66.” A cutting acoustic guitar spikily punctuates the rhythm as Dulli sings, “You walked in, Just like smoke, with a little come on, come on, come on, In your walk, come on.” The mood created is carnal and hedonistic as Dulli continues, “‘I’ve been waitin’, Are you waitin’ for my move? Well, I’m makin’ it.” Electric guitars swell from below with an ominous drone as Dulli infers, “Come on, come on, show me little rabbit, Show me where you got it, ‘Cause I know you got a habit.”
“Citi Soleil” is named after a highly impoverished and densely populated commune in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. The song is cinematic in scope, from its soundtrack to its story—unidentified voices speaking Haitian Creole drift in and out as the band floats through a decidedly Latin-feeling backdrop. “Jean Content, he wakes up every day, In a government yard deep down inside Citi Soleil,” sings Dulli, later introducing, “Across the town, a young girl plays guitar. Do you remember me? She sings to a lover she worships from afar.”
“John The Baptist” builds with a savagely ominous feel, “Hey, Welcome home, I got a little wine, some Marvin Gaye,” a perfectly scored brass section weaves between insistent percussion and massive open guitar chords before exploding into a blaze of life-affirming release, Dulli’s words spit like sparks from a firework, “Let’s get it on, Anything for a lover, Anything for a friend, I only wanna see you happy, Baby can we pretend.”
The aptly titled “Slide Song” is a sultry masterclass in musical seduction. Rick McCollum’s use of slide guitar throughout the ’90s largely went unheralded but deserved to be noted. Maybe it was his approach of serving the song rather than partaking in the histrionics most guitar players devolve into when a slide is placed on their finger that cloaked his abilities to the casual listener. Either way, his glistening, vocal and intoxicating slide work elevated so many songs in the Whigs back-catalogue, including this one.
“Neglekted’s” deep groove swings with a bluesy grit. Susan Marshall’s incredible wordless, gospel-tinged vocal refrains drift in and out of the mix. Dulli’s opening lines of “I knew a girl extraordinary, Suggested something unsanitary, As I asked her for a moment to consider her kind offer, She blew a kiss and said to me…” are as guttural, memorable and enticing as any he previously laid to tape, only to top it in the next verse with, “Intoxicated by your aggression, I offer you my one possession, You can fuck my body, baby, But please don’t fuck my mind.”
After a sultry, tense build, the song transitions in mood to a far more open, positive, uplifting outro, “I feel you now, I never knew you were so sad, I’ll make it up to you, ‘Cause I feel you now. “Neglekted” is prime Afghan Whigs.
“Omerta” is a code of silence practised by the Mafia. Like the majority of this album, the song is gloriously cinematic. Oozing from the speakers like a foreboding film noir, the song’s sweltering heat is laced with a detached apprehension as the protagonist laments his incessant insomnia: “Up all night, again, As for sleep, no comprende, I don’t sleep ’cause sleep is the cousin of death, Least that’s what Nas said.” with Dulli referencing Hip Hop legend Nas’ NY State Of Mind.
The song builds toward a cathartic outro of glissando strings, jazz horns, widescreen guitars and pummelling percussion before gliding seamlessly into the closing track, instrumental, “The Vampire Lanois.” Named after legendary producer and musician Daniel Lanois, whose studio the album was recorded. Dulli explained, “We saw him around now and then but didn’t work with him, and as John Curley would say, he appeared to be floating. That’s where the song “The Vampire Lanois” came from. The people who worked at the studio had this kind of cultish, slavish devotion to him. When they saw the song title, they were like, “You can’t call it that.” And I said, “The fuck we can’t!” And then it just became funny.”
Dulli continues, “I actually want to clear this up right now: I don’t know Daniel Lanois. And “The Vampire Lanois” is an instrumental, and you can’t really diss somebody in an instrumental. Plus, it’s a fucking jam! He apparently came to a show of ours in Toronto to confront us about it, and I was like, “Dude, confront away!”
1965 is a triumph. The Afghan Whigs’ ’90s output is a sustained strive for perfection—particularly the trio of Gentlemen, Black Love and 1965. After the subsequent tour for the album, the band called it quits, ending on a stunningly high note.
John Curley noted, “Geography was one of the main reasons we called it quits. Looking back, we were also running out of gas as a creative unit. People were ready to move on. It’s funny because we had “broken up a dozen times. Everyone had been fired. Everyone had quit at some point or another. When we broke up for real, it was friendly and respectful. And sad, of course.”
Greg Dulli says, “I used to always say this was my favourite record. It was the last one we had done with the group’s first run. It was the first record we did in New Orleans. I love it. It was the only record we made for Columbia. It was the only time in my life that I tried to write radio songs. I won’t say I tried to write a hit, but I tried to write something concise with choruses. Side one is all of my attempts to write radio songs. Side two is the weird side, which includes “Omertà,” one of my favourite songs we’ve ever done. It’s a spooky travelogue through the New Orleans underworld. It was the first time we used a horn section. It’s the least uptight Whigs record. It’s the party record.”