Understated Classics #2: Sinking by The Aloof
I discovered The Aloof while listening to the Top 40
When I was younger, I used to listen to the Top 40 every Sunday. To begin with, this was partly an endurance thing and partly an obsession with one day seeing Roxette top the charts - alas, they never did, though for one thrilling spring “Joyride” did flirt with the upper reaches of the chart.
Listening to the charts is probably the best way to become a lover of music. Nearly all my musical loves stem from listening to the top 40 chart, either directly from crouching next to my static-y radio on Sunday evening, or as something that evolving beyond those initial tastes later on. I soon realised that listening to music at the lower end of the chart was more rewarding and not just because this was where all the later Roxette singles ended up. It was where all the oddities washed in, sometimes there one week and never to be heard again - sometimes growing up into something big. I remember first hearing “The Key The Secret” by the Urban Cookie Collective entering the chart at number 40, it eventually climbed to number 2. Also “Please Don’t Go” by KWS which crept all the way up to number 1 - these were great dance records that grew by word of mouth at a time when great dance records were weird and new and meant something.
Beyond that, I have a great story about listening to the nether regions of the top 40 on a Sunday evening. This is the hilarious tale of Bruno Brookes (or was it Mark Goodier?) playing the entirety of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails - complete with coda consisting of the mantra “I want to fuck you like an animal” repeated for at least a minute. If Brookes (Goodier) was listening, one presumes that he wanted to curl up into a ball. It was the first time anyone at Radio 1 had bothered to listen to the record. People often wonder about whether records like this influence young children: well it totally corrupted me and I have loved swearing ever since.
One Night Stand
Meanwhile, another track I found at the lower end of the charts (there must have been hundreds over the years) was “One Night Stand” by The Aloof. This is a magnificent record on which a swooping vocal describes the sordid fizzling out of an affair over glorious soundtrack strings and a crunching menacing bass loop. Like strawberries and black pepper, it never seems like it should all gel together and yet somehow it does. Enter The Aloof then, a band of big ideas, sweeping vistas and, legend has it, insatiable appetites. Magnificently, the whole of “Sinking” is a post-party record that a) actually sounds as though there was one hell of a party the night before, and b) makes the after-party torture of hangover and regret seem more palatable than the party itself.
“Sinking” starts with a rush of drums on “Bittersweet”, it’s either the sound of trains rushing past as you sit there in the bleached grey morning on the night before waiting for the train home, or the swirl of something in your stomach as you come down. Or both. The lyric tells tales of addiction and lust gone too far: “He stands rejected. He stands alone. She wants to break him: like he broke her happy home”. All the while those drums pound like nothing else and a piano line bleeds through, it’s a beautiful start to the album.
Next comes the nine-minute slow burner “Stuck on the Shelf” in which a finger wagging narrator teases the listener that “you’ve got a mortgage on your back”. It sinuously weaves around telling the tale of a clubbing legend who has been saddled with a kid and responsibilities. The vocal is relentless, settling into a circling and seductive repetition of “Come on over here and have some fun”. It’s a real heartbreaker, thoughtfully constructed and most importantly, there are some excellent beats.
Next up is “Abuse”, which uses “Bittersweet” as a template but this time revels in self-abuse and self-destruction: “I drink until I drop and take whatever and whoever comes my way”. Two of the band were members of the Sabres of Paradise and the Weatherall influence really comes through here, it has a very Two Lone Swordsmen vibe to it. The predominant beat sounds as though a helicopter’s thrum has been sped up, chopped up with rusty scissors and fed into a blender. It is the perfect counterpoint to a lyric obsessed with the “daily diet of abuse” and “not living for the future, just living for today”.
Following this are “Wish You Were Here” and the title track. “Wish You Were Here” has a magnificent dub sound that undermines the treacly glockenspiel figure that repeats as the tune starts before settling into a wonderful groove pinned down by Portishead-esque spy soundtrack guitar. Trip-hop has become a dirty word but this track is pretty much the ne plus ultra of how to combine the elements associated with this sound in a compelling un-clichéd way. “Sinking” is a kinetic soundtrack piece with dark sub-vocalised whispers of malcontent “I wanted you to leave… the attraction had gone cold”. I don’t think it’s damning it with faint praise to say that it could effortlessly soundtrack a trailer for a gritty crime drama.
After “One Night Stand” (which is a glorious 8:57 in album form) are a couple of instrumentals: “Space Dust”, an upbeat kraftwerk-esque beat-fest with a lively little bass line that keeps everything going, and “Hot Knives At Teatime”, which perhaps shows off the Sabres lineage of the band most effectively. It’s a wonderfully moody piece with wonderful mirages of spaghetti western sounds. It somehow manages to match its title well and there’s something there in the middle that definitely makes me think of knives.
The album rounds off with “Losing It”, essentially “Bittersweet” told from the other angle as the world melts within your speakers, along with an instrumental version of “Sinking” (“Sunk”) and a wonderful instrumental version of “One Night Stand” (retitled as “The Last Stand”). When Lady Diana died, “The Last Stand” was the sweeping instrumental music that Radio 1 played on repeat for the best part of a week. It made the band more money than they had ever made, or have since. Their response: “When the Queen Mother dies, we’ll release it as a single… an orange 12” with a scratch and sniff smell of piss”. This tells you everything you need to know about this rather brusque and brutal band who with “Sinking” probably made one of dance music’s most beautiful and cohesive albums.