THE STRANGEST thing about Uncarved Block is just how much everyone seems to hate it.
Flux of Pink Indians’ first album – the snappily-named Strive to Survive Causing the Least Suffering Possible – was a very likeable kind of angry, knockabout Crass punk with tunes and feedback.
By contrast, their second, The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks, was a very unlikeable maelstrom of feedback, shouting and no tunes whatsoever. And that was kind of the whole point.
Even so, the greying, befuddled online remnants of the anarcho-punk community seem to prefer The Fucking Cunts to Uncarved Block, the band’s third album, an ultra-accessible collection of loose-limbed dub funk with lyrics inspired by Taoism.
“Uncarved Block was the most unexpected of the band’s three studio albums, delivering more polemic allied to dance and funk rhythms that left their previous audience totally nonplussed,” says some guy off the internet. “It was a dreadful effort.”
Uncarved Block is, it seems, “largely uninteresting”, “self-indulgent rubbish” and, according to Flux guitarist Kev Hunter in The Day the Country Died, “nothing to do with punk in the slightest, a completely neutered record with no balls at all. Trumpets and bongos on a punk album? Arty-farty shite, I’m afraid.”
You have to peer into some very dark and dusty corners of the internet to find another view.
“It’s of its time, but it’s the best of its time,” says one online commentalist. “Fantastic tribal percussion. Excellently out-of-place faux Miles Davis horns. In the context of today, it seems far more funky and less industrial than it did in its day. I guess that’s cause industrial got really stupid, and this is sharp stuff.”
As another puts it: “Punk + industrial + tribal bongos & shit = unique”.
Given our experiences precisely 30 years later, 1986 seems pretty uneventful. I mean, compared to 2016, fuck all happened really. Think Challenger, Chernobyl, the Big Bang in the City of London, the Hand of God, Iran-Contra, Oprah, Gorbachev, Reagan, Thatcher, bus deregulation, Wapping, Militant, Neighbours, Westland, Catchphrase – and, lest we forget, Freddie Starr ate my hamster.
Madonna had started her inexorable slide to the bottom with True Blue, Wham split up and Paul Simon released Graceland. We endured The Final Countdown, Take My Breath Away, Lady in Red and A Kind of Magic – it was a simply dreadful year for pop music, enlivened only by stuff like Word Up, Sledgehammer and Don’t Leave Me This Way. I wasn’t listening anyway.
My musical tastes had expanded. The anarcho scene had lost a bit of focus since Crass had committed musical seppuku a couple of years earlier. The Mob had split up, Antisect, Amebix and Discharge had gone metal, Peni and Flux hadn’t released anything for years, the Poison Girls had completely dropped off my radar – and Conflict were still shite.
The Chumbas, the Ex, Blyth Power, Thatcher on Acid and Crow People were still flying the red and black flag with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but the flame on my molotov cocktail was beginning to sputter.
While I was still hugely influenced by the ideas the likes of Crass, Flux and the Chumbas had introduced me to, half of the scene seemed a bit puritan and joyless, and the other drearily and nihilistically excessive. And there was too much bad heavy metal going on for my liking.
Meanwhile, the Fall were releasing some of their best work, and US acts like Sonic Youth, the Buttholes, Big Black, Flipper, Black Flag, Jodie Foster’s Army, Meat Puppets and the Crucifucks were just killing it.
The domestic indie scene, as epitomised by the NME’s epochal C86 cassette, was coalescing and beginning to shift units in a way that the major labels could not ignore, and which would later produce the epic shithousery of Brit-pop.
There was a thriving live circuit, all over the country. I even managed to put on bands like the Membranes, Bog Shed, the Newtown Neurotics and AC Temple in a pub function room in Scunthorpe.
You know the Molotov thing was just a metaphor, right? Even at the height of anarcho-punk, I was never the most active, politically. I went on a few marches and picket lines, smashed a few windows, organised a few benefits.
You could stretch the definition of ‘politically active’ to include doing a fanzine, being a vegetarian and joining CND but you’d be stepping out on a pretty thin wire there, Ringo. The personal might be political but it’s not that political.
The main things I took from anarcho-punk – apart from the vegetarianism and the daft haircuts – was a steadfast refusal to partake in the ludicrous and patronising pantomimes of parliamentary democracy and working for the Man. And trying to avoid being too much of an arsehole (and very often failing).
I don’t think I was particularly unique in all this. By 1986, people seemed to be getting a bit tired of the scene, if not the ideas behind it.
The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks was hardcore/anarcho’s last hurrah. Flux decided their audience weren’t really listening to the words – or they were listening but not really hearing them – so they would force them to focus on the lyrics by making the music unlistenable.
Thirty years later, this seems even dafter than it did at the time. People just didn’t listen to the album at all. Nobody did. It was unlistenable. Great job, well done, but what the fuck?
A couple of years after that, Flux changed their approach once again, shortened their name and went off the deep end.
According to Derek Birkett, interviewed in the excellently-named Spinal Jaundice fanzine in 1987:
“We had stopped for a couple of years to assess where we were at, and we decided that there was no need to stop … and the result was Uncarved Block. We never really considered ourselves a hardcore band. The Strive to Survive album somewhat fell into that category, but the new one’s not at all.”
I was definitely onboard with this. I’d spent much of the early 80s interviewing bands and telling them that, if they were really sincere about changing the world, they probably shouldn’t be playing punk rock.
I was so moved by the album that I actually wrote about it, excrutiatingly, in Airstrip*5, which also featured interviews with We’ve Got a Fuzz Box and We’re Gonna Use it, Chumbawamba, Ted Chippington, the Go Betweens, the Shop Assistants and Aki. Rather than lumping the album in with everything else in the review pages, I actually included it in what passed for an editorial (entitled ‘You’re full of SHIT’).
“I got the new Flux album the other day, and it’s quite, quite marvellous,” I gushed, earnestly. “Flux are one of the few ‘anarchy, peace and freedom’ bands who have realised the contradictions of their position and done something about it. They realise that the things they’re singing about need to be put over to a much larger group of people than they are now.”
“The APF ‘scene’ has arrived at the point where all the people who are going to be reached have been. I’m not talking about the people who wear black and leave it at that. I’m talking about the people who are really sussed. Flux aren’t doing any good talking to their usual audience anymore, the most they can do is congratulate them (although the scene is by no means perfect).
“They have to break new ground and bring issues like the eradication of personal freedom in this country to the attention of the masses. Or at least the part of the masses that buy records.
“Simply put, Uncarved Block is a near masterpiece. Flux have got everything right, from the Peter Savillesque sleeve to the Shriekback / A Certain Ratio-type brand of ‘dance-til-your-arse-catches-fire’ sophisticated dance music. I can see this album going down a storm at the Hacienda. For a start, it sounds like it’s produced by Arthur Baker, and the playing is precise and confident and relaxed.
“Can you remember when people like the Clash and the Ruts tried to play reggae and fucked it up but it still sounded good? Well, this is hard-ass, state-of-the-art power funk.
“Whichever way you look at this album, from the music, the musicianship, the lyrics or even the actual ideas behind them, it’s streets ahead of anything I’ve heard from anarcho punk recently. That doesn’t mean much in itself, but they’ve also produced an album which is much better than anything produced by any band around at the moment, punk, indie or otherwise. Now, buy it so they can pay Saville off.”
Dave Haslam assures me Uncarved Block was not played at the Hacienda. And I have no idea where the reference to Arthur Baker came from.
In fact, noted UK dub maestro and On-U Sound label boss Adrian Sherwood was on production duties for Uncarved Block.
While he made his name producing heavyweight dub psychedelia for the likes of Prince Far I at Denis Bovell’s Berry Street Studios in Clerkenwell, Sherwood had also worked with the Fall, the Slits and the Pop Group. He came into contact with Flux at Southern Studios, John Loder’s garage studio in Wood Green, which housed some very new and exciting digital technology.
“I ended up going to check his studio out and loving it,” Sherwood told Dangerous Minds. “He engineered all the early Crass stuff, and he did loads of amazing American and English punk, new wave guitar bands, whatever you want to call them.
“But John also was the first person to invest massive amounts of money in a computer that I ever met, and he was completely into that .. I did like John a lot, and he held together a most unusual place, because he had his two buildings next to each other, two three-storey houses.
“He lived in one, and on the top floor he could walk from his office into his own house where he’d knocked the wall down from one building to another.
“Underneath that was the whole Southern organisation, and on the ground floor was the live area and the kitchen where all the musicians, we’d hang out there, with KUKL, who became the Sugarcubes, Lee Perry, Bim Sherman, African Headcharge, with Crass, with the Exploited, with the Subhumans, with Big Black, Minor Threat – it was a mad place, and you’d queue up to get in the studio. I usually did midnight til nine in the morning, that was my stint.”
I got the album for just eight English pounds from King Bee. Paul White’s stylish and intricate sleeve still looks fantastic, its subversion of corporate marques predating Naomi Klein’s No Logo by a good decade. Sharing lead vocals with Col Latter this time around, Lu’s voice brings to mind the sing-song folk stylings of Chumbawamba, who Flux had toured the UK with (alongside D&V and the proto-Sugarcubes KUKL) on the miners’ strike benefit tour a couple of years earlier.
There was a fair amount of interaction between the big, shared houses the two bands inhabited in west Leeds and South London. Certainly, Flux and the Chumbas knew each other well enough for Southview House’s very individual resident dog to be named after Derek Birkett.
Either way, the two bands’ shared approach did not extend into their music.
The feedback which characterised Flux’s first couple of albums is still there, but pushed back further into the mix than previously. A louche jazzy trumpet motif links some tracks – extended percussive jams and even some actual verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs – but it’s the shimmering, insistent multi-layered percussive snap, crackle and pop that dominates this album. It’s all about the rhythms.
This is perhaps not so surprising given the fact that Sherwood brought a couple of key On-U Sound talents to the party in the shape of Dub Syndicate drummer Style Scott and Bonjo Iyabhinghi Noah, master percussionist, veteran of Count Ossie’s nyabinghi rasta colony and African Headcharge lynchpin.
The thudding four-four beat of the album’s opening overture The Value of Nothing, accompanied by big dirty guitars and Bonjo I’s mesmerising percussion, gives a foretaste of things to come. Drawing on dub’s innate propensity for ordered chaos, while everything is smothered in a shitload of echo, delay and reverb, the sound remains bright and crystal clear. Snatches of vocal loop in and out but the words, it seems, are no longer the main draw and now merely one element of a larger whole.
Flux drummer Martin Wilson told Kill Your Pet Puppy: “Colin, Derek, Tim, Lu and myself struggled with different sounds, and while the ideas were formed we had some input from Ray Shulman of the progressive band Gentle Giant. His effect on the band should not be underestimated. He bought a mad violin sound to the table and the trumpet.
“We started recording Uncarved Block with Adrian Sherwood at Berry Street studios. The recording sessions as far as I remember was turning out well. There was one time when Adrian had an important meeting to collect ‘something for the weekend’ and left Derek in the engineer’s chair for some of Bonjo I’s percussion recording.
“Adrian had made a career in dealing with Rastafarian musicians. Derek however had not.”
Birkett “recorded the material that Bonjo I was only practicing,” but didn’t, “record the material that Bonjo I thought was to be recorded.”
“Bonjo I was speaking in very thick Jamaican patois and Derek struggled to understand a lot of it. I was in the control room and Derek was asking me what was said, generally to a shoulder shrug.
“This whole episode was frustrating to Bonjo I and he was getting quite angry. He stood up and took out a large knife entering the control room with, we both thought at the time, some menace. He got a mango out of a ruck sack and started to cut it up. Worry over.
“Adrian came back eventually, wide eyed, and sorted out any unusable material we had created with Bonjo I.”
Youthful Immortal begins with chiming guitars of a distinctly Tangerine Dream-coloured hue before some high-pitched free-jazz violin begins squealing away and a big predatory bassline muscles in. Toms are thumped. Guitars continue to chime to a very accessible manner. Vocals harmonise. There’s an actual key change as they shift into an actual chorus.
Colin sings – he doesn’t shout – albeit way lower than his register could comfortably cope with, about not being able to breathe, walking out into the sunlight, and about no longer thinking that you have to be alone to be lonely, bringing to mind his comments on leaving the Flux house in south London and feeling a sudden and enormous absence of pressure by, I guess, walking away from Flux and all that entailed.
I don’t get the industrial thing. I don’t hear it. Big slabs of Sherwood’s trademark noise appear occasionally but everything else seems pretty warm and organic to these ears. If you think banging a few bits of metal together makes for industrial, you’ve clearly never experienced actual heavy industry.
Go and stand outside a working blast furnace or a steel mill immediately. And good luck finding either in the north of England.
No, there is nothing abrasive, gothic doom-laden or self-consciously intense here, Flux’ve been there, done that and made the T-shirt. This is another thing entirely.
Just Is is a very On-U Sound-sounding instrumental interlude, with layers and layers of rhythm obliterated by big blasts of noise before melting into the opening feedback and Pino Paladino-esque bass noodling of Children Who Know.
Chugging guitars, that still to this day sound very Eye of the Tiger and very trad rock, belie a pretty bleak scene. No matter what intentions musicians may or may not have, it seems, no matter how sincere they are – or not – nothing ever fucking changes.
“Thinkers and performers can never stop war or start peace, although they’d like to. Care for the wounded never halted any battle, and artistry just collects the fragments into manageable chaos…”
A big, soaring singalong chorus stands in stark contrast with a rather downbeat lyrical viewpoint:
“Same workers sweating down the pit, same exploiters reaping in the profit, same laws defining the crimes we commit, same people fighting, refusing to submit.”
Backwords is another rhythm-led instrumental, where it’s all about noise, space, time, trumpets and drums, drums, DRUMS. But according to Martin Wilson, even the people playing the sessions for the album had very little idea what it would end up sounding like.
“A few days after I had completed my drum parts, Derek played me the tape and there seemed to be another drum going throughout the tracks. This sounded unusual. I asked what that was, Derek replied Style Scott came in and did a few sessions with Adrian.
“I knew nothing at the time and remember feeling a little let down as I could have completed a separate drum track easily enough. However, with hindsight shortly afterwards I realised having someone like Style Scott on a Flux record engineered by Adrian Sherwood at Berry Street is not a bad look at all.”
Footprints in the Snow begins with Lu singing: “Clawing desperately for something, thoughts, like animals trapped in a zoo, acknowledge that no amount of rage will ever remove the bars from the cage” before Colin sings “I don’t feel angry anymore” over and over, and sounds increasingly angry while he’s doing it, and not remotely zen.
Once again, there is a distinct contrast between the disenchantment and even cynicism of the lyrics with the big splashes of sparkly and accessible guitar that would later propel the Sugarcubes into the mainstream.
Nothing is Not Done is basically an expansive, widescreen dub of Children Who Know that, gloriously, rumbles on and on and on. Colin’s vocals move from reflective spoken word sections to just-like-the-old-days shouting, and then, every time you think it’s over, this throbbing, polyrhythmic, last train to trance central rolls out once again.
The album ends with The Stonecutter, an atmospheric ambient piece with a monotone Lu, accompanied by the bare bones of a tune, offering a similar kind of icy comfort as Ghosts by Japan.
“After we just became Flux, we got involved with Adrian Sherwood and the Tackhead stuff, and we reinvented ourselves a bit, totally removed from the Crass thing,” says Colin Latter in The Day the Country Died. “But people didn’t seem to care by then anyway. They just wanted to hear the Jesus and Mary Chain.”
Nobody, it seemed, liked Uncarved Block, not even the band.
Perhaps this comes from the apparent contradiction at the very heart of the album – the disjoint between Taoist ideas of mindfulness, existing in the moment and being rather than doing and what seems like the weary disillusionment of people whose passion has been blunted by the realities of liberal democracy.
Jonathan Herman’s Taoism for Dummies has a section entitled An uncarved Flux of Pink anarchy:
“The image of the uncarved block may never have gotten much attention in later Taoist circles – the 1,600-plus-page Encyclopedia of Taoism doesn’t have even a brief entry on in – but that hasn’t stopped it from piquing the Western imagination. Whether you read the most sterile scholarship or flights of fancy like The Tao of Pooh, you’re bound to find some analysis or clever repartee devoted to this single metaphor from the Tao Te Ching.
“So, what’s the strangest place you can find reference to the uncarved block? Well, there’s plenty of competition, but I’d have to give the prize to the third album by Flux of Pink Indians titled, simply enough, Uncarved Block.
“So, who were Flux of Pink Indians, and what’s their connection to Taoism? Well, if you have to ask, you must not be up on your 1980s “anarcho-punk” music, the name given to a short-lived British musical genre, (using the term music loosely) that espoused a crude amalgam of anarchist or quasi-anarchist ideologies, embracing a range of activities from civil disobedience to dumpster diving.
“Obviously struck by classical Taoism’s apparent rejection of intrusive government, restrictive laws and artificial structures, Flux of Pink Indians lighted on the uncarved block as the perfect symbol of the anarcho-punk ethos.
“More than half the album’s sing titles echo Taoist language, and, surprisingly, some of it is Taoist language from sources other than the classical texts: Nothing is Not Done, Value of Nothing, Backward, Just is, and Youthful Immortal. If you’re used to the Tao Te Ching presented with sublime calligraphy, pastoral landscapes, and earthy musical tableaux, the Flux’s discordant synthesizers and bizarre sound effects are sure to jolt your picture of Taoism.”
The album proved to be problematic for Flux’s anarcho compatriots too. The Blessed Andy Martin of the Apostles defined the era thus:
“Crass ceased anarchist activity, the Mob resigned with dignity and Flux of Pink Indians turned into a pop group.”
Boffo from Chumbawamba recently mentioned the album on his blog:
“In the mid-1980s we spent a fair amount of time with a band we knew well and loved, toured with, stayed at their house – Flux of Pink Indians – they developed quickly, moved away from their punky noisy roots, looked for other ways to be heard. I loved them for it, loved their decision to give up on three-chord guitar rock, it was brave and fascinating.
“But the result of this development was an album that, lyrically, hinged on the phrase ‘I’m not angry anymore’.
“I didn’t understand that. To this day I don’t understand that. The idea of seeing what’s happening in the world and not being angry? Regardless of my life as a singer or a writer or whatever, I don’t see how anyone can lose their anger at the basic everyday suffering of people.”
I can see where Boffo’s coming from, although I’m not sure that his portrayal of Flux’s mindset is 100% accurate. And you could equally decide that the album hinged on the phrase ‘refusing to submit’. Colin still sounds pretty angry to me, either way.
I doubt Derek Birkett loses any sleep because Boffo out of Chumbawamba thinks he wasn’t angry enough 30 years ago. And let’s not forget Boffo’s lack of understanding as to the motivation behind Uncarved Block didn’t prevent him and Chumbawamba, a few years later, signing up to the label it kickstarted, run by the same guy who made many of the decisions about the album’s direction.
Flux’s profound disillusionment with the anarcho scene, once the ‘leadership’ that Crass had provided disappeared when they stopped playing gigs, was shared by many – including the Chumbas.
There was a general feeling that the scene was all about the same people saying the same things, with everyone agreeing with each other but very little changing in the real world.
The Falklands had still happened a few years before, for example, no matter how many flexi discs Crass released and how many Thatcher/Reagan phone conversations they faked. The same goes for the miners’ strike. The slaughter of animals, in abattoirs, in laboratories, in sport, continued unabated. Flux’s disillusionment is perhaps not so very hard to understand.
But while the miners ‘lost’ the strike, the pits closed and some communities, to a certain extent, had the hearts ripped out of them, incredible though it may seem, it wasn’t an entirely negative picture.
The strike forced the wives, daughters and sisters of the striking miners to take a more active role in controlling their own destinies than they had previously, when it was all about having their man’s tea on the table when they got home.
Getting involved in the strike and the Women Against Pit Closures movement brought thousands of ordinary working class women into contact with ideas which challenged the not-particularly-enlightened attitudes towards gender they’d grown up with. It changed lives.
Having made connections with the pit communities around them in Yorkshire during the strike, Chumbawamba could see this process actually happening in a way that Flux, based in the middle of London, didn’t.
I’m struggling to find any benefit from the Falklands war.
Uncarved Block is definitely my favourite Flux album and probably one of my favourite Sherwood productions too.
The thing is, it’s not actually an Adrian Sherwood production, as such. I don’t want to piss on anyone’s chips, God forbid. There are few enough of us who still have any time for this shit as it is. But, according to what appears to be a reasonably well-informed online discography, Sherwood (with Bonjo I and Style Scott) only contributed to three tracks – The Value of Nothing, Backword and Nothing is Not Done – although someone did a very good job of impersonating his style elsewhere on the album.
Once your ears hear the album from this perspective, there is no going back. You simply cannot unhear it.
I know. I feel like a proper shithouse. Luckily, we‘re probably only talking about a couple of dozen people around the world who could care less one way or the other. And, ultimately, does it really matter? Isn’t it a great record, no matter who produced it?
Either way, Uncarved Block is indirectly responsible for the gestation of one of the very earliest examples of British house music, and for that, if nothing else, we should be profoundly grateful.
Shortly after all this, East London shoegazing shitehawks AR Kane released one record on One Little Indian and then jumped ship to 4AD, apparently vexed that they wouldn’t be able to work with Adrian Sherwood, as Birkett had promised (prompting Birkett to turn up at 4AD, improbably and hilariously, alongside Paul White and the Sugarcubes’ Einar Orn, to give Ivo Watts-Russell a ‘telling’). Watts-Russell suggested to AR Kane that they should work with Martin and Steven Young from Colourbox instead.
The two groups hated each other, but the result of their collaboration was Pump Up The Volume.
Maybe Uncarved Block was just a little bit too much ahead of its time. Barely a year later, the Happy Mondays would release 24 Hour Party People and this kind of ramshackle punk funk, complete with ‘unconventional’ singing and leftfield lyrical concerns, would begin its meandering but inevitable path towards Top of the Pops and mainstream acceptance. You have to wonder what might have happened had Flux continued in this direction.
Derek Birkett has an idea:
“History has illustrated that the musical innovators push the boundaries of what’s acceptable and that they shape the future. At some point, something clicks in the mainstream consciousness, and all of a sudden what was underground and leftfield becomes pop and mainstream.”