Rip up the sound system: Trailblazing with the Prodigy

❉ Talking ‘bout my jilted generation: We celebrate The Prodigy.

Coveted by David Bowie and Madonna, despised by the Daily Mail and turning from rave chancers into a festival powerhouse, the Prodigy have spent nearly three decades spewing out big beats and lyrical venom. The tragic death of singer/dancer Keith Flint last month places a question mark over the band’s future, but here we celebrate their past.

“Nah, the Prodigy are crap anyway” is one hell of a self-deprecating statement to come from Liam Howlett.

The Essex band had emerged from a van to play one of many sold-out shows in the USA during 1997. An over-eager ticket tout, with rather inadequate knowledge, had failed to recognise the four members, who had scored acclaim around the world with their third album The Fat Of The Land.

It hadn’t always been like this. At the start of the Nineties, the group was almost an exclusively British taste, pumping out high-tempo breakbeat hits at raves. Their first release – the What Evil Lurks EP – issued modestly in just 7,000 pressings, was a fraction of the chart success they’d have with Charly later in 1991.

Charly, sampling a 1970s Public Information Film that featured an overly zealous cat (reportedly voiced by Kenny Everett), became a surprising chart hit. The combination of head-drilling synths and Student-Union-friendly nostalgia firmly cemented the band in the national consciousness. It would also be something of a millstone around their neck for quite a few years to come, with cash-in also-rans such as Shaft’s Roobarb & Custard and Urban Hype’s Trip To Trumpton trying the same trick.

The Prodigy had a love-hate attitude with the charts, trying to keep a ‘too cool for school’ stance when it came to their new-found fame. Liam Howlett told the NME that he didn’t want the band to start with lots of chart hits and then suddenly become nothing. In what could be a nod to his wishes, the re-release of Bohemian Rhapsody (in the wake of Freddie Mercury’s death) kept the Prodigy from scoring an early number one hit with their third single Everybody In The Place.

This really was a rock-and-hard-place territory. The Prodigy were derided by rave purists for being far too popular and yet their constant presence in the top ten didn’t come with the radio airplay usually granted to high-selling acts.

A push by their record label to get the band on Top Of The Pops was met with an outright refusal, quite possibly echoing the Clash’s famous stance or maybe they’d envisioned just how ridiculous it would be to have the chino-clad audience clapping along to their beats.

It’s important to remember how despised rave music was at the time, not just by the authorities, but also by ingrained attitudes that pushed the ‘real music is played with guitars’ belief. Rave, with its image of wide-eyed dungaree-clad pill poppers, was seen as something as a joke. The weekly indie inkies would deliberately keep coverage of electronic dance music to their own sections, so as not to pollute the ‘serious’ music.

Born in a Barn

The Prodigy can be summed up as a battle of contradictions. They frequently cite their underground credentials yet have a chart history that eclipses most boy bands.

Not many rave acts ever went to the extent of producing a full album, but the Prodigy did, widening their accessibility even further. The Prodigy Experience consisted of singles and B-sides. Remixes made up half the album. Video game composer Yuzo Koshiro used the album as an influence for the soundtracks of Sega MegaDrive beat-em-ups Streets Of Rage 2 and 3.

Around this time, the band was sent to the USA on a tour in a bid to spearhead the rave revolution stateside. While they got a record contract with Elektra, the tour itself was far from the sell-out success they’d be enjoying five years later. Many of the dates were run by gangster-like promoters, with the band having trouble getting paid. One venue had the stage made up from dining tables. There was enough time to shoot a promo for post-album single Wind It Up, during which Keith Flint almost drowned while running into a wild sea.

Creatively, Liam Howlett – responsible for virtually all the music put out under the Prodigy moniker – felt very tired by this point. He hadn’t wanted any more singles to be put out from Experience since Out Of Space’s release but had caved into record company pressure.

Tensions had also arisen in the band as the US tour had pushed them to a point where they faced bankruptcy.

Facing the derision of the music press and the dance music scene was one thing. The forthcoming Criminal Justice Act from John Major’s government would make it harder for raves to be put on.

Prior to forming the Prodigy, Howlett had been part of a hip-hop outfit called Cut 2 Kill. A trip to a Great Yarmouth venue which hosted rap acts, would be pivotal in the creation of the band. After the event finished, an acid house night took over, which Liam decided to witness. This would be an epiphany into turning his taste to rave.

As rave flourished, Liam could experience more of it in his hometown of Braintree, at a venue called The Barn. Frequent faces in the crowd would be Leeroy – a 6-foot tall electrician, a girl called Sharky and a long-haired guy in a shaggy Afghan coat, nicknamed ‘the sheep’ – Keith Flint.

After playing a tape of Liam’s home-produced music, Keith and Leeroy came to the conclusion that it would be great to have the four of them become an act. Liam agreed although they would need the addition of an MC. Virtually all DJs and acts at raves were accompanied by the vocal encouragement of a microphone-wielding frontman, the modern-day equivalent being a ‘hype man’.

The cassette was scrawled with ‘The Prodigy’. Keith presumed this would be a suitable name. Of course, hindsight tells us it was, although its presence is because Liam was primarily using the early 1980s Moog Prodigy keyboard to make the tracks.

Talking ‘bout my jilted generation

As rave petered out and Liam craved a new musical direction, a decision was made to put out the Prodigy’s next single without their name on it, as a sort of ‘white label’ experiment.

One Love did away with the typical cut-up breakbeat and although it was a fast-paced thumping tune with frantic techno-like hooks, it was a determinedly avant-garde piece when compared to the output of the Experience era.

The experiment – putting out the single on limited white label vinyl for clubs – worked a treat. The music drew critical acclaim from dance music critics who had slated The Prodigy. With that job done, it was given a proper chart release using the band name. This would be the start of the ‘difficult second album’.

In terms of a musical leap, Music For The Jilted Generation was about a light year ahead of its predecessor. Liam had already kept the dance fans happy with follow-up single No Good (Start The Dance), but this album had already raised eyebrows with its inclusion of rock guitars.

The Prodigy are hardly the first dance band to use guitars, but Jilted Generation was quite a significant embrace of the indie rock scene of the time. Liam had already come across Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana. Expanding his musical horizons, he had called upon Pop Will Eat Itself (as first-choice Senser were too busy) to contribute guitar and vocals to Criminal-Justice-Bill-baiting track Their Law.

Voodoo People also made jaws drop with its inclusion of overt guitar riffs. The album finishes with a trilogy of tracks labelled The Narcotic Suite, which starts from lounge jazz fusion and culminates in HAL from 2001 intoning “my mind is glowing” over the top of an out-of-control 303.

“If this doesn’t clean the stench of cat piss, nothing will”, concluded MixMag’s review of the album, referencing the novelty of the band’s breakthrough chart hit.

The Prodigy had already insured themselves from rave’s collapse, by touring this album at venues that were already mainstays of indie and rock circuits, such as universities. Consequently, it would be more than just a crowd of ravers. Indie kids and even bikers would be making up the audience. At this stage, Keith Flint had adopted heavy eyeliner, although it’d be some years before he’d get his famous double mohican haircut and facial piercings.

Also part of the live line-up was guitarist Jim Davies. Dancer Leeroy Thornhill would also play a couple of drums during the unreleased track Brainstorm. An important distinction was being drawn here, bringing in more organic elements to mark themselves away from the synthetic world of rave.

The band was also making in-roads into festivals. MTV Europe had brought The Prodigy a lot more exposure. The scratch-and-cut-up videos of the Experience era – which had a lot of slapstick injected by Keith Flint – had limited coverage, but the more cinematic stylings for the four Jilted singles, directed by Walter Stern, placed the band on the station’s A-list.

It’s also important to note that Music For The Jilted Generation was named by David Bowie as being one of his favourite three albums of all time. Walking into the Prodigy’s dressing room at a festival, the White Duke had asked Liam to produce for him but his request was turned down. They remained friends, mainly swapping stories on drug experiences.

It wasn’t uncommon for the Prodigy to be played at indie discos. Previously, there might have been the token play of Out Of Space. Now tracks like Voodoo People and Poison would be aired, the latter of which became the ‘walk-on’ music for live gigs by The Bluetones.

Britpop was coming to the fore, and Glastonbury 1995 would see Oasis headline the main stage, while Prodigy took on the second one. Being the underdog was certainly no problem, with the band putting on a stellar performance that critics cited as being better than the Burnage brothers. Keith had trimmed his hair short, dyed it pink and sported an array of facial piercings.

Lasers and video screens were no longer the focal points of Prodigy gigs, as on-stage theatrics would be delivered by the band’s dancers, with Keith ramping up his role as a demonic imp.

We did start the fire

By the end of the year, Prodigy gigs would regularly sell out quickly. The band had been premiering a new track with a howling guitar sample all over it, but the most surprising would be the live vocals from dancer Keith Flint.

Originally designed to be an instrumental fill for the third album, Firestarter became a song at the insistence of Keith Flint, who had been wanting to vocally express himself. (For the trainspotters amongst us, this wasn’t Keith’s debut, as he’d already yelled “now ya rockin’!” on the Sunrise version of Fire back in 1992.)

Needless to say, Firestarter became an incredible hit. Based around a slowed-down sample of a Jim Davies guitar riff, with added urgency from the Breeders’ S.O.S. and “hey hey hey” from the Art Of Noise’s Close To The Edit, the track went to number one in the singles chart in several countries.

The Prodigy had gone interstellar. If Experience brought them to the attention of the UK and Jilted made them stars across Europe, this next era would give them the world.

“Liam’s fax machine was going crazy,” cites Gizz Butt, live guitarist for the band from 1996-1999. “It was like a loo roll going down a hill”. The band could name their price to headline festivals. Follow-up single Breathe, which added Maxim to vocals alongside Keith – became another number one hit.

The clamour for another album was absolutely intense, but Liam Howlett wasn’t rushing to get it out in shops. The Fat Of The Land would be released the following year and would hit number one not just in the UK, but across many European countries and the USA.

As the third album, The Fat Of The Land painted a picture of the band’s live show. They had come a long way from dancing on tables in venues run by gangsters.

In spite of the massive chart success, the band had actually reduced their interview slots with the media and still refused almost all offers to perform live on TV. A notable exception was MTV’s Fashionably Loud, a gig that took place on a catwalk while Vivienne Westwood fashions were paraded. Liam Howlett admitted it was a decision he soon regretted.

The band didn’t need to court too much attention, as lead track (and subsequent single) Smack My Bitch Up certainly provoked the ire of conservative and far-left groups. Taking the title as literal instead of metaphorical, criticism was really intense, yet the Prodigy didn’t enter the debate, shunning almost all offers to comment on the controversy.

The Beastie Boys attempted to have the Prodigy remove the track from their setlist at the Reading 1997 Festival, citing concerns over misogyny. This didn’t seem to ring true, as the Brooklyn rappers certainly had a colourful past when it came to depicting women in videos and lyrics during the 1980s. Their previous album, Ill Communication, had also included a phone recording of a French female groupie without her permission, which had to be removed from subsequent releases.

Aside from the music, the album’s inlay and decision to include guest vocalist Crispian Mills (of Kula Shaker) infuriated indie magazine Melody Maker, who published a furious leader denouncing the band. The album’s inner sleeve used quotes from Nazi propaganda officer Joseph Goebbels, such as “Would you rather have butter or guns?”, and Crispian Mills had been subject of newspaper coverage showing him flirting with Nazi imagery.

In spite of the controversies, Fat Of The Land ensured Prodigy’s place in festival headline slots and they could put on major tours spanning various countries. For a front cover, Q magazine stated they were ‘the biggest band in the world’.

While The Prodigy were never ones to court publicity the traditional way – having shunned many award ceremonies, interview requests and television appearances – some of the members would make tabloid headlines for relationships with celebrities. Liam Howlett started dating Natalie Appleton from girl group All Saints and Leeroy Thornhill had a short relationship with Radio 1 breakfast host Sara Cox.

Keith Flint briefly dated model Catalina Guirado (the ‘Gorgeous Girl’ from TFI Friday’s ‘Ugly Bloke’ slot) and Gail Porter, known for many appearances in the lads’ mags of the day.

By the turn of the millenium, however, the outfit had run out of steam. Leeroy had departed from the band to start his solo project Flightcrank. The band’s rockier direction may have been a contributing factor in that decision. The band would frequently showcase new tracks at their live gigs, making them an appointment for those who wanted a taster for a new album.

Nuclear and Trigger, backed up by a juggernaut of percussion and rock riffs, were clearly songs for Keith Flint to belt out his trademark Lydon-esque rasp. However, they weren’t going down that well with fans.

Guns of friction

The Prodigy wound down for a bit, with Liam putting on occasional DJ slots at high-profile gigs, such as dance festivals and a support slot for Madonna’s Brixton Academy concert.

Keith set up his own band using his surname as the moniker. Flint used Prodigy’s live drummer Kieron Pepper and future Marilyn Manson live bassist Rob Holliday.

To satiate fans’ hunger for more material, the Prodigy released Baby’s Got A Temper in 2002, a reworking of a Flint track (No Name No Number). This was cited to be the start of the band’s new era, heralding fourth album Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned.

Unfortunately, Baby’s Got A Temper was short on ideas. Saturated with Keith’s vocals and with lyrics that practically celebrated the date-rape drug Rohypnol, the single was universally panned by the press and fans. At this stage, the Prodigy sounded more like a parody of themselves than a cutting-edge dance act. Thankfully, this single never made it to the album and is largely forgotten.

Keith concentrated on his pet project Flint, a band that was far more rock-orientated, with his punk vocals scattered all over a noisy soundscape of angry guitars. A record deal was secured, as well as a live spot at the first ever Download Festival. Also, a remix of Marilyn Manson’s mOBSCENE came about due to Keith’s friendship with the waif-like rock star.

Alas, Flint never gained traction. Their album, Device #1, was cancelled by the record label causing the split of the band.

Prodigy regrouped by 2004, releasing Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned. Almost as a reaction against the hostile reception of Baby’s Got A Temper, the album was free of Keith Flint’s vocals and was entirely a production by Liam Howlett and guests. It was virtually produced on a laptop in Liam’s bed.

Anger was present in the sound, with Juliette Lewis’s vocals being a welcome contribution, but this wasn’t a showcase of the Prodigy’s live show and could be likened to being a Liam Howlett solo effort.

While this album was certainly a curveball and didn’t reach the popularity of the previous, it was a necessary step in the band’s evolution. Pressure from the band’s label, XL, was to have them record an album along the lines of The Fat Of The Land. They had toured their first three albums for many years and while this certainly pleased the accountants, the accusations of predictability had to be quashed.

Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned was born out of defiance. Almost nothing from the album has had a live outing over the previous ten years of Prodigy gig, except for a quick belt of Action Radar – a track that sounds very much inspired by the music of Gary Numan and the vocalisations of Jello Biafra.

The Prodigy toured a circuit of small venues this time round, before quickly moving onto their next era.

There comes a time when every big-name band has to go into a ‘greatest hits’ phase. This didn’t sit well with the Prodigy, who in Liam’s words, had never wanted to be a “heritage act”. As part of the five-album record deal with XL, the Prodigy’s fifth would be a compilation of hits.

Their Law – The Singles 1990-2005 was spearheaded by signature track Firestarter and contained most of the band’s singles. Baby’s Got A Temper certainly didn’t make an appearance. The naming of this package is a head scratcher, as Their Law was never released as a single, although it’s treated like one in the tracklisting.

For those with a hunger for vocals from Keith and Maxim, the bonus disc in the deluxe release brought new material. Back 2 Skool is an interesting collaboration using the duo, while Razor is a full-on vocal assault from Keith Flint. In fact, the latter track is a reworking of one taken from the aborted Flint album Device #1.

Pendulum – a critically acclaimed high-tempo aggressive dance act that had a huge following – had been drafted in to provide a remix of Voodoo People. Audiobullys were a short-lived dance act from this time, who were commissioned to rework Out Of Space. These two remixes were released as a double A-side single, with a new video made for the Voodoo People remix. The video featured a horde of blindfolded runners being directed by the Prodigy in a life-or-death race. In a very subtle nod to the band’s beginnings, the winner of the race was played by Sharky – a band member who had left in 1991 when the Prodigy signed a record deal.

Something that may have slipped most Prodigy fans by, is Liam Howlett earning some pin money by producing a track – Flashback – for his wife’s girl group, who had reformed in 2006. The idea of applying the Prodigy sound to an All Saints might seem enticing if rather inappropriate, and it’s unsurprising Liam uses a much warmer approach. The track, which never saw life as a single, sounds a lot like a Bentley Rhythm Ace effort.

By the end of the Noughties, the Prodigy ended their XL relationship and started a new deal with Cooking Vinyl for their next phase. A huge bout of publicity was launched to place the fifth studio album in the public consciousness.

It won’t go away

A scheduled date for Global Gathering – very much a dance-orientated festival – encouraged Liam Howlett to come up with a nod to the band’s rave roots. Warrior’s Dance, sampling Detroit group Final Cut’s Take Me Away, is reminiscent of the Prodigy’s 1990s dancefloor smash No Good, thanks to a female vocal placed over a rumbling beat. It’s fresh enough to stand out and became the spark for Invaders Must Die.

Sounding like a collision between all of the first three albums, yet with enough freshness for the band to be taken seriously again, Invaders Must Die was an eyebrow-raising return to form. Much of the album’s sound was formulated by Liam Howlett in collaboration with Does It Offend You Yeah’s James Rushent (the son of legendary producer Martin Rushent).

Vocal assaults from Keith Flint and Maxim are present, and anyone who’s been crate-digging through old rave vinyl will find plenty of deja vu here. This wasn’t just an album for the glowsticks crew, it was heavy enough to see critical acclaim from the rock press and with Dave Grohl having contributed drumming to Run With The Wolves, the band had cemented themselves back in the spotlight across Europe, gaining a big ‘second wind’ from a fanbase in Russia.

Acknowledging how record buying was changing, the eponymous track was given away as a free download, while second track Omen – a Flint-heavy anthem that ram-raided the dance synths of the Experience era while commanding the in-yer-face brutality of Fat Of The Land – became the lead single.

While the band never truly re-entered the American music scene at anywhere near the heights of their 1997 peak, there certainly was more than enough demand to shift records and sell out gigs across Europe and Australia.

Invaders Must Die breathed new life into the Prodigy, killing off any fears of becoming a stale ‘heritage act’. This culminated in the Warrior’s Dance Festival at Milton Keynes Bowl. Effectively, this was a Prodigy gig at the huge outdoor venue that had played host to musical legends like David Bowie, Queen and Michael Jackson. Downplaying their own presence, the band picked plenty of their favourite acts and DJs to keep two stages busy throughout the day, essentially justifying the ‘festival’ tag.

The event had the band issue its first ever live album, along with accompanying DVD and Blu-ray. Aerial shots of the moshing crowd starting circle pits at the command of Maxim, showed how the fanbase had morphed from the days of rave PAs and club appearances.

A Nasty piece of work

Further aggression was piled on for the next album release, The Day Is My Enemy, in 2014. With the endless demand for gigs and tours, much of this album was put together on the road. Like Invaders Must Die, Maxim and Keith had a lot of input and the majority of tracks are clearly shaped for a live crowd.

The opening track was bizarrely inspired by Cole Porter’s All Through The Night, specifically the Ella Fitzgerald version. Martina Topley-Bird was brought in to provide the vocals, with a Swiss drum corps providing an astonishing wave of percussion. This eponymous track was issued as a free download, while the lead single was the Keith-Flint-heavy Nasty.

Aside from Martina Topley-Bird, notable collaborations were with the Sleaford Mods and Flux Pavilion. Like its predecessor, there are sprinklings of the rave era and plenty of outings for Keith and Maxim. Fortunately, with a much longer tracklisting, The Day Is My Enemy has a lot more diversity in sound.

By this point, with changes in music consumption, the Prodigy’s showing in the singles chart were a tiny fraction of their 1990s domination, yet album sales were consistently strong and the festival headline slots and tours were omnipresent.

‘Cause everybody hates a tourist

Last year saw, what could well be, the band’s last album. With just ten tracks and a running time of forty minutes, No Tourists is the shortest LP from the Prodigy. Again, there is plenty of sonic aggression and ample mic time reserved for Keith and Maxim. The biggest difference comes with the references to the rave era, which are more than mere nods. Great swathes of synths and samples establish a ‘reach for the lasers’ atmosphere. Even a few freshly recorded vocals have been pitched up for the ‘chipmunk’ sound of rave’s heyday.

No Tourists wasn’t intended to exist as an album. A year earlier, Liam declared the Prodigy’s intention to abandon albums and just create EPs. However, while putting together the first of a string of EPs, it was noted how the material would better fit as an album.

Like the previous two releases, No Tourists is very much a ‘band’ album. Liam Howlett would deliberately book into hotels closest to venues while on tour, so he could immediately leave the stage to write tracks with ideas inspired by the live experience. Vocals from Maxim and Keith would be recorded in hotel rooms, filled with the aggression they had just exuded on stage.

The end result is an album that is closest to their debut, Experience. A collision of rock and dances what the band is known for, yet No Tourists goes the furthest in acknowledging their rave roots. After hearing the album ahead of its official release last year, I concluded The Prodigy have come full circle. I’m still of that opinion.

Nearly three decades on, a lot has changed, but recent gigs have been a spectacle which leaves you drenched in sweat and unsteady on your feet. John Peel’s oxymoronic praise of the Fall – “always different, always the same” can certainly apply to The Prodigy.


* Pete Prodge is a stand-up comedian, retrogamer, film-maker and one of the Prodigy’s most ardent fans. Pete joins us at WE ARE CULT: MANC MEET in a flantastic Tiswas-themed extravaganza, with special guest Matthew Butler, who performed ‘Bright Eyes’ on the show: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/manage/events/55184438140/tickets

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2 Comments

  1. A meticulously researched and thoroughly engaging article…but damn! No love for The Dirtchamber Sessions Vol. 1?! Liam Howlett’s sole, officially released mixtape (launched with relatively little fanfare during the period between TFOTL and AONO) remains to this day one of the very finest dj sets ever recorded, both in terms of the smorgasbord of classic breaks records he puts through the shredder and the cuts/blends that glue it the whole thing together. Be sure to check it out if you haven’t already – it’s a mixing masterclass my friends!

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