Please don't call us techno
Rave pioneers the Prodigy
are now injecting anarchy into rock, says ANDREW SMITH
Oasis may have been the band of
the year, but it would be folly to try to argue that the record
of 1996 belonged to anyone other than the Prodigy. 'Firestarter'
was the musical equivalent of ball lightning. It arrived out
of nowhere; tense, compressed, chaotic, a distillation of
techno sounds, hip-hop rhythms and punkish rock energy, the
likes of which had simply never been heard before. It leapt
straight to No 1 in the singles chart and stayed there for
three weeks, despite the group's continued refusal to appear
on television. The hastily produced video that Top of the
Pops showed in their stead went on to produce a record number
of complaints. Allegedly, the scenes of their "singer", Keith
Flint, shivering and shaking (some would say dancing) frightened
small children. Off-stage Flint is anything but intimidating
- The Face described him as a cross between Max Wall, Uncle
Fester, Private Godfrey from Dad's Army, Crusty the Clown
and Sid Vicious's hair. Put him on a stage, though, and he
Even before 'Firestarter', no artists other than Oasis and,
perhaps, Pulp, were being mentioned by their peers as regularly
in these pages as the Prodigy. One theatre director called
their show at Glastonbury last year "the best piece of theatre
I saw all year. " Afterwards, Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant found
himself wondering, "I mean, is Firestarter a song? You couldn't
sit down and play it on the piano, but it's a bloomin' great
record. " He concluded that 1996 "would be remembered for Firestarter
more than the guitar bands. "
The much-pierced quartet's musical leader, Liam Howlett, does
consider his composition to be a song. We know this because
he has privately asked: "How d'you follow a song like that?"
- a question that a second single, Breathe, will finally be
attempting to answer when it is issued a week tomorrow. Where
did it come from?
Nobody would have predicted Howlett's current defining role
at the heart of pop culture when he and his mates shuffled
out of Braintree in Essex five years ago. Then they were a
rave act, specialising in slight but effective club anthems.
Before the end of 1993, they had scored six hit singles (including
Charly at No 2 and Everybody In The Place at No 3) and a top
20 album, Experience. In retrospect, Howlett performed his
role as the high priest of good-time nonsense witha panache
that the copyists who followed him never displayed, but at
the time this was less apparent. Howlett was blamed for the
rise of "toytown techno" and in the last analysis his tunes
were soundtracks to a drug experience. Howlett began to suspect
that he could knock these tunes off in his sleep. He had money
and a measure of success, but no respect. One night at a dance
party in Scotland, he looked down from the stage and thought:
"What am I doing here?" He resolved to change direction. "I
liked the energy (of rave), but not the corniness," he says. "In the early years, I was surprised to at how many times
we managed to pull it off. I decided that the next record
was going to be something for me. "
In 1994, Howlett introduced us to that record. Though still
in instrumental nature, Music for the Jilted Generation didn't
work the way other dance albums worked. Its wild but tightly
focused energy was more suggestive of rock than anything you
heard in british clubs at the time, and it became one of the
first to be fully embraced by the rock press, though Howlett
and his band were still widely misunderstood: when critics
tried to paint Jilted Generation as a protest statement against
the Criminal Justice Act, Howlett poured scorn on the idea.
Asked who he will be voting for in the up-coming election,
he replies that "the only thing i give a fuck about is whether
I have to pay more tax or not, so whoever brings the cheapest
tax rates, I'll be voting for them. " You can take the boy
out of Essex, but you can't take the Essex out of the boy.
Though, actually, Howlett still lives there.
There have been many "new" rock'n'rolls won the years - among
them comedy and cookery - but the Prodigy's success suggests
that the true inheritor is techno. Until recently, with a
relatively few exceptions, 1990s rock bands mostly wanted
to be thought of as "pop. " Pop is more supportive of irony.
Even the name militates against taking itself too seriously:
it's punchy, clever and has good dress sense. It can borrow
and mix ideas with impurity. Not like dumb old rock, which
has to be pitched just right in order to avoid reminding everyone
of a scene from Spinal Tap. You will never hear Jarvis Cocker
refer to Pulp as a "band. " They are always a "group. "
Techno is different. To start with, it is made almost exclusively
by boys and the more serious (or, if you like, sad) fans are
boys. Increasingly, techno bands have drawn on the chaotic,
transporting energy of the ebst rock bands and, like the Prodigy,
put on extravegantly entertaining live shows. Oasis just stand
there, but you cant take your eyes off the Prodigy as the
frontline trio of Flint, MC Maxim Reality and dancer Leeroy
Thornhill confront Howlett's strident riffs and rhythms. They
even have costume changes. So, when Flint approached Howlett
with the idea of doing a vocal track, something they had never
done before, it made sense. This led to Firestarter and its
invigorating sibling, Breathe. An album, originally due about
now, will be released early next year.
The past six months have left Howlett, whose hobbies include
fast cars and skateboarding, with some difficult choices to
make. He does not regard the Prodigy as a techno group. Howlett
may have begun as a purveyor of tunes to the discerning raver,
but he mistrusts, even despises, club music now. What kind
of act does he want to be?
"We've always said in interviews that we don't want to be
a techno band," he says. "We don't want to give up writing
good dance music and start writing dodgy rock'n'roll music,
but that's the energy were interested in at the moment. I
wanted to make something more anarchic. You see, I didn't
really expect 'Firestarter' to be accepted so well. "
The mistake, according to Howlett, is to see his music as
futuristic. You can see his point. As on Firestarter, the
earth-shaking rush of the bass on Breathe, the crunchy guitars,
otherworldly, electronic instrumentation and Flint's demented
vocal, combine the ethereal dance experience with the visceral
thrill of rock - all things that have been heard before, but
never before in quite this way. Like all the best things in
life, the Prodigy defy definition - and, incidentally, the
new video is every bit as scary as the last.