The Prodigy's transformation from comedy techno "twats" to globe-buggering rock'n'roll phenom has been satanically swift. Join them as they trounce America, infiltrate Iberia and insult Madonna. "How's your arse?" they inquire of Andrew Harrison.
You are in a band. You are about to go onstage at Los Angeles's Blockbuster Pavilion as part of the Lollapalooza tour, taking your music (frazzled electronic fist-fightingwith big breakbeats) to an audience which has just decided it likes you more than any other band in the world. You need to limber up your shouting voice. How would you like to prepare? Camomile tea? Some drugs? Or perhapsyou would prefer to have your Americal label boss, Madonna, arrive in your dressing room 10 minutes before showtime to discuss why you've loudly and publicly refused to work on her new album ? Is it because - as you told a British paper - "It would be like selling our souls to Devil"?
"Oh, she was fine", says Liam Howlett, who "does" all the music which comes out under the name of The Prodigy. "We'd already had Pamela Anderson coming in, telling us how Tommy Lee had bought our record for her and how much she loved it, so things couldn't get any more fucking surreal. Madonna? Yeah, come on in... She wanted to know why I was dissing her, but I had to explain that if she wanted to sign a band that cares about its music, she can't expect us to do things like that. "
He shifts his skatewear-clad arse deeper into the large settee in his converted Essex coach house home, and sips his tea. "I mean, yeah, Number 1 in America and everything, but we're still an up-and-coming band really. We have to be true to ourselves. It would be a sell-out. It would be just... you know, wrong. "
So Madonna taught Prodigy dancer Leeroy Thornhill some yogic warm-up routines, and then did little dances as she watched their show from the side of stage. Funny how things turn out, isn't it ? Such a scene would have been deemed impossible as recently as three years ago. Then The Prodigy were still perceived by the broader rock and pop audience to be but a pesky hangover from the pharmo-technicolour nightmare that was rave. If you were looking for someone to - deep breath - conquer America, then the queue held many Britpop trip-hop dadrock critical favourites ahead of the boy racers from Essex who did that Charly thing with the cat on it.
Events were to prove otherwise. As early as 1993, rave scene graduate Howlett had grown to loathe the degenerating world of parties in aircraft hangars - "You can play them anything when they're on E," he'd said. "I still loved the vibe but sometimes I wondered what the fuck I was doing it for. "
With their second album, 1994's Music For The Jilted Generation, he had begun to retool The Prodigy as a darker, harder outfit, dealing not in the debased currency of techno pioneers Kraftwerk and Derrick May, but in what he called "hardcore street music" : hip hop, Nirvana, The Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine, even Stone Temple Pilots. Although The Prodigy have always been at pains to declare themselves apolitical, the record aligned itself in abstract fashion with anti-government protests of any kind, and specifically those against the Criminal Justice Bill, which targeted rave parties. Of a tiny handful of lyrics on the album, the key one was "Fuck 'em and their law. "
British audiences latched on to Jilted Generation and have not let go of The Prodigy since. The record was beaten to the Mercury Prize by M People's Elegant Slumming, a fact which The Prodigy seem to take pride in. By the time the new-model Prodigy arrived in America properly this year, a combination of factors - the stupefying stagnation and commodification of American alternative rock, The Prodigy's willingless to gig themselves into the ground if need be, and of course Firestarter - meant that they were exactly what US youth was after : loud, hardcore, garish entertainment. Guy Oseary, the A&R man at Madonna's label, signed them over from Muteto Maverick after Firestarter became an MTV hit, and in June The Prodigy's third album, The Fat Of The Land, entered the Billboard charts at Number 1.
Now everyone wants a piece of them. Pundits and strategists attempted to shoehorn The Prodigy in a box marked
'electronica', along with The Chemical Brothers, Republica, the Internet and anything else that requires a fuse to work, but their success is both more and less complicated than that. More, because after winning over British and European audiences who live, eat and breathe new music, The Prodigy have accessed a whole world of less clued-up American kids to whom raves, techno, electronics and even the very idea of going out dancing is as alien as Chewbacca. Less, because that band-that-isn't-a-band did it by recreating themselves as something pre-techno, even pre-punk.
The Prodigy 1997 are a full-on, cathartic rock'n'roll experience, more primal even than Oasis. They look like The Exploited and sound like all your favourite records playing at once. They are all about inchoate rage and resntment, personified in Keith and his twisted firestarting, and they pose the age-old question of rock'n'roll - why do we always get off on the biggest, noisiest, filthiest racket? - in a new and brilliant form.
The Prodigy's talent for translating bad behaviour into pop theatre is only matched by their sense of what is right for them to do. Like Oasis, they're democratic to the extent of mob rule : The Prodigy are here for ravers, punks and rock kids. For everyone, that is, apart from stuck-up clubbers, because The Prodigy hate the sludge that house music has become as much as Oasis hate Blur.
The Prodigy may be toe-to-toe with Noel Gallagher in Britain but there is a little doubt who is the biggest act in America right now. The difference is, Liam Howlett honestly doesn't seem to care. His taste for getting up people's noses has serced The Prodigy well, and it's getting keener. "
"I told Madonna I wanted to change the name of the album, just for America, you know," he snickers. "I said I wanted to call it The Land Of The Fat. She wasn't too happy about that. "
"How's your arse, then?" This is how every member of The Prodigy, separately and independently, greets Q this morning. They remember that your reporter covered their Voodoo People video shoot on the Caribbean island of St Lucia in 1994, and left with something of a stomach bug. This very much appealed to The Prodigy's sense of humour.
Food poisoning and cataclysmic diarrhoea is less likely today, hovewer, as Q visits The Prodigy in their lovely homes in the bustling new-money Essex town of Braintree. They are, in every sense, homeboys. All of the band live between two and 20 minutes' drive of one another and regard this neighbourliness as very important to "the vibe". The reasons : one, although Howlett does the music on his own in his home studio and is an unrepentant control freak, the others are always popping round to keep up, make up dance routines in their heads (The Prodigy have never rehearsed their live show) and to act as a sort of collective conscience. Two, it's not London, which is crap and does your head in, although dancer Leeroy Thornhill is considering getting a flat in Highbury so he can go and see the Arsenal more often.
Thornhill presently inhabits a little terraced house next door to a hairdressers (Just Hair) with deep green walls, a mind-taxing mural of Judge Dredd and Batman in the bedroom, and a collection of small Egyptian and Roman artifacts on the mantelpiece. Keith Flint - "the fear-addicted, the danger-illustrated" - lives in a pleasant semi with carport, although it is a total bomb site indoors, with clothes and dishes all over the place and the Roni Size album playing at moderate volume first thing in the morning.
Prodigy MC Maxim Reality, aka Keith "Keeti" Palmer, has gone to the shops, so Q can only guess what his dinkily pebble-dashed cottage is like inside, although, in common with the rest of the band's homes, it is certain to have more gold, silver and platinum records than wallspace can handle. This is the contradictory nature of The Prodigy all over : they profess not to care about selling records and all that bollocks, but secretly they do, and the platinum discs go right up on the walls all the same.
Liam Howlett is, famously, the quiet one, but his place is the starriest of all, and indicative of the way Prodigy life lets you stay in touch with your inner juvenile delinquent. Q opens the door to be confronted by a giant gurning face carved out of pretend Inca stone; Howlett commissioned one of the people who worked at Chessington World Of Adventures to do it. There is a life-sized Dalek in the corner of the living room (a gift from The Prodigy's management), samurai swords on the sideboard, and a giant mock-gothic coffin standing upright, which proves to be a drinks cabinet containing champagne and "some fucking weird vanilla alcopop my mate got me". The cat on the settee is called Charly. And Howlett has standards : before entering, we have to remove our shoes.
This is where Howlett made The Fat Of The Land and came up with its many wheezes : a track (Narayan) recorded with Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker, although Liam originally planned to use Perry Farrell of Porno For Pyros; another (Diesel Power) made with Kool Keith, veteran rapper with Howlett's favourite hip hop band, the Ultramagnetic MCs; and, most notoriously, the new single Smack My Bitch Up. This track samples a Kool Keith lyric - "Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up like a pimp" - from 1988's Give The Drummer Some, and chucks it into a seething cauldron of septic electronics and thunderous beats. The title is already an all-purpose factory of comically offensive puns (at breakfast : "Pass the ketchup / Smack my bitch up", and so on) and it is sure to summon our old pal controversy when released on its ownlater this month. Liam says The Prodigy have never had radio play but is clearly relishing the prospect of a proper ban, just like the Sex Pistols and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. He says he wasn't looking for trouble, but maybe he's fibbing.
Laid the vocal on top purely as a rhythm," he says. "And to add some b-boy flavour. The original lyric is quite humorous, you know, 'Smack my bitch up like a pimp' - it's fucking silly. In our track it's almost worse 'cos it focuses just on that line, but I want it out as a single because the tune captures what the band isabout right now. It is quite a dangerous track for us to put out, and I like the confusion and the danger of it. I get off on it. But I don't laugh about the idea of people smacking women up, obviously, but I know the track is nothing to do with that at all. The people love it, they're fucking lapping it up. "
Liam makes tea, positions a TV guide with cover star Tiffany from EastEnders on the table ("She helps me focus") and recaps a brief history of The Prodigy. He is even-tempered and seems rather amused that' after six years of battling against critical snootiness, The Prodigy are finally in the driving seat. Since he was a kid into hip hop and BMX biking, he has never really liked any mainstream music and finds it weird but agreeable that The Prodigy, the furthest-out and certainly hardest-on-the-eye of all our bands, are now so big. Liam used to admire the Specials because they looked so hardcore, so unapproachable, like a gang. Somewhere in the studio at the back of the house is his version of their Ghost Town, complete with drum'n'bass fills, which was going to go on the album, but didn't make it because he felt "It wouldn't be right".
The Prodigy came together at the turn of the 90's in a club in Braintree called The Barn. Howlett used to go there because the pervasive threat of violence had turned him off his first love, the London hip hop scene, and a tab of acid had opened his eyes to the sensory distortion of acid house. Locals Flint and Thornhill were regulars at The Bran, always showing off to the latest acid and hardcore tunes, and Braintree's proximity to the port of Harwich (and thus Amsterdam) meant a steady flow of topnotch chemicals which kept Barn clubbers partying at a punishing pace.
Howlett was a face at The Barn too. While working as a graphic designer, he'd put out a hip hop track as part of an act called Cut 2 Kill. One night Flint asked Howlett to make him a "buzz tape" of his favourite dance tunes. Liam filled one side with 12-inchers, and the other with his own breakbeat-driven hardcore tracks, knocked up on his rudimentary home studio. He called himself The Prodigy : "It was a b-boy largeness, really, like Grandmaster Flash. "
Flint and Thornhill were smitten. They told Thornhill that if he ever wanted to play live, they had to be his dancers - because in those days, every dance act needed a pop-eyed loon or two throwing shapes onstage. Eventuallt, Howlett got a show at the Labirynth, a hardcore club in the North London fastness of Dalston. Flint and Thornhill were joined by Palmer, an up-and-coming reggae MC who had been recommended by Howlett's friends. "Maxim" did not have a clue what to expect, but the show was a stormer. Soon Howlett had signed a deal with XL Recordings, and Charly rode into the Top 10 as a superior example of nutty hardcore. With the exception of a female Prodigy dancer called Sharkey, who appeared with them on early dates, the line-up of the band has been the same ever since. The Prodigy wore green and white uniforms, played every rave that would have them, and "looked like twats," says Howlett. But they had star quality.
"As far as I'm concerned, Keith is the best performer in Europe. Since day one you could see that he would be a star - he always had this glowing personality. And Leeroy and Maxim have really come on in their perfrmance too. We watch old videos and we laugh at ourselves, but we know that we were different from everyone else because we were always going to be about doing it live. And the more the rave scene fell apart, the more it allowed us to become something better. More and more, we wanted to get that feeling of one hundred per cent, total aggression. To stir the people up, get a bit of a rock attitude in, and make it fucking hardcore. "
Now The Prodigy gig incessantly. It has been the area of their greatest triumphs, like V97 or Glastonbury 1995, when their booming, predatory energy was enough to entice people away from Oasis. Without a big rock show, they would never have got themselves across to the big rock audience they now command. And "the live thing" has been their biggest headache, too, like, well Glastonbury 1997, when the power kept cutting and Dennis Pennis had to fill time by leading the crowd in a chorus of Hebrew tune Hav'a Nagila.
Still, The Prodigy genuinely like touring. Paradoxically, the trudge from flight to hotel to festival stage and backdoesn't wear them out. "We really, honestly love every second of it," says Thornhill. "We are all in it for the buzz and that buzz is most intense on the stage. We're all buzzing off each other as well as the music, really. Sometimes you feel like you're exploding. "
Maxim says he frightens himself onstage. "It;s all about giving that danger and aggression, and I sort of change personality when I'm up there. Maxim is different from Keith Palmer. He's genuinely evil. It's his job to scare the shit out of everybody in the audience, and sometimes he scares the shit out of me. But you're always looking to surpass yourself. The only way we're ever going to finally reach the ultimate is for usto explode onstage. Bang ! The End !" "One of these days," nods Flint, "at the end of a show, I'm gonna blow meself to bits. "
In Valencia, Spain, October 4, the second European gig The Prodigy have played as court jesters to a Ballantine's-sponsored "extreme sports roadshow" and the band's 65th gig of the year - Flint fails to achieve self-immolation, but only just. Breathe topped the singles chart for 10 weeks in Spain. It also garnered the front page stories in the nation's press, something The Prodigy's record label, flushed with the success of September 27's 100,000-strong free show in Moscow's Red Square, are claiming as a "cultural revolution".
Flint horrifies the Spaniards (happiest proferring heavy metal hand gestures when Peterborough-residing bogbrush Gizz Butt skips on to provide recognisable punk rock guitar riffs) and mimes hari-kiri with a mic stand during Funky Shit. Then he saunters off stage to be replaced, tag wrestling-style, with Thornhill. Flint lingers, nonchalantly chatting up a brace of ligging lovelies, before legging it back to the boards for Firestarter.
Standing at the side of the stage to witness the speedy techno of encore Gabba, Skin of support band Skunk Anansie tugs Q's arm. "It's like shagging," she enthusies, pumping her hips in time to the ceaseless, bass-heavy grind. "It drives me crazy. This band can do no wrong for me. "
Later, a confident Liam Howlett puffs on his customary aftershow cigar. "Good gig," he sighs with the resigned air of the seasoned pro. "Good crowd. I wish we could go home now. "
Keith Flint sites on his couch, passes the chocolate Boasters round and gives Q a guided tour of his tattoos. "The first one I had was on my leg. Liam did the design (a complex crypto-Celtic pattern on his left calf) and that was great. Then I got the other leg done, different pattern that time. This one (a squirly pattern on his left arm, particularly filled in) didn't hurt very much, so I'm disappointed by that. Got it done in LA when we were on Lollapalooza. And I had INFLICTED put on my stomach about 18 months ago. The fucking ultimate experience in pain, that was. Hurt like fuck. My God, he drilled it in. I was tripping off the pain so bad I was laughing to myself - I was even thanking him for it ! I could feel my body was on its peak and... (he looks embarassed) I better not go on about it because it's a bit weird... I literally thought I was lying on a stone altar being scarred. I could see a fire and all these tribal rituals going on. It was like a trip." "It says Inflicted in sort of gangster-Brooklyn-Boo-Yaa-Tribe letters, really junky and horrible. I like the fact that people hate it when they see it. It was something I inflicted on myself, so that's what it says - people will look at it and say, Oh God, what an infliction. But you can't really put BRAINTREE on your gut, can you?"
Keith Flint has variously been campared to Toad Of Toad Hall, Taz the Tasmanian Devil, Krusty the Clown, Uncle Fester, Max Wall, Sid Vicious and Dennis The Menace. That most of these are cartoon characters has not escaped his notice, but Flint is philosophical about his new role as all-purpose folk devil.
"It all started with Firestarter, not surprisingly," he says. "Now I'll be sitting in me back garden having a puff, and some fucker will bring his kids round the corner into my fucking garden and be saying, Look, kids, there's the firestarter ! Like I'm some fucking chimp in a fucking zoo. People think they own you. Still, can't complain, can you ? It's the best fun in the world. I mean, my thing is to do it all onstage and make sure the reaction is good. That is my reward. I still spit it back, mind you. "
Since its release in March last year, Firestarter has sold half a million copies and made Flint into a household name/face/haircut. Kids all over the country can "do the firestarer" as their party piece; the tabloids went into vintage frenzy ("Ban This Sick Fire Record") and if there were any Tory MPs left, they would surely be complaining about Flint in the, ahem, House. But there aren't.
There has been a Lucozade ad which ripped off Firestarter, especially Flint's virtuoso tantrum in the video, and it made Flint want to use a bucket as a toilet for a week and then douse the account executive with the contents. Otherwise, he remains thoroughly proud of his contribution to pop culture. It was the first lyrics he'd ever written, apart from two "awful" songs he scribbled down on a train while he was travelling in the Middle East (one was called Trannie On The Train, which is not a potential Prodigy song title, and the other was called Insomniac Blues, which would make a very good Prodigy song title).
"The lyrics might be quite... erm... uninvolved," he says in his chummy, slightly John Majorish voice, "but they are very personal. I remember there was a loop and a guitar riff, and I said to Liam, Wow, if I am ever gonna write lyrics this has got to be the one. I wrote down as many words as I could think of that stirred me up, and I thought, this is going to be a description of me, this song. I don't know why it turned out so... sort of... self-hating. I'm a complez person, but isn't everyone ? But it got out an aggression that's been in me as long as I can remember. Which is quite nice. If you've got aggressive music and lyrics that aren't complex but every time you hear them they just drive in, I'm the bitch you hated, bam, bam !... then you can latch onto it. And you can be the bitch you hated yourself. Everybody likes to be a bit evil now and again. I wasn't trying to say, Look at me, I'm Satan ! But certainly I'm not nice. We're everybody's dark side. "
Later, Thornhill says that all the Firestarter attention wore Flint down more than he will let on. That it depressed him and made him difficult to get on with. But, he emphasises, Flint has never ever expressed any regrets about the band, or the irreversible tattoos and nasal piercings. This is the path we've all chosen, says the rubber-limbed one, and we're all staying on it.
And that is the weird thing about The Prodigy. This band who aren't a band are actually much more a band than many outfits that can, you know, play their instruments and everything. This one-man control freak unit really works because its members share the same ideals. They want it hardcore. They want to blow themselves to bits onstage. "What I'm most proud of," says Howlett, "Is that we built this out of nothing, and done something nobody has done before. Take The Chemical Brothers. They didn't have any luggage - they were cool from day one. We had all the baggage of rave with us, and there haven't been many bands that have reinvented themselves from uncool to cool like we have. And I can't put my finger on how we did it. I just grew up. We all did. And we love it because it's ours. "
That night The Prodigy go into London and get drunk because it's Leeroy's birthday.
The Horror ! The Horror !
Liam Howlett: Dreams that he is back at school and has to finish his homework. It's late. He used to like school - he had a good time there and he was good at his work - so he can't understand why he keeps having this nightmare.
Maxim: Has been having the same dream for 10 years, since he read a bit of Freud, and started to confront his inner demons. He dreams he's carrying a weight in his hands: it's tiny, but it's so very heavy, and he can't put it down. The dream paralyses him and his girlfriend has to wake him up. "She has to rock me," he laughs.
Keith Flint: Dreams that his jaw is locked together and he can't wake up to move it. He feels like he's pulling his eyes open, but he can't shake himself awake. He wants to get to a mirror and see what he looks like, but he never can.
Leeroy Thornhill: Doesn't have dreams because he always has a spliff at bedtime.