Tuesday, February 24, 1998
Despite controversy surrounding its latest single, techno-rock act sets its own musical agenda.
Addicted To Noise correspondent Andrew Tanner reports:
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Prodigy singer Keith Flint says he is out to please no one but himself and his band.
That's just the way it is.
It doesn't matter if you're the world's biggest music-television channel, MTV, which two months ago, amid controversy over the band's recent single, "Smack My Bitch Up," pulled the x-rated video from late-night rotation; or a massive Wal-Mart or Kmart chain store that months after the release of the band's critically acclaimed, double platinum-selling LP (two million copies shipped to U.S. record stores), The Fat of the Land, suddenly bowed to pressure to remove it from stores.
It doesn't even matter if you are among the politicians in the U.S. who continue to fight for control over the release of songs such as "Smack My Bitch Up. "
Prodigy, said Flint, do exactly what they want to do. And if you don't like it, well it's just too bad for you. "Look, at the end of the day, we do what we do because it suits us," said Flint. "Don't you think it's kind-of cool to have a band that offends MTV, that puts out a video that real fans have to dig around for, or stay up late to see. The point is to be true to yourself -- otherwise you may as well give up. "
The video for "Smack My Bitch Up" depicts an out-of-control English hooligan (who turns out to be a woman) grabbing women, getting into fights and having sex with a stripper, as well as using drugs and vomiting repeatedly.
Anyone who has not been privy to their hyper-aggressive style or keen on Prodigy's punked-up techno music would have been totally bemused walking into Flint and his electronica gang's performance last month at the Metro here. Sure, the kids were going off, but what was all that weirdness going down onstage? There was a drummer flailing away at the kit -- but he was playing second fiddle to some righteously booming rhythm tracks that weren't coming from anyone out front. And the guitarist would walk onto the stage for a song, then leave. There were plenty of songs where he wasn't even required.
And what's the story with those crazy-looking geezers who were all done up in kilts and charity-bin trenchcoats, stomping and howling all over the stage? There's one guy who gets paid for just dancing with Prodigy.
Flint said the group's created their unorthodox approach to live performance from years of hanging out at U. K. clubs and raves. Speaking prior to the show, Flint reflected on the beginnings of his group's unique style, born in the U.K.'s early rave scene: "We went and made our own scene and did our own thing. We don't rely on some cheesy DJs who don't know fuck-all about dance music. We were there -- I broke into warehouses, I had police breaking in and tear gas me and set dogs on me," he said. "I come from that -- so when we represent that side of it, it's because we were there. "
To see Prodigy in 1998 is to get a crash course in most of the major musical shifts of the past decade. It's a show that owes little, if anything, to the verities of the mainstream, preferring to draw its inspiration from a jumbled array of contemporary styles -- reggae, dub, electro-pop, neo-punk, jungle and hip-hop. More than the sum of its well-schooled parts, a Prodigy gig may come off as an assault of manic, spiteful aggression.
In turn, its members' well-publicized enthusiasm for extreme sports is no coincidence. What you hear when they play is the sound of a band laughing maniacally as they hurl themselves off a cliff. "It's more real than some guy who reckons he's a techno god, 'cause he hasn't sold more than 10 records," Flint said.
The set began with the now notorious "Smack My Bitch Up", which has been the focus of recent controversy after several women's activist groups came down hard on the lyrics, saying they were degrading to women.
In an interview with Addicted To Noise last year, Prodigy leader Liam Howlett said the song -- which features a single sample from an Ultramagnetic MC's tune, "Change my pitch up/ Smack my bitch up" -- was meant to serve as a tribute to hip-hop music. "I was into hip-hop and I was into the fact that [Ultramagnetic] MC's could rap about anything, they could rap about smacking women up and it'd just be more comical than anything else," he said. "You wouldn't actually take it serious. "
The Fat Of The Land was taken off the shelves of more than 5,000 Kmart and Wal-Mart stores last December because of the song. The Target retail chain reached an agreement with Maverick, the band's label, to keep the album in stores as long as it includes a parental warning sticker. Still, the controversy has done little to temper Prodigy or their following.
At the Jan. 20 Metro, a passing roadie even bore a laminate tag that revealed he was an employee of what he referred to as the"How's Yer Ass In Hot Weather?" touring party. Tasteless, and a tad childish, perhaps, but not out-of-line where Flint and his mates are concerned.
The main event at the Metro began with an MC stomping onstage and repeatedly screeching, "Who wants it?" at the top of his lungs. The answer came in a massive roar from just about every man, woman and underage drinker in the house. The band's prime mover and songwriter Howlett took the stage to a raucous reception, only to launch into a disconcertingly prog-rock-style instrumental that had some fearing a segue into "Fanfare For The Common Man. " Fortunately, that bastard son of Johnny Rotten (and the band's most visible public face), singer Flint, soon bounded onstage with cohort Maxim Reality.
Performing in front of a gothic backdrop sporting some graphic from The Fat Of The Land artwork, Maxim, Howlett, Flint, dancer Leroy and an accompanying drummer and guitarist played most of the current album and a handful of old faves. "Voodoo People" worked its dark mojo on the baying crowd, and "Poison" -- from 1994's Music For The Jilted Generation -- stomped along on a bass-heavy groove that transformed the entire room into a gigantic mosh pit. Even cool industry-types at the back of the room were pogo-ing as the band hit its straps on the Beastie Boys' punk-rap inspired "Funky Shit. "
There was little respite from the relentless, block-rocking beats that propel the band's latest material. "Mindfields" provided a more complex dynamic, but was followed in quick succession by the double-whammy of Flint's signature snarl of anti-social angst "Firestarter" and the punkish "Fuel My Fire," which Flint turned into a tribute of sorts to the by-now feverish crowd.
And Flint, as usual, was leading the hysteria.
"I just do my thing onstage -- it's just what happens," he said. "No one, even if they're into the band, can know it's as natural and real as anything can be. I don't think about it. I didn't create it. I'm just honest enough to let people see what happens to me. "