THE OTHER DAY, I was on my way to a picnic in a pleasant neighborhood park in Mountain View when I came upon a sorry sight. The park had been overrun by skanky hippies--guys playing hackysack in drawstring pants with big woolen rasta hats covering their uncombed hair, and girls in faded print smocks who were wrapping each other's hair.
They were all waiting for the nearby Furthur Festival--the tour created by ex-members of the Grateful Dead--to begin at Shoreline Amphitheater, but it was still a bit of a shock to witness such a culturally anachronistic sight. After all, Jerry's been dead for a good two years now. How sad, I thought, that these people haven't found an artistic or ideological replacement yet. There other options, after all--more modern bands who speak to the present rather than the past.
The Prodigy, for example, is the current leader in a pack of groups that would like to conquer the hearts and minds of America's youth. Like all bold new bands, the Prodigy relies on a style--multiethnic members with pierced nipples and eyebrows--that is somewhat futuristic, and its songs allude vaguely to revolution in the streets. "Would you rather have butter or guns?" the band asks on the CD sleeve of its latest release, The Fat of the Land (Maverick/Warner Bros.). "Preparedness makes us powerful ... butter merely makes us fat. "
In short, although the Prodigy's first single was released as far back as 1991--pre-Nevermind!--stylistically, musically and ideologically, it is the opposite of everything the Furthur Festival and its patrons stand for. It is a harsh-sounding techno-punk band from Britain whose music represents the commercial cutting edge of "electronica. "
For the last four years, the Prodigy has topped the charts in Britain with huge dance-floor hits like"Charly," "Fire," "Poison" and "What Evil Lurks. " The band's LPs, The Prodigy Experience (1992) and Music for the Jilted Generation (1994), were monsters. In Europe, the Prodigy has gotten so big that this year's Glastonbury Festival included an appearance by an Australian band that did nothing but covers of Prodigy tracks.
THUS FAR, however, American success has eluded the group. The Prodigy is credited with integrating the late'80s rave scene's druggy peace-and-love aura with the harder, punkier sonics of grunge and rap. For all that, however, the Prodigy is hardly a shocking or radical innovator.
Nevertheless, the ailing American recording industry is now looking to the Prodigy to reignite the passion for rock & roll, hoping that the band will serve as a gun in the face of the lardlike music scene, particularly the overfed, easygoing sounds of leftover rock stars like the ones at the Furthur Festival.
The quest began on an up note: "Firestarter" was a mild Live-105 hit in March, and The Fat of the Land debuted three weeks ago in this country at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Since then, the Prodigy has mounted a campaign intended to break the band worldwide. Indeed, if the number of people who see the Prodigy this summer translated directly into record sales, the Prodigy would be a great deal bigger than U2.
The band's grueling touring schedule includes 11 U.S. dates on Lollapalooza (but not at the Shoreline stop this weekend), a quick flight to Japan to headline the mammoth Mount Fuji Festival (which was canceled on account of rain), then back to the U.S. for more Lollapalooza dates, then over to Europe to do three of the UK's biggest outdoor festivals: in Leeds, Chelmsford and Ireland.
Despite this relentless schedule, I doubt that the Prodigy will leap to respected-superstar status in the U.S. For one thing, like lots of techno albums, The Fat of the Land is a collaborative work that presupposes that metal-headed kids--the kind who have previously enjoyed the pseudoviolent imagery and angry lyrics of Ministry, the Butthole Surfers and Nine Inch Nails--also want to dance. The Fat of the Land is a powerful and occasionally likable record, but it lacks both a distinctive personality and a message--two important ingredients for superstardom.
In fact, the Prodigy's lack of individuality and contextual meaning isn't that surprising, since the term "techno" generally implies a certain amount of anonymity on the part of its artists. Usually, the genre's songs--or rather "tracks"--don't use a classical narrative structure but merely repeat riffs and phrases over and over within an electronically generated beat.
The result is reminiscent of the music of Wagner in that it reuses its best riffs like leitmotifs, and that description (minus the drama of Wagner) describes the Prodigy precisely. "Smack My Bitch Up" is a rhythmic little number with a shock-laced chorus and a brief Indian raga fill, while"Climbatize" sounds like a cross between "Baba O'Riley," "Roundabout" and "Disco Inferno. "
The catchy dance-floor hit "Funky Shit," with its repetitive chorus "Oh my God, that's some funky shit," strangely echoes the Chemical Brothers' "Block Rockin' Beats" chorus "How about some more of those block rockin' beats. "
Elsewhere, The Fat of the Land relies on guest stars such as rapper Kool Keith, Skin from Skunk Anansie, Saffron from Republica, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker for variety. These tracks (particularly Mills' "Narayan," the chorus of which is sung, characteristically, in Sanskrit) are much stronger than ones credited solely to Prodigy members.
The already too-familiar song "Firestarter" has the best and most memorable riffs of all, and no wonder. Its writing credits include Yes' Trevor Horn, Kim Deal and Art of Noise and Lord of the Dance composer Anne Dudley. Too bad "Breathe," the follow-up single, sounds so much the same.
Live, the Prodigy is said to be a scary, powerful, high-energy outfit, with singers Keith Flint and Maxim Reality, both of whom sport spooky hair and makeup, bellowing like devils amid flashing strobe lights and lots of repetitive noise and sonic confusion. (DJs Liam Howlett and Leeroy Thornhill complete the band, which also uses a guitarist, Jim Davies.)
This is generally a highly effective way of drawing in a crowd, but it's a style of performance that loses three-quarters of its power in an outdoor festival setting. Even if the band is not playing in broad daylight, the crowd is too far away to really become enveloped by the atmosphere.
In order to put itself over on personality alone, the Prodigy would have to tour U.S. clubs over and over and over again--as Bush did--and the group is already too large in England to put up with such an indignity. That's one reason that the Prodigy isn't going to save rock & roll any more than Oasis did.
The other is that, despite its newness to American ears, the Prodigy is certainly reaching the end of its reign in Europe. If The Fat of the Land ultimately scores big here, it can only be as leftovers--and leftovers generally don't yield second helpings.
MEANWHILE, Lollapalooza will reach Shoreline on Aug. 15 without either the Prodigy or Korn on the bill (the latter withdrew a few weeks ago due to the illness of its singer). This year's lineup includes ambient-techno group the Orb, rap superstar Snoop Doggy Dog, industrio-grungers Tool, English folk-rockers James and reggae up-and-comers Damien and Julian Marley, which makes it the only truly eclectic bill of the summer.
Ironically, last year's Lollapalooza was criticized for having a mainstream headliner (Metallica); but this year's attendants will be showing their true open-mindedness by absorbing a huge range of styles of music from mostly unknown bands. And that's a lot more likely to yield up a revolution in sound than the Prodigy's more contrived effort.