"Mummy! That man's got purple hair!"
A clearly distressed child whines fearfully and tugs frantically on her mother's coat-tails.
"Sssshhhh!" whispers the smartly-dressed woman, pulling her away. "Don't look at him!"
"Nooooo, MUMMY!" insists the girl. "He's got all pink bald bits ! He looks like Ronald McDonald!"
"SSSSSHHHH!" snaps the woman. "Come away! Not nice!"
It's too late, he's seen her ! He's staring right at her! She cowers behind her mother, and flinches in terror.
And then he sticks his studded tongue out, waves his fingers and utters the chilling word...
You know when you've been Keef-oed.
FASCINATED BY this grotesque, yet strangely lovable mammal, we pursue it deep into its underground lair, following the glow of its extraordinary purple, pink and white-striped crest, and the clank of the ferocious-looking spikes and buckles that protrude from its neck, ears, nose and tongue and protect it from the attack by predatory small children. On we creep, down into some foul, decaying verminous hell-hole and through to a dark, dank tunnel, choking on the clouds of dust. Suddenly, it stops, turns, and snarls at its own shadow.
"CUT ! CUUUUT FOR F***'S SAKE! Keith, love, can you stop wandering out of shot? And remember to mime all the words this time... "
The man with the torn-up hair and crumpled expression behind the tracking camera is attempting to capture on video the primal nature of rock'n'roll beast that is Keith Prodigy. And although he is removed from his natural habitat, the stage, we can still see a cartoon approximation of him, impeccable method-acted by his non-evil twin, Keith Flint.
The video is for The Prodigy's new single, "Firestarter". But the cartoon is probably Tim Burton's "Batman Vs The Firestarter", with Keith Flint playing a psychotic dancing clown who, as a result of a freak electrocution accident at an Essex rave five years ago, became permanently wired with "the buzz", a slave to the rock'n'roll vibe, bent on inciting chaos and riot, and infecting the youth of Gotham City with his feverish, bad craziness.
It's long since become impossible to tell where mild-mannered Keith Flint ends and Keith Prodigy, The Firestarter, begins. All we know is that somewhere within them lies the seething, screaming soul of the greatest rock'n'roll dance band of the '90s.
This video is being filmed deep in the tunnel of a disused London Underground station, amid thick, choking clouds of dust. We all cling to our barely adequate paper masks, but Keith makes his vocal debut on "Firestarter", and so must breathe it all in for the 12 or so hours it takes to finish the filming.
This doesn't stop him from effortlessly slipping into a vocal persona that is a schizo-barmy Mr C meeting a speedball-bonkers Gary Glitter in hell. It's another step on a seemingly inevitable ladder to megastardom for Keith, and yet, despite dressing, acting, dancing and now singing in a manner that psychologists might well describe as "ludicrously attention-seeking", he swears that neither he nor the band want to make him a star.
But could there be a covert career strategy being played out by The Prodigy's enigmatic supremo, Liam Howlett, designed to push the most blatantly charismatic quarter of the band into the spotlight?
"People say Keith looks insane these days," shrugs Liam, during a break from overseeing the filming. "But he's been insane for five years ! He was insane the day I met him dancing in The Barn in Braintree. People only started to notice when he dyed his hair. And obviously the press and the fans are going to latch onto him now. But it was always going to be like that. It's a natural progression. "
His public profile is surely set to go ballistic in about two weeks, though, in the wake of his starring role on "Firestarter". And Liam may not be responsible for the ensuing carnage.
"I recorded it as an instrumental," recalls Liam. "And as usual, all three of the others come around to have a listen. Keith happened to be the first, and I said to him, 'We need one more element.' Now, I'd have been happy with a good sample, but Keith says, ' I'd really like to try some vocals on that.' And I'm like, 'Whaaaaat ?!' "
"We had no idea how it was gonna sound," admits Keith, "because the only singing Liam's ever heard from us is me and Leeroy singing U2 songs on the way home. We always harmonise on 'One', and instead of lighters, we light up our mobile phones and wave 'em in the air !"
"It was so ridiculous because my English isn't my strong point, by any stretch of the imagination. So I end up singing in this weird accent (puts on a daft yokel voice) ,' Oi'm a muckspreaderrrrr, twisted muckspreaderrrr '. But it ended up sounding quite... menacing. "
So are we to assume that "Firestarter" is autobiographical, then ? Have you burnt down any houses lately ?
"Oh no, man !" counters Keith. "It's never that direct. It does make you think though. They played the white label at Stamford Bridge the other day, and I was thinking, 'I hope it don't start any Bradford fires !' "
"Leeroy knows me inside out, though," he concludes, "and when he heard it he said, 'That tune sums you up, man.' So there you go. "
THIS IS the second video The Prodigy have made for "Firestarter". The first one was directed by man responsible for a Mustang jeans ad the band liked. "It didn't represent us properly", according to Liam. Which roughly translates as,"We were barely even in it". Presentation and representation are a high priority, some might say absurdly high, for the The Prodigy, possibly the only successful band in Britain who refuse to appear on 'Top Of The Pops' or, indeed, most other TV programmes. It's not a "real vibe" is their usual argument. But Keith, inevitably, has something more to say. And there could be casualties.
"TV corrupts people, I think. A lot of acts get that little break and they change from T-shirt and shorts to designer stuff, swanning around like arseholes. I mean, to me Goldie and Bjork are like that. Goldie's coming on as the bad boy of the jungle scene - from the underground, and all that - and then next thing you know he's going on to give an award to his girlfriend at The Brit Awards. Now to me, that was as sickening as Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. I'm not dissing him, right, but if I watch that, it's Bon Jovi. It's Hollywood. You give 'em a few front covers and they wanna play the pop-star game. "
"Nah, that's bollocks, Keith," Liam calmly corrects his colleague. "I've got respect for Goldie, because all he's doing is bringing a music that's actually quite small - 'cos jungle's not as big as the press make it out to be - to a new audience. He hasn't commercialised his music. And he hasn't sold out. It's a good stuff, man. "
"Sure," says Keith, slowly trying to dig himself out of the hole his big mouth has created. "But I'm just saying, you put a camera in front of someone and they do something a little bit cheesy. It's just the hypocrisy, man. If you slag off the mainstream when you're small, you shouldn't embrace it later. "
Never mind. I hear Goldie takes criticism with good grace.
Bit of shame about 'Top Of The Pops', though. Just imagine the nationwide tea-choking that would doubtless be induced by Keith Prodigy breaking and entering your living room at 7pm on a Thursday evening...
"Well, the old ladies love it ! I get so many old dears coming up to me going, 'Nice one, love yer hair, are you collecting for charity then ?' They love it, they know life's too short so you might as well live it. " "Anyway, nothing's that shocking any more. I mean, people running onstage and pulling their trousers down on telly just doesn't impress me any more. It's as crap as finishing your tune and smashing your guitar up. "
He pauses in anticipation of a profound thought, then throws us a rather unlikely pearl of wisdom.
"The best statements these days are the quieter statements. The quieter you are, the more of a statement you're making. "
Upon which, without a trace of irony, he adjusts his nose bone and applies more hairspray so that his purple hair-horns make their subtle statement as succintly as possible. Then he goes downstairs to roar manically into a camera lens for an hour.
"WE WANT some f***in' beer, and we want it now ! What ? Oh, anything I can get f***in' lashed with. Oh yeah, and bring me a whore back with you... right... who wants a f***in' fight, then ?!"
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Leeroy. The charming, debonair, sophisticated face of The Prodigy. Dancer, sideburned giant and confirmed bachelor, he's the Keith you can take home to mum. As long as mum is a fan of constant off-colour sexist jokes.
"Ere, got any African in yer ?" he asks the make-up artist. "Well, d'yer want some ? Hur hur hur !!!"
Etcetera, etcetera. Smashing bloke though. And he is offset neatly by Maxim's feline fur-coated cool, in the same way Keith's crazed, naive exuberance is offset by Liam's quietly arrogant, semi-detached, enigmatic genius. Like the great rock'n'roll bands, they can be carved into four distinct personalities, and like the great pop groups, they complement and interact with each other perfectly. It's a nuclear family, with Liam as dad, the authority figure; Maxim as mum, the dignified, classy, quiet strength; and Keith and Leeroy as the hyperactive, mad-for-it kids.
Today, Leeroy wins the moaning child award by some distance, bombarding your correspondent with all manner of complaints about the terrible drudgery of this pop life. "I f***in' hate doin' press, I f***in' hate doin' videos, and I f***in' hate waitin' around. I'll tell yer, I'm not stickin' around 'til 12 - I wanna be out drinking and f***ing by then. "
The poor lamb has been forced to wait around all day to play his part in the video. And the gargantuan pressures piling on his fragile shoulders are becoming too much for him to bear. "It just gets on top of you after a while. You say time and time again that you don't want to to be a pop star, you don't want all the attention, and then you go on tour to Australia and a journalist follows you around for nine f***in' days ! Can't relax ! So you're out every night, and you get back to Braintree and it's ummm... find somefink to do ! Who can I see ? Where can I get a drink ? My head's in bits !"
"I ain't movin' to London, 'cos I'd become an alcoholic, a drug addict or worse. But I wanna get pissed ! All these straights say, 'Famous people are paid by the public, so they're public property, so they should put up with it.' F*** that, man, I don't even wanna be famous!" Rock'n'roll is a ruthless and demanding mistress. And you thought Bez had the easiest job in the world. Who would ever have suspected the secret existential torment that lies behind the innocently jocular public face of the modern dance technician ? "Right, you f***in' better get one fing straight right now, right ? We're not f***in' Bezes, alright ?"
Leeroy fixes me with a stare that says, "I am right, aren't I...? Aren't I ?"
"We're all, like, talented," asserts Maxim with an earnestly-indignant scowl. "I mean, we all love Bez, he's great, but we do stuff in our own right. I've been MC-ing since I was 14, and if I wasn't in The Prodigy I'd be in another band. Liam's a genius, the best there is is at what he does, right, but without us it wouldn't be in people's faces. We put so much into it, and people just don't understand. "
"Maxim's got a hip-hop album coming out later this year," announces Leeroy, supportively, "and I'm hopefully gonna be on it. " What, dancing? "Nah, f*** off. Dunno yet," he snaps, still trying to convince himself, as well as Maxim and myself of his creative potential. "We wanna build it up so The Prodigy's like a Wu-Tang-type vibe, everyone doing their own thing as well as the main band. "
"None of us ever want to leave The Prodigy - even if I had a Number One album, The Prodigy will always be the main thing. I mean, if it hadn't been for us, it wouldn't have been the same. If me and Keith hadn't gone up to Liam and said, "Love your music, man, how about a stage act?" it wouldn't have happened. And without Maxim we wouldn't have a voice. " Alas, our conversation is prematurely terminated by the return of Leeroy's romantic nemesis, the make-up artist. "AWOIGHT DARLIN'?! Come to take me 'ome 'ave yer ? Need a bit of Braintree in yer?" Relax girls, he prefers sex with someone he loves. "I could've had four wanks so far today ! Have you tried the Golden Gate Bridge technique ? You bend over backwards like this, lean against the wall and... "
ENOUGH ! THIS is a family paper. Besides, to extend the comparison beyond the call of duty, if Bez is the soul of Black Grape and the Mondays and Shaun is the sleaze, then we've seen enough of the sleaze, and we need to look for the soul. We find it hanging upside down from four huge rubber limbs, 20ft up an abandoned lift shaft, roaring its head off.And it's feeling very ill indeed.
"OK Keith," yells the director, ignoring his plight. "Can you just writhe about a bit more for me ?" Making videos may be among the most murderously tedious pastimes known to man for bystanders like Leeroy and Maxim, not to mention your hack, but for the participants it can be practically life-threatening. Not only is Keith protected from a surely fatal plunge to the ground by just a few tubes of rubber and lengths of string, he's constantly breathing in the aforementioned dust, as well as feeling deeply nauseous and having a headache that is quite possibly the beginnings of the brain haemorrhage. Not that he minds. It's all a good buzz, innit ? Besides, risking personal injury is all part of life's rich tapestry for the man most famous for stagediving headlong into audiences full of drug-crazed ravers, that's when he's not crashing motorbikes.
"No... I've never got badly hurt going in the crowd, really," he muses later, as if the thought had never occured to him before. "I've chipped a few teeth - my own, but nothing serious. " "I've seen him deck a few people," grins Leeroy. "We were onstage in Greece one time, the stage was about a foot high, and Keith goes straight in and starts whizzing round with his fists clenched, and he knocks this bloke out cold ! Keith didn't even notice !"
"The funniest thing I ever saw," says Liam, "was when he stagedived once, and the bouncer got hold of his shorts. Keith jumped out of his shorts, and this laser spotlight was shining right on his bare arse !" "The best thing," reckons Keith, "is when I fall down and play dead when it's getting frantic. You can hear the crowd going, 'F***! Is he alright ? Pick him up ! Pick him up, he's collapsed ! He must be on acid, he's obviously tripping off his head !' And I'm a dead weight - when they pick me up they're going, 'He's not breathing ! He's not breathing !' Then I burst back into life. I usually try to collapse near someone with a nice cleavage, heh, heh!"
Once upon a time, James Brown embodied the essence of dance energy, being dragged offstage by minders only to repeatedly break free and scramble, screaming, back for more. In 1996, Keith Flint is The Hardest Working Man In Showbusiness, Mr Supermad-for-it, the Prime Minister Of The New Superheavy Dance Pop. And say it loud, for he's Bez and he's proud. "You could pay your 20 notes to see me sit behind a drumkit, right, Leeroy on guitar, and I could play along with no enthusiasm. People would still call me a musician. But instead, I'm out there havin' it, screaming, 'Come on you cunts ! Let's f***in' GO!' What do you want? Entertainment, energy, some slammin' sounds, something to look at, a lot going on, a real close vibe with the audience, or three musicians standing still? Well, if that makes me Bez, then I'm proud to be a Bez.
He was born this way, of course.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I'd listen to music, and if I heard a tune that took me and ROCKED me, I was like "YEEEEAAARGH !" and I'd be doing exactly what I do onstage now. And my mum and dad would be bangin' on the walls at me. When a tune came on at a rave that I really wanted to rock to, I just wanted everyone around me to love this tune with me !" "Now when I'm onstage I just wanna incite a riot... and I'm leading everyone into battle. Dadadadadaaaaa ! CHAAAAAAAARGE !" That's right. But isn't all the piercing and hair-raising a little, ahem, self-abusive? "No way ! I just like jewellery, I always have done. Anyway, tongue-piercing is such a natural high ! I'd have me lip done as well, but I'd have too much metal in me mouth to sing. I'm going to get me winkle done, though. That appeals to me. "
Oo-er. D'you get many S&M groupies, then, Keith ?
"Oh yeah, loads of 'em !"
But where, pray, does the modern gentleman draw the line ?
"I don't have any lines ! I'm game for anything ! Course I am !"
Leeroy simply has to butt in at this point.
"I don't draw any lines neither - I've got me own ruler !"
"From what I've heard," confides Keith, "Leeroy's got 12 inches... "
Yes but, sadly, they're all extended remixes of the same old jokes. Arf.
LIAM HOWLETT smiles silently at his band mates' badinage, occasionally chipping in, but more often half-immersed in his own thoughts, probably about the video he's just taken a break from overseeing. Or perhaps the embryo of a tune or an idea is buzzing around his head, and he needs to sort it through the usual creative mind processes before he can concern himself with more frivolous matters.
The others leave him be. They're too in awe of his genius to interrupt any discourse with his muse. It has been thus since the day Keith and Leeroy excitedly approached the skinny, spotty kid on the DJ decks at The Barn in Braintree, and volunteered to be his live act. They've shared his impregnable confidence that they had something very special to lay on the world. Even when "Charly" thrust them (prematurely?) into the charts, replete with the stigma of a novelty rave hit, and the charge of killing rave by inventing toytown techno (which is like blaming David Bowie for romo), they had no doubts.
"We knew we were doing right from the start," shrugs Liam with more than a hint of surly, Essex, wideboy arrogance. "We've never regretted anything we've done. If anything, it was too easy for us. Everything we put out would end up in the Top Ten. I just got bored. " In the grand tradition of rock'n'roll artistry, Liam felt the irresistible urge to screw around with his own creative processes. "I was stuck in a formula by the start of '93 and it was working perfectly, but I had to do something different 'cos I was losing interest. So I wrote 'One Love' and that's when people started saying, 'You're not like a dance band, you're more powerful than that. You've got rock'n'roll energy.' And it was still essentially a rave tune. "
This was the watershed that sent them towards a revised, revitalised philosophy of dance music, and made them the band not only for the Jilted Generation, but for the multicultural, tribally crossbred generation in search a new rock'n'roll and the new definition for it. The band's native environment is the communal live arena. This in itself is unorthodox, revolutionary even, given the faceless, techno-art snobbery and bland, house-chart fodder that has prevailed since the rave scene dissipated. The Prodiy are populist and anti-purist, visceral and celebral, escapist and inherently political, charismatic and enigmatic, a band and a boffin, rocking as well as raving.
These may be some of the reasons why they are damn close to being the quintessential '90s rock'n'roll band, whereas their fellow graduates from the rave scene's class of '91 (wherefore art thou, Altern 8, when we need your paper masks ?) kind of, um, aren't. "They didn't progress," reckons Liam. "They carried on on that same line, whereas we branched off. Moved on to another station. " Did I mention their consummate skill with a mixed metaphor ? Well, that's not all. "The audience can relate to us as people onstage. I mean, that's why Oasis are popular. They're a geezers' band. They can't relate to four posers just out of performance arts school. "
Somehow, though, Guigsy doesn't fire you with the same spine-shuddering exhilaration and galvanising enthusiasm...
"Well that's it, you see, Keith and Leeroy are totally spontaneous. There's no pose, and they're almost part of the crowd. Literally. "
Which, give or take the odd tongue stud, is entirely in tune with original rave philosophy. The fact that The Prodigy are several million miles removed from The Aphex Twin and Amokachi Test Measurement is an indictment of how anorakified, and poisoned by purism the techno scene has become.
"But we were never a techno band," sneers Liam, with an irritated twitch. "I've never been into techno at all. I never gave a toss about Kraftwerk. They're futuristic German boffins behind their f***in' keyboards - with about as much in common with us as Duran Duran. We're an alternative dance act for the '90s. "
"There's still some good dance acts around, although not many - Underworld, Orbital, The Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Ninja Tune's stuff - but the scene just ain't the same. People are still going out and dancing, takin' Es and stuff, but it's to shit house and jungle. The size of the parties aren't anything like the same. Rock music's come back in - people want to go out and see a band now, they need to relate on something human. "
"The drugs vibe has changed as well," adds Keith. "It's got to the point where, if you go and smile at someone, instead of shouting, 'Are you on one ?' he's just as likely to whack you round the head with a baseball bat, 'cos he's on charlie !" "I don't mind, though," rejoins Liam. "Because the vibe is never meant to last. Rave lasted longer than punk, it involved more people and was international. But all good things must come to an end. Anyway, when you play in front of ravers you can play anything you f***in' like - you could loop your farts and play that - as long as it's got a bassline and a beat. We're going back to the alcohol crowds now - it's far more challenging. I mean, if people say we killed rave, then it was worth killing, because we're having a great time now. The important thing is we still have the same spirit. "
And it doesn't look like anything can threaten that spirit right now. Not even the Criminal Justice Act, the cause celebre of '95 and a major thematic touchstone of "Music For The Jilted Generation". "It's a f***in' joke if you ask me,"snorts Liam. "It's hardly affected the scene at all. They've only arrested four people or something. It hasn't been anything like as bad as we thought it was gonna be. The dance scene is still as big as it ever was, and Tribal Gathering's still happening this year. "
"Now, though, people think we support all those sort of causes. I had this idiot ringing me up asking if he could use 'Break And Enter' as the music for the MII protests. I said no, and he says, 'Don't you support the Criminal Justice Act protests ?', and I said, 'Yeah, but I support the parties movement, not any other movement'. So he went to the papers and there was headlines saying 'Prodigy Jilt Their Generation'. But the thing is, I don't give a toss about road protests. I don't live up a f***in' tree, I'm not a traveller - I don't care about those people. " Yeah, well, you can take the boy out of Essex, but you can't take Thatcher's heartland out of the boy.
It's probably exactly such bloody-mindedness that got them where they are today. But then there were always subtle qualities to The Prodigy's music to lift them out of the dance ghetto. Chiefly, it's a unique kind of musicality which sets them apart, and digs those hidden depths. In the sense that there's about six tunes interwoven in tracks like 'Break And Enter' or 'Voodoo People', and even the beats have a certain insidious melody to them, improbable as it might sound. Even within their most brutally percussive breakbeat moments, there's an organic, funky feel to their music that has more in common with modern hip-hop and traditional black music.
This may well have been the connection that allowed The Prodigy to build a following among a rock crowd, without burning bridges from the dance scene that spawned them. Or was it just a meeting of minds? "We're a dance band with a rock attitude," explains Liam. "That's what sets us apart. We absorb hip-hop and dance beats, and rock attitude, plus the same energy and hard impact. That's The Prodigy sound. "
So what, pray, are these rumours (started by born-again rocker Moby, in a recent NME piece) that you'd really like to do a 'rock' record next ?
"No way," he asserts. "We'd be tripping out a bit if we suddenly thought we were a rock band. Dance and rhythm are the most important thing for us. And you've got to remember your roots. Moby performs rock songs, but it tries too hard to be rock and ends up just a really bad rock song. I express myself through dance music, and I always will. " "The new stuff I'm writing is heavier, phatter, breakbeats, not as fast as we have been, more hip-hop influenced. But there's obvious rock elements involved. For example, I really want Skin from Skunk Anansie to sing on a track, because I think she's got one of the best voices in Britain. "
Keith, meanwhile, is quite happy with any crowd, any time, anywhere. "We never sat down and looked at the music scene and decided to go for a rock crowd," he says. "But I'm up for anything. I wanna find people who think, 'Aw bollocks ! F***ing Prodigy before the Chili Peppers ! But I'm gonna have to sit through it to get a good place for the Chilis'. Then I wanna shake those bastards' brains out and have'em screaming and jumping around by the end. " And that's only the start of the great man's ambitions. "I want to come offstage and know that no-one could be sweatier in the whole place. I want 'em to be there in 20 years' time with their kids moaning, 'Aw f***ing hell, if uncle Tony tells me one more time about The Prodigy in 1995...', and he's going, 'I remember it like it was yesterday. December 18, 1995, greatest gig I ever saw. Keith came over to me...'" "And the cunt spat in my face ! Ha ha ha !" That'll be Leeroy then, master of bathos, spoiling it for everyone again.
WE LEAVE The Prodigy just before things start to get sticky, as Leeroy pulls down his trousers and moons at the video camera, grabs his crotch and then demands a 'fish-finger pie' from some unfortunate young lady on set. Liam studiously ignores him, staring intently at playbacks of the video thus far. Maxim observes silently from the comfort of his tiger-fur coat, casually sipping a bottle of lager. And Keith attempts to do a headstand on his skateboard, while still hanging upside down by rubber limbs inside a disused lift shaft. Have a nice day at the office then, lads ? "Wow ! Fackin' weird buzz, man !" replies Keith. And then he throws up.