In the countdown to the millennium, everyone in the U.K. has seemingly gone off the deep end. The Prodigy encapsulate the mood.
This weekend I was at this kinda posh, mostly-French bar on Mont-Royal with a friend who was dumbo-drunk. And I wouldn't be starting an article about the Biggest Band in the World, the Prodigy, if what this watered pal of mine said didn't apply massively. "We are in this shitty, over-decorated bar," he said. "Ten years ago we would have been listening to fucking Tom Petty. Twenty years ago T Rex. But think about it: I drove here listening to Cornershop and the Chemical Brothers on the radio, and now...Ronnie Size! In a yuppie bar! Think about how great the '90s are! Fin de fucking siècle!"
Well, as they say, tastes change. For all I know T Rex could have been to my 40-ish editor what the Chemical Brothers are to me. But nonetheless I did start thinking about how musically smasharoo the '90s have been: this'll be a pack of years that the next millennium will remember with its ears. Probably not for Cornershop. But definitely for the Prodigy. The Prodigy--selling better than Madonna, Oasis, Radiohead. Still can't believe it. I mean, by traditional standards, the Prodigy are the weirdest band running. People don't even know what half of the group's members do.
"Eh, I don't even know what Leeroy does, really," says the Prodigy's music-maker Liam ("I'm the producer, not the keyboardist, America! Not some keyboardist with a mullet... ") Howlett of one of his band's "dancers. " "But it's just all in the energy, that's it. Seeing people onstage going mad. "
The world hardly needs more flourishes about the Prodigy's live show. You probably already know that the group, who became known for their live gigs when they stole the crowd from Oasis at Glastonbury '95, have the most ferocious live show running. That every pack o' pages from Aussie heavy metal number Kerrrang! to house rag Mixmag agree: The Prodigy--Keith Flint (the clown hair "Firestarter" guy), MC Maxim Reality (the cat's eye contact lenses guy), Leeroy (the tall guy that everyone forgets) and Liam (the bleachy, ultra-Essex, fast car-driving musical prodigy)--are the most flammable stage fodder since the first burned guitar. They are the only band that ever made the floors in London's Brixton Academy cave in (exposing a six-foot drop). And anyway, anyone who's seen a Prodigy concert says the same thing as Liam: "Mad. " Mad, mad, mad. Cliché, you say? You don't know the half of it.
Earlier this year, the Prodigy created a video for the third release off their Fat of the Land album--a woofing metallic breakbeat song entitled "Smack My Bitch Up. " The vid, which was banned at the starting gate, which I'm not allowed to ask Liam about, which is brilliant beyond words, which I had to especially order from the record label, goes something like this: A person gets ready to go out. Drinks some booze, sniffs some coke, drinks more booze, goes to a club, gropes women, gets into a fight, wrecks the DJ booth, drinks more, does more drugs in the toilet, vomits something red into a sink, goes to a strip club, picks up a prostitute, drives home drunk with the prostitute, sexes the prostitute, drinks more, looks in the mirror. It's only when our hero--and this person is supposed to be heroic--looks in the mirror that we know she is actually a girl. Who can party like a man. The Prodigy were trying to feminise a song that everyone thought was about wife-beating. This was a, well, extreme way of doing it.
Make way for another sweeping and too-early hypothesis about the decade we're living in. Wait. Let me get even more out of my league and speculate about the decade the Brits are living in. "Smack My Bitch Up" is just a pole in what's become a late-'90s U.K. tradition--seemingly. Never before have so many Brits publicly boasted about drinking others under the table and staying up for three days on speed, "dancing like a nutter," and "laughing like a drain. " All that "mad for it, yeah" stuff.
In these years, after the "Cool Britannia" self-adulation of Brit-pop '95, you can't glance through a British style magazine without reading 17 cute cocaine references and insiderish I-know-where-you-were ho ho's from--eds. It's what British journo Laura Craik has recently called the "cult of 'I'm mad, me.'" What Loaded magazine, big beat (the only genre that considers both rock and techno too staid), Irvine Welsh books, Underworld songs and most of Channel 4's yoof programming is based on. The same thing that made Playstation launch a U.K. ad for a game called CoolBoarders 2, that starts off with the line "Powder. I need powder. My body aches, yells, screams for powder, when I'm on it, I get a rush... " England is the only country that hosts a prestigious music awards event (the SAS Awards--instituted in 1997) that has a "Gurner of the Year" prize.
Maybe it's a leftover rave thing, where necking nine E's and dancing until you had to go to hospital for chaffed ass-cheeks ("clubber's bum," it has a name) was considered the highest of leisure life achievements. Maybe it's a New Labour thing. Or just the latest leg in a long tradition of English '90s debauchery (Oscar Wilde, Restoration lesbianic sluts). Whatever. I'm not saying the whole U.K. is on drugs, but that most of the country seems to want the rest of the world to think it. And the Prodigy encapsulate the mood. Keith Flint is the new English Eccentric. Why? Just 'cause he's mad.
"Nothing intellectual," says Liam. "People who don't understand our setup--people in America who think we are part of this boring 'electronica' thing--just have to see us go nuts onstage and instantly they understand. We make it very simple. " Party-for-party's sake. Oasis can trash rooms and get banned from airlines all they like, but they can't turn it into entertainment beyond headlines. They can't turn it into music. The Prodigy can.
"Keith isn't just a dancer or MC," says Liam. "He's the encompassing image of the Prodigy. You know, he is everything that the music is. So you don't even question what he does. He is as much the Prodigy as the sound is. "
So what is Keith? Well, basically he-of-the-dyed-upside-down-mohican, is atmosphere. He has two lines in two Prodigy tracks, the more famous of the two phrases being, "I'm the Firestarter I'm the instigator. " And the floors--inevitably-- come crashing in.
The Prodigy began their chart career at the #1 spot with derided, toy-town 'ardcore rave anthem called "Charly," in 1992. At about the same time, rave became as fashionable in trendy Britain as pedophelia. "But we still have that 'ardcore rave energy, the feel, only the music has progressed," says MC Maxim Reality. "We never left our roots, even when people said our roots were crap, see?"
Liam Howlett has gone on the record a zillion times claiming that the Prodigy "are not a rave band. " After the group released the chart-topping, heavy, dirty, Music for a Jilted Generation in 1994, people started believing him.
"We were the first band," says Liam, "to bring rock to full-on dance beats. " But of course they weren't. Tons of groups, from Primal Scream to the Rolling Stones did it before. Only none ever got as internationally successful with the formula (do you like the Stone's disco era?).
"Imagine Rage Against the Machine on one side, and Public Enemy on the other," says Liam. "We're bang in the middle of them. With the best parts of both. " But Liam usually just lamely calls his sound "Prodigy Music. " The media have had other ideas. "A Hard Dance Band" was the first try at pinning the Prodge (I-D, 1994), "techno rock" was the second round (Melody Maker, 1994), "indie dance" (Mixmag, 1996) and "electronic punk" (Select, 1996) the third stab. But then, in 1997, came the biggies: "the new rock and roll," (NME), and "electronica" (Spin).
"Classification is futile," says Maxim. "Because you can't cage us in. You can't cage our energy. We'll bust out. "
Right. So you get the whole extremist/sensualist thing. Call it whatever ya like--it's the thing that every new band in Europe that isn't sitting in the Massive Attack/Portishead department or the ironic gitpop showroom is trying to do, too. There have been good ones, like Headrillaz and Asian Dub Foundation. There have been terrible ones, like Space Monkeys. But there have been many. They all act crazy onstage, they all have members who do nothing more than "vibe," they all have lots of "caning it" tour stories posted on the Net--partying, as someone once said, like it's 1999. Which it will be. In six months. Good thing we'll have an apt soundtrack.