Rave pioneers the Prodigy are now injecting anarchy into rock, says ANDREW SMITH.
Oasis may have been the band of the year, but it would be folly to try to argue that the record of 1996 belonged to anyone other than the Prodigy. 'Firestarter' was the musical equivalent of ball lightning. It arrived out of nowhere; tense, compressed, chaotic, a distillation of techno sounds, hip-hop rhythms and punkish rock energy, the likes of which had simply never been heard before. It leapt straight to No 1 in the singles chart and stayed there for three weeks, despite the group's continued refusal to appear on television. The hastily produced video that Top of the Pops showed in their stead went on to produce a record number of complaints. Allegedly, the scenes of their "singer", Keith Flint, shivering and shaking (some would say dancing) frightened small children. Off-stage Flint is anything but intimidating - The Face described him as a cross between Max Wall, Uncle Fester, Private Godfrey from Dad's Army, Crusty the Clown and Sid Vicious's hair. Put him on a stage, though, and he is electric.
Even before 'Firestarter', no artists other than Oasis and, perhaps, Pulp, were being mentioned by their peers as regularly in these pages as the Prodigy. One theatre director called their show at Glastonbury last year "the best piece of theatre I saw all year. " Afterwards, Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant found himself wondering, "I mean, is Firestarter a song? You couldn't sit down and play it on the piano, but it's a bloomin' great record. " He concluded that 1996 "would be remembered for Firestarter more than the guitar bands. "
The much-pierced quartet's musical leader, Liam Howlett, does consider his composition to be a song. We know this because he has privately asked: "How d'you follow a song like that?" - a question that a second single, Breathe, will finally be attempting to answer when it is issued a week tomorrow. Where did it come from?
Nobody would have predicted Howlett's current defining role at the heart of pop culture when he and his mates shuffled out of Braintree in Essex five years ago. Then they were a rave act, specialising in slight but effective club anthems. Before the end of 1993, they had scored six hit singles (including Charly at No 2 and Everybody In The Place at No 3) and a top 20 album, Experience. In retrospect, Howlett performed his role as the high priest of good-time nonsense witha panache that the copyists who followed him never displayed, but at the time this was less apparent. Howlett was blamed for the rise of "toytown techno" and in the last analysis his tunes were soundtracks to a drug experience. Howlett began to suspect that he could knock these tunes off in his sleep. He had money and a measure of success, but no respect. One night at a dance party in Scotland, he looked down from the stage and thought: "What am I doing here?" He resolved to change direction. "I liked the energy (of rave), but not the corniness," he says. "In the early years, I was surprised to at how many times we managed to pull it off. I decided that the next record was going to be something for me. "
In 1994, Howlett introduced us to that record. Though still in instrumental nature, Music for the Jilted Generation didn't work the way other dance albums worked. Its wild but tightly focused energy was more suggestive of rock than anything you heard in british clubs at the time, and it became one of the first to be fully embraced by the rock press, though Howlett and his band were still widely misunderstood: when critics tried to paint Jilted Generation as a protest statement against the Criminal Justice Act, Howlett poured scorn on the idea. Asked who he will be voting for in the up-coming election, he replies that "the only thing i give a fuck about is whether I have to pay more tax or not, so whoever brings the cheapest tax rates, I'll be voting for them. " You can take the boy out of Essex, but you can't take the Essex out of the boy. Though, actually, Howlett still lives there.
There have been many "new" rock'n'rolls won the years - among them comedy and cookery - but the Prodigy's success suggests that the true inheritor is techno. Until recently, with a relatively few exceptions, 1990s rock bands mostly wanted to be thought of as "pop. " Pop is more supportive of irony. Even the name militates against taking itself too seriously: it's punchy, clever and has good dress sense. It can borrow and mix ideas with impurity. Not like dumb old rock, which has to be pitched just right in order to avoid reminding everyone of a scene from Spinal Tap. You will never hear Jarvis Cocker refer to Pulp as a "band. " They are always a "group. "
Techno is different. To start with, it is made almost exclusively by boys and the more serious (or, if you like, sad) fans are boys. Increasingly, techno bands have drawn on the chaotic, transporting energy of the ebst rock bands and, like the Prodigy, put on extravegantly entertaining live shows. Oasis just stand there, but you cant take your eyes off the Prodigy as the frontline trio of Flint, MC Maxim Reality and dancer Leeroy Thornhill confront Howlett's strident riffs and rhythms. They even have costume changes. So, when Flint approached Howlett with the idea of doing a vocal track, something they had never done before, it made sense. This led to Firestarter and its invigorating sibling, Breathe. An album, originally due about now, will be released early next year.
The past six months have left Howlett, whose hobbies include fast cars and skateboarding, with some difficult choices to make. He does not regard the Prodigy as a techno group. Howlett may have begun as a purveyor of tunes to the discerning raver, but he mistrusts, even despises, club music now. What kind of act does he want to be?
"We've always said in interviews that we don't want to be a techno band," he says. "We don't want to give up writing good dance music and start writing dodgy rock'n'roll music, but that's the energy were interested in at the moment. I wanted to make something more anarchic. You see, I didn't really expect 'Firestarter' to be accepted so well. "
The mistake, according to Howlett, is to see his music as futuristic. You can see his point. As on Firestarter, the earth-shaking rush of the bass on Breathe, the crunchy guitars, otherworldly, electronic instrumentation and Flint's demented vocal, combine the ethereal dance experience with the visceral thrill of rock - all things that have been heard before, but never before in quite this way. Like all the best things in life, the Prodigy defy definition - and, incidentally, the new video is every bit as scary as the last.