The Prodigy set out to provoke and disturb. So how have they beaten Oasis to success in the United States? Neil McCormick on rock.
GIVEN the current level of media obsession surrounding a certain pair of battling brothers, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is only one group of any genuine significance in the UK music industry. But while the nation gears up for the impending release of a new Oasis album, four young men from Essex have achieved what Oasis have thus far failed to deliver: number-one success in the US, the biggest musical market of all. And what's more they have done it with one of the most abrasive, inventive, eclectic, assuredly modern and bloody-minded albums ever made.
The group is the Prodigy. Fronted by a man with a spike through his nose, studs in his tongue and purple horns for a hairdo, the band play an aggressive, energetic rock-techno hybrid that no one could describe as easy on the ears. None the less their new album, the Mercury Prize-nominated The Fat of the Land (on XL records) notched up sales in excess of 2.5 million worldwide in the first two weeks of release. It is currently number one in 22 countries, including the UK and the US. Only seven other UK acts have ever gone straight into the US album charts at number one: the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Def Leppard, Depeche Mode and Bush.
The Prodigy themselves are said to be in a state akin to shell-shock. "It's pretty unreal," said Liam Howlett, the band's creative force. "It'll fuck a lot of people off and that's what we like. We've got to number one doing fuck all really. " (Frontman Keith Flint's reaction to the news was even more foul-mouthed and less articulate, comprising a string of astonished expletives.)
Howlett, a classically trained pianist, is the sole musician in the band; the other members were recruited as dancers (and occasional tuneless ranters) to spice up the live shows. He started the Prodigy in 1991, as a 19-year-old rave enthusiast.
Initially they were a typical acid-house outfit, making gimmicky, up-beat techno records. They wore baggy white outfits and performed with smiles pasted on their faces. But by 1993, after five consecutive hit singles and a hit album, Howlett found himself increasingly disillusioned, complaining that it was "too easy" to make music for an ecstasy-fuelled audience who would accept anything with a beat.
In an act of daring perversity, he reinvented the Prodigy as the negative image of the rave scene, taking the energy of dance music into areas that were loud and confrontational, with the sonic harshness and antisocial attitude of punk rock.
The Prodigy's second album, Music for the Jilted Generation, in 1994, was a British number one (and brought them their first Mercury Prize nomination). The musical equivalent of a blinding headache after a night on the town, the Prodigy became a dance band that appealed to people who don't like to dance. Perhaps most significantly, the Prodigy reintroduced a generation gap into pop music by making records that parents couldn't possibly approve of.
"I don't want to be Oasis," Howlett has remarked. "My dad likes Oasis. Everyone likes Oasis. I don't want everyone to like the Prodigy. We want to be too loud, we want to be too in-your-face; we don't want to compromise for America. "
And yet, here they are, perched at the top of the American charts, a peak upon which Oasis have yet to plant their flag. Given that they have been described as the first post-rave band, their transatlantic success is even more baffling. Americans have got the morning after without even experiencing the night before.
Their success certainly owes something to their image. The Prodigy have identities as distinct and marketable as Britain's other great musical export, the Spice Girls. There's Mad Prodigy (Keith, wide-eyed, hair-dyed and with so many body piercings that he sets off metal detectors in airports), Scary Prodigy (Maxim Reality, the black MC who wears snake-eye contact lenses and gold fangs), Giant Prodigy (Leeroy Thornhill, a six-foot-six dancer who describes what he does as "the music unleashed") and Brainy Prodigy (blond, handsome Liam Howlett, running the show from behind a bank of keyboards).
The Prodigy's extravagant live performances have made them a leading attraction on the festival circuit. Keith rolls on stage inside a perspex sphere and indulges in more costume changes than you'd see at a fashion show. He throws himself into audiences with dangerous abandon. When he lost his trousers at one concert, the lighting technicians bounced their lasers off his bare buttocks. "Best lightshow since Jean-Michel Jarre," Keith proudly claimed.
Paul McGuinness, manager of U2, has long blamed the failure of British bands in America on their cooler-than-thou attitude. "Americans look at a band saying 'I don't care' and they say 'OK, we don't care either'," he observes. "You have to be prepared to put on a show, which British rock bands seem to think might detract from the authenticity of their music. The Prodigy are one of the few bands plugging into theatrical traditions. "
Yet it is ultimately music that people are buying. And it is music so far removed from mainstream rock that they have had to invent a new genre for it. In the US they have been calling it "digi-rock" (because it employs the digital technology of dance rather than the old-fashioned analogue technology favoured by rock bands) or "electronica". Linking the Prodigy to other modern, crossover dance acts (such as the Chemical Brothers and jungle figurehead Goldie), the tag has helped create an intense interest in a style of music rarely heard on American radio.
"Virtually every mainstream newspaper, magazine and TV show here has done a story on electronica," according to Melinda Newman, senior talent editor of the music-industry magazine Billboard. "For a kind of music that was still fairly underground there was a lot of exposure. I thinka huge number of people bought this record simply because they are interested in what electronica is. Listeners in the US are very willing to giveanything a try right now. "
Newman points out that the album was released in a week when "there wasn't a tremendous amount of competition", (the number-two slot was occupied by The Men in Black film soundtrack). The Prodigy's respectable first-week US sales of 200,959 do not compare with sales in excessof 600,000 notched up by other recent chart-toppers from the Wu Tang Clan or Notorious B.I.G.
WHILE the Prodigy's success may not represent a quantum shift in the tastes of the music-buying public, it does indicate that there is a young audience who are increasingly disillusioned with the retrogressive rock scene. The Prodigy make music for people who have no nostalgia for theSixties. And given the speed with which ideas are assimilated into the mainstream, this may yet prove to be very significant for the future development of music.
Not that Howlett is convinced. "When the Oasis album comes out it'll wipe us clean off the board," he insists. "And I hope they do; we don't want to be as big as them. When things get to the point where everyone likes them, they get boring. "
Which is one thing you could never accuse the Prodigy of being. Perverse, alienating and at times.