VOL. 149 NO. 25
When the British band the Prodigy played Irving Plaza in New York City this month, something extraordinary happened. Yes, the performance had punk-rock vigor; Keith Flint, the singer-dancer with the shock-rock hairdo, made Halloween faces at the crowd, emcee Maxim did some barechested stage strutting, and band mastermind Liam Howlett coolly orchestrated the show from behind his banks of keyboards. But from the first note, the sweaty, expectant crowd, which had seen the band pushed on MTV for months, began to dance. There's no dancing at alternative-rock shows--people merely mosh, which is as close to dancing as car crashes are to figure skating. But when the Prodigy's deep bass groove hit the crowd, they were off. Feet were moving in time, and arms were swaying with the rhythm. Dance-rock was cool again.
This was supposed to be the summer of "electronica"--artificially flavored pop that relies heavily on synthesizers, samples, loops and dance-beats and less on guitars and vocals. But so far, electronic, or techno, music seems to have only a few more fans in the U.S. than Dennis Rodman has in Utah; the most heralded acts have been weak performers in the marketplace. Now the Prodigy has arrived in the U.S., and its potent album, The Fat of the Land (Maverick/Mute XL/Warner Bros.), due out July 1, is not far behind. Can the band give electronica the jolt it needs?
Others have tried and failed. The ambient electronic group the Orb's newest CD, Orblivion, has sold only 65,000 copies in the U.S.; recent releases by such vaunted acts as the Future Sound of London and Underworld have moved fewer than 60,000--the Spice Girls sold more than that last week. Even the Chemical Brothers, after a media push that would make Madonna blush, has failed to crack Billboard's Top 10. And what's worse, these CDs have been creatively wanting--the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole (Astralwerks) features a few songs that energetically blend rock and hip-hop, but Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys did it better in the '80s. The Future Sound of London's Dead Cities (Astralwerks) is as exciting as a dead Tamagotchi, and Underworld's Pearl's Girl (Wax Trax! Records) is only a trifle more fun than having a fax machine call you on your voice line.
Some veteran artists sneer at the hype. "I'm not a big fan of racist-conspiracy theories, but it's hard not to notice that for the last 15 years every R.-and-B., hip-hop and dance record has been an electronic record," says U.S. techno pioneer Moby, who is white. "Then two white British guys [the Chemical Brothers] come along sampling hip-hop without the lyrics, and they're hailed as avant-garde. "
Other observers believe the music industry, desperate to revive sales, expected too much. Says Gary Richards, who heads A&M's techno label 1200: "One company tries to sign a band, and another jumps in, and it begins to get out of control. " Although lyric-driven techno songs by White Town and Sneaker Pimps have got air play, Vinny Esparanza, co-editor of the Gavin Report, which tracks college-radio-station playlists, says, "A lot of the deejays around now were brought up on punk and grunge, and are unsure how to approach electronic music. "
The Prodigy's long-awaited CD is supposed to convert the electro doubters. Says James Lavelle, head of England's influential Mo'Wax Records: "[The Prodigy] is one of those bands that do everything right: the right records, the right videos, it looks right, it does the show right. " Says band member Flint: "We're not trying to be faceless and thinking that makes us interesting. We're up-front. We're saying, 'Look, if you're going to come out and see us, we're going to rock you.' "
The Fat of the Land rocks. The already released single, Firestarter, has some of the rebelliousness of the Sex Pistols and the funkiness of good hip-hop; the album's most ambitious track, Climbatize, has an orchestral span but maintains a rock immediacy. While only a few other tracks on the album (Breathe and Mindfields) stand out, the CD is consistently dynamic. The only real misstep is the first track, the punchy but unfortunately titled Smack My Bitch Up. Howlett says the title isn't literal; let's hope this isn't a trend, given the success of singer Meredith Brooks' song Bitch.
Howlett, the founder and creative core of the band, and a native of Chelmsford, England, says he received his earliest inspiration from American hip-hop acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. He subsequently submerged himself in Britain's burgeoning hip-hop-influenced, Ecstasy-popping rave culture. In 1989 he formed a band with Flint, Keith Palmer (Maxim) and Leeroy Thornhill, who became the group's featured dancer. Their early CDs featured soft techno-dance tunes. They were hits in England, but they sold poorly in the U.S., and the Prodigy's first record label, Elektra, let the band go in 1994. "Elektra did not have the balls to do anything with the Prodigy," says Howlett. "They didn't understand us. "
The Prodigy's sound has since grown edgier, drawing from commercially successful rock and hard-core hip-hop. Last year the major music labels fought a bidding war to sign the band. Madonna's Maverick won with a contract worth a reported $5 million. When, earlier this year, MTV announced its intention to program more electronica and started a show, Amp, to promote the genre, the Prodigy, thanks to its anthemic song, Firestarter, became the techno band of the moment.
Which is exactly what the band members say they don't want to be. "It's not us," says Howlett. "Techno is maybe some stuff that comes out of Germany. Being called techno basically limits my music. We're definitely not techno. We're a hard-dance act that incorporates certain elements of music we like. This whole electronica scene to me is just f______ crap. We don't need that to come across here. "
The electronica scene may yet catch on. It's booming in Florida (at least eight clubs have popped up in Orlando in the past three years); the sound tracks to the movies The Saint, Batman & Robin and 187 draw on it; major rock acts like U2 and Smashing Pumpkins are incorporating it into their sound. And there is some great electronic music out there. Morcheeba's Who Can You Trust? (Discovery) is a rapturous blend of bluesy vocals and electro atmospherics; Carl Craig's More Songs about Food and Revolutionary Art (Planet E) is puckishly inventive; and The Rebirth of Cool FOUR (4th & Broadway) is an excellent compilation of electro acts. Later this year new CDs are due from two of the best electro acts, Goldie and Portishead.
But for now, all eyes are on the Prodigy. Later this summer the band will headline Lollapalooza along with Tricky, the most innovative electronic musician around. "Don't ever judge us by what you read in articles," says Maxim. "The only way you can judge us is to come to the show yourself. " A solid sales pitch. The Prodigy may be pop stars yet.
--With reporting by Michael Brunton/London, Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles and David E. Thigpen/New York