Monday, March 4, 2019

The Prodigy (RIP Keith Flint)

[in chronological order of release, not of me writing them)

The Prodigy
Charly EP
XL Recordings
(for eMusic, Rave Dozen, 2007)

by Simon Reynolds

The Prodigy’s career could be Exhibit A in the case claiming that rave, far from being anti-rock (like its precursor sounds techno and house) was in fact a futurised reinvention of rock. From ‘ardkore classics like “Everybody in the Place” and “Out of Space” to the digi-punk and Oi!-tronica of “Firestarter” and “Breathe”, the core essence of Prodigy is a teen rampage spirit of bring-the-noise mayhem. Producer Liam Howlett is a riff-master on a par with AC/DC’s Angus Young, while his grasp of tension-and-release, build-and-breakdown dynamics is as consummate as genius pulp hitmakers Chinn & Chapman (the team who wrote and produced most of the classic glam smashes for The Sweet). Yet his pre-rave past as a Public Enemy-loving British B-boy ensured a level of bass-knowledge and breakbeat-science that made the Prodigy sound utterly contemporary.

Only the group’s second single (the first, “What Evil Lurks” b/w Android”, has never been reissued for some reason) “Charly” was a Top 3 hit in the UK in August 1991. It singlehandedly spawned the hardcore subgenre of toytown rave, tunes that sampled children’s TV shows (especially where some kind of Ecstasy-pun or druggy double-entendre could be made out of the show’s name or a fragment of dialogue). In ‘Charly’”, the sample is a little boy from a Public Information Film advising children how to avoid getting lost or abducted. “Charley says, always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere,” the kid says, translating the words of a cartoon cat, Charly, whose miauow is transformed by Howlett into the tune’s killer riff. The joke here is the idea of UK teenagers sneaking off to raves where they get up to things that would make their mums blanch. The original version of “Charly” sounds slightly restrained, so the one to go for is the “Alley Cat” mix, its swirly Belgian-style techno-riff expertly simulating the timbre of the cat’s miaouw but turning it into a spine-tingling MDMA-activating noise. In between the two ‘Charlys” you’ll find two other terrific tunes, “Pandemonium”and “Your Love”

You are also recommended--nay, urged--nay, instructed--to check out The Prodigy’s debut album Experience, especially in the Expanded reissue version with its bonus disc of back-in-the-day remixes, B-sides and rarities. 

Experience: Expanded
(for Spin I think; 2001)

by Simon Reynolds

1997's "Firestarter" might have been their US breakthrough, but in Britain The Prodigy were massive almost from the git-go. Their second single "Charley" was a #5 pop hit in the summer of 1991, and the follow-up "Everybody In the Place" was only kept off the top spot by the re-released "Bohemian Rhapsody."  Back then the Prodigy were pop ambassadors for hardcore, staple sound of England's early Nineties rave scene and the hip hop/techno mutant that eventually evolved into drum'n'bass. All convulsively strobing keyboard vamps, frenzied breakbeats, and bruising bass, hardcore always was the "the new rock'n'roll". It's just that Liam Howlett had to add guitars, punk-snarl vocals, and videogenic hair-rebel shapethrowing before the non-rave world was convinced that Prodigy rocked.

Experience: Expanded is a reissue of Prodigy's 1992 debut album with an extra disc of remixes and B-sides. Sounds slightly dubious, I know, but actually it's a radical enhancement of an already bona fide classic. The B-sides offer ruff proto-jungle bizness, and the remixes are the absolute killer versions that slayed 'em on the ravefloor in 1991-92 (then reappeared in slightly-inferior remixed form on the original Experience). So this retrospectively "corrected" Experience now includes the definitive "Alley Cat Remix" incarnation of "Charly", with its cartoon feline's miaouw smearing into the miasmic churn of the distorto-synth riff, and the superior "Fairground Remix" of "Everybody In the Place," a dementedly whirling dervish-machine that was actually popular on rollercoaster sound systems.

Experience is all about speed--not just the synergy-rush of E's and whizz (UK slang for amphetamine) with exponentially-soaring b.p.m rates, but an entire emergent culture of hyperkinetic thrills, from videogames to snowboarding. And in 1992 that gave The Prodigy and their hardcore rave brethren real resonance for Brit-kids languishing under Tory tyranny: when your culture is all about blockage and stagnation, reaching escape-velocity becomes  paramount. Things haven't improved a whole heap since, which might be one reason Experience still packs such a mighty buzz.   

The Prodigy interview, circa Music for the Jilted Generation

Melody Maker, July 16th 1994

by Simon Reynolds

"So I've decided to take my work back underground... to stop it falling into the wrong hands."

So begins Music For The Jilted Generation, The Prodigy's fab second LP. See, seven consecutive hits and a gold debut album aren't enough for 23-year-old whizz kid Liam Howlett. He's sick and tired of his public image: peerless purveyor of hyper-hyper bubblegum nuttercore for E'd up popkids. Liam wants to be taken seriously; more to the point, he wants to be taken seriously by you, the alternative rock fan. So that's why he's used rock guitar in a couple of tracks on the album, and that's why Jilted is a sort of semi-concept album, with a ‘heavy’ political statement.

"The Jilted Generation, it's all the kids who've grown up on this supposedly corrupt dance music," says Liam, in between hacking his lungs out (he's run down by endless remixing and a recent tour of Australia). "The government are trying to make out the whole scene is bad, and they want to stop everyone going out and having a good time."

On the album's inner sleeve, a painting depicts an allegory of this confrontation, as a police force and a ragged army of ravers glare at each other across a ravine, with the rave-tribe's chieftain about to slash the ropes of the bridge. The chorus of ‘Their Law’ – a surprisingly effective metal-riff propelled collaboration with Pop Will Shite itself – articulates this defiance: "Fuck 'em and their law". What's riled Liam isn't just the Criminal Justice Bill, but the unofficial clampdown on legal raves.

"The police can control the sound levels at raves. Basically, there aren't going to be big outdoors raves anymore. They're not giving them licenses in the first place now cos of the alleged disturbance and noise pollution, and all the drugs. And cos of that, the punters have lost faith a bit. A year ago, you'd get 20,000 at a big event, no worries. Now you'd be lucky to get 10,000. Events happen up until the last minute and then they get cancelled, and so people stop bothering. The Obsession rave, a big three-dayer on the beach, was cancelled, and that was going to be the only major event this year. The Prodigy haven't suffered from it at all, we're still packing out shows and selling records. But it does annoy me, the government telling young kids what they can do."

Because of the clampdown, rave culture's gone into the clubs and it's fragmented into factions: scenes like techno, jungle, progressive house, garage, et al. Liam admits to being nostalgic for the golden days of rave's bygone unity.

"I think a lot of people are. That's why the housey progressive scene is so popular, cos even though it's not as mental and sweaty, it's still got the love vibe. On the hardcore scene, the DJs won't mix up different styles of music, they just wanna play the brand new 'dubpates' that no one can get hold of, cos they only printed ten copies."


The Prodigy emerged from  the early hardcore scene (what's now evolved into jungle). Along with Altern-8, they were the principal ambassadors for 'ardkore in the Top Ten. The Prodigy's Top Three hits ‘Charly’ and ‘Everybody In The Place’ were classic breakbeat tracks, and the debut LP Experience was ruff jungle bizness, albeit with a commerical sheen and Liam's poptastic choonfulness well to the fore. But ever since a dance mag accused The Prodigy's ‘Charly’ of instigating "the death of rave" (because it inspired a rash of lame bubblecore tracks with kids' TV samples, like ‘Sesame's Treet’), an embarrassed Liam has struggled to distance himself from hardcore.

"It's the 180 bpm breakbeats I've moved away from. The new album is as hardcore as anything I've written, but hard in a different way, a German techno way. But I still use breakbeats, cos I've always been into hip-hop and that side of me will always be there."
It's all a bit ironic, given jungle's creative renaissance in '93 and its long overdue return to hipness in '94. (The dance mag in question just leapt on the bandwagon along with every other rag in town).

Admits Liam, "There's loads of quality jungle tracks around. The problem was that a lot of people thought it was so easy to make hardcore that they just knocked out white labels and flooded the market with crap. But this year there's been a lot of intelligent jungle. Moving Shadow are the leading label."

But Liam still doesn't like the attitude and moody atmosphere that so often surrounds jungle '94, and which is so different from the nutty, luv'd up vibe of 'ardkore '92.

"The reason I got into rave was that hip-hop had gotten too much into attitude. To me, the jungle scene now is really confused. One minute they'll play something really uplifting and the next it's dark and gloomy. Also, that music's lost a bit of energy. Because it's so fast, people don't dance to the 160 bpm drums, they lock into the reggae baseline, which is half speed. So you dance really slow. With techno, you dance to the full-on beat. The stuff I really rate is European, like CJ Bolland and a lot of the German artists."

When I suggest that The Prodigy are the last representatives in the charts for the old rave spirit, Liam frowns. What he really wants is to get back his underground credibility – something as difficult and arguably futile as attempting to recover your virginity.

"We actually do everything we can to stay off the telly and out of Smash Hits and the pop media," he stresses. "We only do interviews that I feel are credible. It is a battle, a constant battle to get the correct press."

Hence his flirtation with alternative music and deployment of rock guitar on Jilted. He's been listening to Led Zep and Pearl Jam, and he might be producing Skinny Puppy's debut for Rick Rubin's American label. He tells me how much he like Senser's "energy" (they were actually first choice before Pop Will Eat itself, but were too busy). As well as ‘Their Low’, grunge guitar features on the killer next single, ‘Voodoo People’.

But Howlett doesn't need to latch misguidedly onto that dodo ‘alternative rock’ for cred; his own roots – in electro and early hip-hop – are solid enough. I always thought his thang was like a hyperkinetic version of Mantronix's breakbeats-and-samples collage aesthetic, and sho'nuff, it turns out he was a big fan. His old-school hip-hop background comes through in the funky, fusiony ‘3Kilos’, which is part of the LP's ‘Narcotic Suite’ – songs meant to evoke different drug atmospheres.

Back to the present, to Generation J, the kids who live for dance and drugs… Are they going to fight back against repression, or are they just going to languish at home, get despondent, get wasted?

"At the end of the day I don't think there's anything anyone can do. But as long as people can still go to clubs, it'll survive. They'll never kill the whole thing off completely. Why are the government so threatened? I don't know. We live in Essex and there's a massive Farmers festival every year at the Showground. They block up the whole f***ing road and it's totally disruptive. But they won't have a rave there. It's the same with football matches – there's loads of drugs at football now, people taking E’s. So it's one rule for us, one rule for them."


The Prodigy: The Fat of the Land

Village Voice, July 8th 1997

by Simon Reynolds

Some say the Prodigy have betrayed the bright promise of the "electronica revolution", resulting in a techno-rock hybrid that's not so much kick-ass as half-assed. But the Prodigy have always been a rave 'n' roll band rather than ‘proper’ techno. The crucial distinction to grasp here is that techno and rave are not synonymous, and that in some respects rave has more in common with rock than with club culture.

In the USA, rave is regarded as the epitome of fashion-plate Europhile trendiness, but in Britain dance music is the mainstream of pop culture, and rave specifically has a decidedly lumpen, un-cool aura. "Raves were mass, teenage, one didn't go to them," is how a veteran of London's 1988 acid house club Shoom explained it to me recently. Purists, who believe the music is properly experienced in clubs, where DJs play long, varied, ‘educational’ sets to an allegedly discriminating audience, see raves as alarming close to arena rock concerts. Ravers' rowdy rituals of abandon and joyous uniformity of attire suggest the very ‘herd mentality’ that clubbers define themselves against.

By 1990, huge-scale one-off raves were transforming house and techno into bombastic spectacles full of lights and lasers, fun-fair attractions, and stellar DJ lineups. Where a club might have one or two DJs, raves featured ten DJs playing a bare hour each, sometimes less. To avoid being blown away by the other jocks, the DJs played crowd-pleasing anthems with their turntables cranked up to plus-8. Then DJ-producers started making music to fit this full-on tempest. Detroit techno was ‘debased’, or so the official history goes, into the hyperkinetic drug-noise called 'ardkore (which was when my ears pricked up).

And by 1991, the UK had a massive circuit of commercial, fully licensed raves, with promoters booking rave bands as well as DJs. Alongside N-Joi, Bizarre Inc, and Shades of Rhythm, the Prodigy were the most popular hardcore rave act. Musically, the Prodigy fit techno's standard syndrome – the boffin (Liam Howlett) knob twiddling alone in his studio lab. But live and on video, the Prodigy were always a band, with three other members – MC Maxim Reality, and dancers Keith Flint and Leeroy – taking up the visual slack.

At the height of this golden age of rave, the Prodigy encapsulated the contradictions of 'ardkore: this music was simultaneously an underground phenomenon and solidly pop. Apart from their first, every Prodigy single released to date has made the top 15; their second, ‘Charley’, got to Number Three in the summer of '91, while the follow-up, ‘Everybody in the Place’, was kept off the Number One spot only by Queen's ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. All the more remarkable since these brilliant early singles offer an only slightly more polished version of breakbeat hardcore, the music that evolved into jungle. Techno purists sniffed, but I always saw it as the new garage punk: riffs, noise, amphetamine-frenzy freakbeats, a sort of aggressive euphoria – the spirit of 1966 and 1977 channeled through the body of hip hop. When the Prodigy stepped onstage at Irving Plaza a month ago, they were introduced as something "for all you punk rockers, hip hoppers, and pill poppers." No mention of techno headz or house bods; indeed, Liam Howlett has been proclaiming in interviews that he never liked Kraftwerk, the sacred source for Detroit techno.

Starting with 1994's sophomore album Music for the Jilted Generation, the Prodigy repositioned themselves as rock, partly by using electric guitar on a couple of tracks, and partly by the vague conceptual/protest angle to the album. The jilted generation, explained Howlett, was kids who'd grown up under Thatcher, had little to live for but drugs and dance music, and now found even their weekend utopia threatened as authorities targeted raves. The UK equivalent, in other words, of the American grunge audience: Generation E.
All that remained was to bring the noise to America. Step One: turning dancer Keith Flint into the video-genic vocalist on ‘Firestarter’. OK, the promo is corny: Flint's Mohican and psycho-youth grimaces. But sonically, ‘Firestarter’ is a sampler-wielding cyber-Stooges, a Dionysian hymn to destruction. Appearing at the MTV Europe Awards to pick up a trophy for Best Dance Video, the Prodigy greeted EC youth with "Hold it down!" a vintage '92 rave rallying cry – as if to confirm 'ardkore's historical victory and vindication. No matter that out of the early rave bands only the Prodigy had survived the collapse of the 1990-92 circuit; the music had become what it had always secretly been – the new rock.

‘Firestarter’ looked like a dead cert as electronica's ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but inexplicably stumbled at the threshold of the Billboard top 30. Maybe ‘Breathe’ – a jungle-punk duet between Flint and Maxim – will bust down the door, what with its abjection-chic video à la Tool and Marilyn Manson. Enjoyably reminiscent of Oi! bands like Angelic Upstarts, the song was a highlight of the Prodigy's otherwise patchy performance at Irving Plaza. There's rock, and then there's rawk; too often the Prodge crossed the line. When they dragged onstage a ‘real’ guitarist, nor only did he look like a ye olde punke relic from the King's Road, but the overall effect was a tad Rage Against the Machine. Sans politics, of course: the Prodigy's brand of vacant menace and quasi-insurrectionary mayhem slots into the illustrious plastic punk lineage that runs Alice Cooper/Sweet/Billy Idol/Adam and the Ants. (The Prodge even feature an insect in their logo.)

Keith Flint has described the Prodigy as "buzz music." The song titles are mostly self-reflexive, referring only to the music's own sensations: ‘Hyperspeed’, ‘Pandemonium’, ‘G-Force’, ‘Full Throttle’, ‘The Heat (The Energy)’. 'Ardkore always did belong to a burgeoning ‘rush culture’ that includes video games, roller-blading, extreme sports like snow-boarding (a hobby of the band's), and bungee jumping (a popular sideshow at raves), as well as the obvious illegal stimulants. The Fat of the Land is no departure: it's all teenage rampage, cheap thrills, and adrenalin OD.

Fat kicks off well with the boom-bastic ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Shame about the obnoxious title/chorus – teenage boys hardly need any more excuses to strike pimp poses. In mitigation, it must be said that the Prodigy are not a group that repays close lyrical analysis; their forte isn't deep and meaningful, but the profoundly superficial (not a dis by any means). Howlett is a supreme organizer of dynamics, bridges, and breakdowns, tension and release. ‘Diesel Power’, a pumping midtempo collaboration with rapper Kool Keith, nods to Howlett's pre-rave past as a British B-boy. ‘Funky Shit’ – old-school 'ardkore, more or less – is one of the few non-vocal tracks. Fat's use of ‘real’ singers is an indication of the band's eagerness to meet post-grunge America halfway. But it means the Prodigy have to get around the fact that they have nothing much to say – "this is dangerous/open up your head/feel the shellshock" is typical – which didn't matter when the music was just breakbeats, riffs, and samples.

Ironically, given their desire to be taken as a futuristic rock band, the Prodigy's taste in yer actual contemporary guitar bands is poor. ‘Serial Thrilla’ samples Skunk Anansie; ‘Narayan’, a nine-minute collaboration with Crispian Mills of the god-awful Kula Shaker, is a poor man's ‘Setting Sun’ (the Chemical Brothers' Britpop/breakbeat merger). The L7 cover ‘Fuel My Fire’ would normally count as more bad taste by my lights, but I must admit it's an exciting finale, with a heavily distorted Flint tirade and Republica's Saffron providing baleful backing sneers. The song fits perfectly into the Prodigy's shtick: depoliticized punk offering youths a sort of aerobic workout for their frustration and aggression.

Fat packs enough big beats, bass-quake, and flechette-insidious hooks to do the required job (conquering America), but as an album-length experience it sags somewhat in the middle. In true punk tradition, the Prodigy are really a singles band, which is why the 1992 debut Experience (in effect a collection of greatest hits up to that point) remains their most consistently exciting album. But as opposed to ‘proper’ techno, where there's no brand loyalty and artists are only as good as their latest 12-inch. I'll keep faith with the Prodigy. They're a rave 'n' roll band, and I'm a fan.

No comments: