The Prodigy: Burn, baby, burn
Sunday, 8 August 2004
When is a band not a band? When it’s The Prodigy! Yet for all their power struggles, creative infighting and vanity publishing, the makers of ‘Firestarter’ need love too. With a new album waiting in the wings, the group’s mainspring Liam Howlett talks Martin James through the split that saved the biggest band in the world
Rollover Studios, London, March 2002. Liam Howlett wanders anxiously between two huge playback speakers, his head hanging slightly as his right hand tugs involuntarily at the skin around his Adam’s apple. He is deep in thought, analysing every last nuance of the music. Every few minutes he goes to work on computers, mixing desk, effects, samplers, all the tricky paraphernalia of the modern studio, to make the kind of modifications only the music’s creator can hear in the torrent of sound. It’s a laborious process and it has obviously taken its toll. Every now and then, Howlett dives into an adjoining room to take out his frustrations on a drum kit.
Meanwhile his phone rings continuously. His record company wants details of the new track. They need him to check over some video treatments and he has to OK the artwork. And then there’s the small matter of the media campaign to back up the single’s release.
With barely a moment to clear his head, Howlett is back in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the studio making his last tweaks. He clicks the computer mouse and the final mix of the track explodes from the speakers. The room is filled with thundering drums, thrashing guitars, yowling synthesizers and the adenoidal drawl of a vocalist declaring his love for the relaxant drug Rohypnol. The excitement in the room is almost palpable.
It’s a scenario familiar to any musician working on his latest single. However, for Howlett, this process has a deeper resonance. This is to be the first all-new song by his band, The Prodigy, since their hugely successful album The Fat of the Land back in 1997. That record hit the top spot in 23 countries, including the US, an achievement that has for years been beyond even the UK’s most successful bands. Neither the Spice Girls, nor Oasis, nor Robbie Williams have got anywhere near to melting the US record-buying public to such an extent.
Nevertheless, there is another atmosphere in the studio. Beneath the surface excitement there’s the consensual knowledge that the single represents the sound of a band treading water rather than making the leap forward that had been hoped for. In fact, after a five-year sabbatical from recording, The Prodigy have failed to develop at all.
That single, “Baby’s Got a Temper”, received the kind of critical mauling usually reserved for the national football team and tested the loyalty of even the most die-hard fans. Notwithstanding the fact that it reached number five in the UK chart, the problem was a simple one, aesthetically speaking: with “Baby’s Got a Temper”, The Prodigy had turned into a parody of themselves.
This month – two years since that ill-conceived single and seven since The Fat of the Land – sees the release of the band’s follow-up album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. Gratifyingly, it represents a return to form, and a breathtaking one, although it’s more than a year behind schedule and The Prodigy’s “group identity” has mutated almost out of recognition. But behind the chewed-over gossip about why it took so long for the band to make their move – “writer’s block”, “lost muse”, “studio fatigue” and so on – there lies another, more interesting and complicated story, one which cuts to the heart of the way pop music works, which raises questions about the way we “see” music through the filter of the media and which, of course, explores the implosive power of massive international success.
The Prodigy emerged from the underground world of electronic dance music and entered the global mainstream in 1996 when they released the last great slice of oppositional pop of the 20th century: “Firestarter”. The first broadcast of the song’s monochrome video brought with it a wave of outrage from all the usual quarters. Indeed, so concerned were they by the song’s lyrical content and the singer’s demonic persona (his mad staring eyes, his intoxicated lope, his abominable hair teased into Beelzebub’s horns) that the red-top tabloids demanded an immediate end to this legion of “evil arsonists”. Furthermore, when the “Firestarter” video appeared on Top of the Pops, angry parents rang the BBC to complain, while daytime Radio One refused to play the record. Questions were even raised in Parliament. Suddenly The Prodigy were the new Sex Pistols.
But pop culture has a habit of extracting the teeth of its rebels. Consider how Elvis Presley’s pelvic gyrations were sanitised by Cliff Richard’s sexless swagger; how punk’s nihilism was made cuddly by dim-wit Vyvyan in The Young Ones. Accordingly, The Prodigy’s Keith Flint – the adenoidal, Rohypnol-loving, horned Beelzebub himself – quickly found himself the inspiration for a Lucozade advert, in which one swig turned a geriatric Keith lookalike from docile granddad into a rampaging “twisted firestarter”. At the time, Flint protested indignantly that people might assume that he was endorsing the drink. That his persona was being turned into a joke was apparently not a problem. But by the time “Firestarter” had become a fixture in provincial karaoke bars, the shock value of both the band and its single had all but dissipated. The Prodigy were on the verge of being transformed into a cartoon band.
Nevertheless, there is an intelligence behind their operations that has enabled them to snake their way out of such dead-end situations, not least through the studied avoidance of repetition. Take the release of the equally shocking single “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997), which on the surface at least comes off as an ode to misogyny. This time round there were no vocals by old Beelzebub himself and the video depicted not the band but, in a witty twist, a young woman on a hedonistic binge (drugs, alcohol, violence and lesbianism: all standard-issue mid-Nineties ladette obsessions). Questions were again raised in Parliament and criticisms aired by the Beastie Boys and Moby. Meanwhile, frat boys, jocks, rockers and ravers the world over lapped it up and The Prodigy became the biggest live draw on the planet.
However, as the touring machine lumbered circuitously on, it became apparent that the only competitors posing a threat to the group’s near-untouchable status were the band themselves. Gradually the surprise element that had been such a feature of their career strategy evaporated. In performance, front men Keith Flint and Maxim indulged in self-parodying, expletive-ridden mid-song adlibs and pranced around in daft costumes (Flint as Uncle Fester at Reading Festival in 1998, Maxim in a variation on the gentleman’s skirt). The Prodigy package had become all mouth and trousers.
Which brings us back to that single, the deliriously formulaic “Baby’s Got a Temper”, in which The Prodigy looked to have swallowed their hype whole and turned themselves into a caricature every bit as pitiful as that represented by the Lucozade ad. The lyric might well have been inspired by real events involving certain society girls introducing Flint to the dubious joys of the date-rape drug, but the final delivery came over as little more than a clumsy shot at grabbing the morning headlines. The only noise in Parliament this time was the sound of MPs stifling their yawns. The world had moved on. The Prodigy were standing still.
“That record was a mess,” admits Liam Howlett now. “In fact it was as accurate a sonic description of us as a band as you could have got. At that time we were hardly communicating with each other – I suppose we didn’t like each other very much really. The record company were on my back to put something out and I was completely hung up on this idea that we had to have a vocalist. But even as I was finishing the track, I had an uneasy feeling with it.”
Over the course of the next two years, I spoke to Howlett regularly about the progress of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. I’ve known Howlett for almost nine years now, having first met him while covering a Prodigy live show for the now-defunct music paper, Melody Maker. In this time I’ve found him to be a man who, unlike most artists, revels in informed criticism. He respects honesty and detests the illusion of celebrity. He’s fiercely loyal. In the parlance of hip-hop, he likes to “keep it real”. And throughout the period that immediately followed “Baby’s Got a Temper”, his conversation became increasingly flat. His enthusiasm for making music seemed to have deserted him.
Just as Howlett’s friend Alex Garland fell victim to the popularity of his debut novel, The Beach, the songwriter behind The Prodigy – the guy who did the work – was being held creative prisoner by the success of “Firestarter”. The song (and video) had come to define the band in the eyes of media and public alike, articulating in the process a trope that is as old as rock’n’roll itself: the band that is unable to transcend its defining moment. More than that, though, The Prodigy were not only suffering from the weight of expectation, but also from that most rock’n’roll of all conflicts: the play of frustrated egos. Non-creative band members began to push for a greater involvement in the songwriting.
“I think the others were definitely getting more frustrated around 2000,” says Howlett. “All I wanted to do was hang out with my friends and have fun. I just wasn’t that interested in doing any more records.”
The history of popular music is littered with tales of groups collapsing in the face of overwhelming success. As popularity heads skywards, so long-suppressed frictions shoot to the surface with it and before you know it the only communication between group-members is through their lawyers. There are so many issues to get in a stew over: the traditional imbalance in the rewards accruing from royalties (with tunesmiths and lyricists earning significantly more than humble players of instruments); the excessive quantity of media attention heaped on the lead singer; the posturing, the girlfriends, the things people say and do (and don’t do) instead of doing work. Often, the only way out for frustrated creatives is the dreaded solo project.
But there’s a particular irony to the way, in the light of their success, The Prodigy experienced the kind of friction that every band goes through. The Prodigy were never a band anyway, not in the traditional sense. This wasn’t a group of teenagers who’d come together in a garage to recycle old riffs by the rock greats. And Howlett and co had certainly not been plucked from audition obscurity by some entertainment svengali looking for attractive puppets to manipulate. The Prodigy were a bunch of ravers who’d met in the wide-eyed and chemically enhanced meltdown of the late-Eighties free-party experience. The original idea had been that several of them would dance on stage to music that one of them had created. In fact, long before Keith Flint grabbed the microphone to utter his immortal arsonist’s chant, The Prodigy had consisted of two dancers (Flint and Leeroy Thornhill), an MC (Maxim) and one musician (Howlett). “We fooled people into believing that we were a band,” laughs Howlett.
But it would appear that it wasn’t only the public who were fooled. The Prodigy were kidding themselves too. They had come to think, feel and operate as “a band”, presumably because that was what they thought was expected of them – with the result that they began to endure all the internecine trials associated with old-fashioned rock groups. They’ve experienced their non-songwriting members pushing for a more creative position. They’ve done the shock departure thing (in April 2001 Leeroy’s creative frustration overflowed and he jumped ship to relaunch himself as Flightcrank). And they’ve certainly jostled for position in the glare of the limelight, a testosteronal ruck which, no matter how matey it appears on the surface, is a traditional masculine-self-assertion strategy among old-world rock walruses (witness Flint and Maxim’s increasingly aggressive on-stage microphone stand-offs). Finally, as if reading directly from the rock’n’roll script, they’ve also done the solo project thing. In 2000, Maxim delivered the honest but flawed Hell’s Kitchen. Meanwhile, Keith Flint kept his head down, learned to play guitar, wrote a few songs and formed a band called Flint.
So how come Howlett has endured such rock’n’roll-style ego shenanigans when the music – indeed the whole creative output of The Prodigy – has always been his preserve, and his alone? The answer sits uncomfortably somewhere in between his enjoyment of the illusion of being in a band and his sense of loyalty.
That loyalty must have been tested by Flint’s band. Although amounting to not much more than your average punk combo, Flint were nevertheless signed to the huge Interscope organisation and an album was immediately scheduled to coincide exactly with the original release date of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, in the middle of last year. Very funny. Perhaps fortuitously for all concerned, the album never made it into the shops. Flint’s leader and mainstay retreated to lick his wounds.
But there is, of course, another way of looking at this petty confrontationalism. It can be argued that Keith Flint has a right to a stake in The Prodigy’s musical future. After all it was his image and his vocals which had propelled the band into the global mainstream. He is widely perceived to be The Prodigy. Like it or not, and despite the fact that he has only ever appeared on five Prodigy tracks, Keith Flint is a pop-culture icon. Furthermore, it can also be argued that Maxim has a case for his own piece of the creative pie. He has long been formally established as the Prodigy’s front man, delivering vocals live, and occasionally on record, to acclaim from fans and critics alike. The truth of it is that both Maxim and Flint are an integral part of The Prodigy performance unit. Yet the musical vision is, and always has been, Howlett’s domain. “I never planned for Keith to become a singer,” says Howlett. “I didn’t even know he was capable of singing until he asked to have a go at ‘Firestarter’. The Prodigy was always about me doing the beats and the others doing their thing on stage. Why would that change?”
Between August 2002 and March 2003, while work proceeded on the new album, Liam and I rarely spoke. On the few occasions that we did, he seemed close to despair over the work. “The problem is, everything I do sounds like me,” he said at one point. Then, in 2003 he declared that he had ditched all the new tracks. This was less an act of artistic petulance than a short cut to rediscovering his creative flow. All it had taken was for him to walk away from the suffocating surroundings of his studio and to start writing on a laptop in his bedroom. Bingo. He turned the Prodigy process into a completely private affair.
The consequent album retains lashings of trademark Prodigy energy but there is a much stronger feminine presence in the music than ever before. This is possibly an indirect result of Liam’s 2002 marriage to ex-All Saint Natalie Appleton (the couple’s baby boy, Ace, was born in March of this year). It’s a suggestion Liam vehemently denies, though, arguing that he’s “far too selfish” when he’s in the studio to be influenced by his missus. Nevertheless, the men on this record are outnumbered (and arguably outgunned) by their female counterparts. (Guest vocalists include, among others, London duo Ping Pong Bitches, trashy rapper Princess Superstar and Hollywood actress-turned-rock chick, Juliette Lewis.) Neither Keith Flint nor Maxim is anywhere to be heard. Nevertheless, they will still be lining up on stage as a component of The Prodigy live show.
“I had to get back to what I was about,” says Howlett, conceding that there’s no reason why Flint and Maxim shouldn’t appear on future Prodigy recordings. “This is me writing tunes that I can rock to… and not thinking about other people.”
This is also successful politics. Almost at a stroke, Howlett had re-asserted his position as The Prodigy’s musical director; distanced himself from the disastrous “Baby’s Got a Temper” single; detached The Prodigy from all extra-curricular solo projects (but his own); and, by showing loyalty to his longstanding co-conspirators, ensured that The Prodigy will retain their popular live identity. It was an example of policy-making that would have made any Prime Minister proud. And in so doing, Howlett created the space to deliver what might come to be seen as his finest work yet; a record he describes as his “pure vision, without anyone else diluting it.” Call it manipulative, call it clever – either way his decisiveness has awakened The Prodigy from the sleep of more than half a decade.
The Prodigy, Liam says, is “still very much alive”, with a world tour kicking off in October to prove it. It will be interesting to see how the dark-humoured Maxim and occasionally volatile Flint respond to the challenge. (It should be pointed out that, in a second act of comic timing, Keith Flint recently launched another “side-project”, the dance music act Clever Brains Fryin’.)
“Just before we released ‘Baby’s Got a Temper’ we toured Australia,” recalls Liam. “We’d not seen each other or even talked to each other for months and I was really nervous about how it was going to be. Ironically it was the best tour we’ve ever done. It’s the same with this album. We may have had a few problems along the way but the others totally respect my decisions. We had a band meeting the other day and it was a really good vibe. We’re all really excited about playing live again. At the end of the day this album may not have featured Keith and Maxim, but it is still 60 per cent a Prodigy album and only 40 per cent Liam Howlett.”
I last saw Howlett in May of this year when he invited me down to the mansion in Essex he laughingly calls his “castle” to listen to the new album in full. It was the first time he’d played it to a journalist. And he was a different man to the one I’d watched fretting over that comeback single – no longer the tense, battle-weary band leader but a confident artist back in control of his destiny. “This album has far more value than another substandard ‘Firestarter’,” he said as “The Way It Is”, the last (“Thriller”-inspired) song on the album, faded away. He looked at me. “You know what I mean?” With that he leaned back on his sofa, stretched his pink baseball boots out in front and ran tattooed fingers through bleached locks. His satisfaction was clear to see.
‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’ is released on XL Recordings on 23 August. The Prodigy’s world tour arrives in the UK in November