TIR pays tribute to a musical icon.
Being a teenager in the 90s was a bit shit if you were a music fan. The 60s had countless bands to offer, the 70s gave us Bowie, glam rock, punk rock, psychedelic rock, heavy metal, reggae, then the 80s brought synthpop, power rock, hip-hop, thrash metal…but the 90s? It was the start of the Great Recycling. Waste not. Britpop was a rehash of the 60s, with Blur doing their best to ape the Mods and Oasis taking up the mantle of the Rockers. Pop music ceased to be a genre for serious artists and regressed into Tweenie pop, with a welter of manufactured bands cranking out anodyne cover versions of earlier hits.
The only bright light was in electronic music. The 80s had given birth to acid house, but it was in the 90s when electronic music diversified, speciated, and grew – house, prog house, trance, breakbeats, techno, jungle, and rave. And rave.
But it remained a subculture. Grunge – the 90s’ other main contribution to musical history – had crossed over to the mainstream thanks to Nirvana, but the band were pilloried as sellouts by Pixies fans and frontman Kurt Cobain never acclimatised to the change in status. Plus, grunge was American. It was the Seattle sound. Rave fit a niche. At a time when Oasis were flying the flag for the north, and Blur were doing the same in London, rave was the music for everyone in between. For those outside the London orbital. For the kids in Northampton standing on a village common and seeing the distant Dreamscape laser beams flickering across the sky. This was real, this was our sound.
Still, it barely registered on the mainstream musical consciousness. The Chemical Brothers’ “Exit Planet Dust” in 1995 was maybe the first serious album to alert people to the real artistry of electronic music, and Robert Miles “Children” in the same year turned out to be a harbinger for the whole trance genre, but it was the year before, with “Music for the Jilted Generation” that electronic music’s real standard-bearers had made their presence felt. They were The Prodigy.
“Jilted” was their second album. “Experience”, still probably the best condensate of the rave scene in a single LP, had come out in ’92, but between then and “Jilted” the UK’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act had come into effect, with its clampdown on rave culture and its notorious reference to “music wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. “Jilted” was a timely and resonant response by the kids who suddenly found it was not their parents but the British government trying to get them to turn the music down. The screaming face on the cover said it all. Here, suddenly, was an outlet for all that pubescent anger.
Oasis had the attitude but not the rage. Nirvana had the grudge but not the octane. Rave had the energy but not, not until then, the aggression. But even “Jilted”’s most passionate fans couldn’t have foreseen what came next.
When “Firestarter” landed in March 1996 it felt like a bomb had detonated. Everyone knew there was a new Prodigy single coming, and after “Jilted” everyone was excited, but still nobody was prepared for what was unleashed. Keith Flint, greyscale, in a tunnel, snarling and screaming and bristling and flexing. Like an animal, all teeth, hair, claws.
There is still nothing, nothing, that sounds like “Firestarter”. It is a high water mark. An I was there. An anomaly. A mutant. A hybrid. An abomination. A miracle. It was everything The Prodigy had been moving towards and yet utterly unexpected all at the same time. You had to be there in summer ’96 to hear the song, see the video, to think what the fuck is this, to not like it, to not get it, and then hear it played on a dancefloor and see the utter destruction it caused to see what a revolution it was. It was the fuck you to the government, the fuck you to the parents, the fuck you to the Dutch as they got pummelled 4-1 by England in Euro ’96. It was the climax of that whole delirious summer that seemed to last 2-3 years and maybe did in a way, all the way back to the Offspring’s “Self Esteem”. All in one song. And the face of that song was Keith Flint.
Open a copy of “Experience” and he’s there with combat fatigues, long hair, and a feathered hat. Look on the back of “Jilted” and he’s staring glazedly as a typical raver space marine. Nothing prepared you for the most vicious physical transformation since a Gotham hoodlum fell in vat of chemical waste and became the Joker. It was a message from another time, from another planet – as they’d promised us, from another dimension (pay close attention!).
Then came “Breathe”. Then came the album, “The Fat of the Land”.
Collectively, those tracks opened the door that led to stadium electronic acts like Pendulum, Chase & Status, Nero, and the host of other EDM acts. And over 20 years later, there is still no other album that sounds like “The Fat of the Land”. It is inimitable. And it is a legacy. Keith may not have made the music, but he embodied it. And his death marks the beginning of the end of an era.
TIR is a science blog, so it feels both awkward and appropriate to make a footnote in that direction. But it is relevant. The Prodigy, uniquely perhaps among stadium acts, never sold out, never compromised. They had their sound, they explored and refined and brutalised and evolved and forged it into something strange and new and untouchable. Arguably, at the time of their greatest success they were making their least accessible music. They achieved what seems impossible – instead of moving to the mainstream, they made the mainstream come to them. For scientists, ever in thrall to the latest trends in research funding, it offer a lesson in solidarity. Stick to what you believe in. Start in a subculture. And bring the mainstream to you. Believe. And breathe.