On the morning of Monday, 4th March 2019, the tragic news broke that Keith Flint had taken his own life over the preceding weekend. Keith was first a dancer, then vocalist and de facto live frontman for dance pioneers The Prodigy. The immediate outpouring of grief from wildly disparate musical tribes only served to underscore the significance of the band, the force with which they exploded into the public consciousness in the nineties and their enduring influence from that point right up to the present day.
We are not here to speculate or dwell on Keith’s final hours, nor his motivations. We absolutely respect the privacy of his friends and family at this breathtakingly sad moment. Sitting at my desk, processing the news as it broke, my mind was catapulted back to the early nineties. The Prodigy were first starting to make waves, and I was a wide-eyed teenager just starting to properly discover the musical subcultures that existed beyond the Top 40 singles chart. And a gentle walk down my personal memory lane with the band feels like a fitting tribute to the man and his substantial legacy.
My journey with The Prodigy started in an unusual place. In the summer of 1992, an unlikely craze swept across the British pop charts. Samples from children’s television programmes were overlaid on what was then referred to as “rave” music. Sesame Street and Trumpton were conspicuous examples, alongside “Charly”, The Prodigy’s debut single. “Charly” featured a clutch of samples from a public information film, made by the British government in the seventies as part of a series of short cartoons to be shown at times kids would be watching TV, reminding them not to get in cars with strangers, to be careful around rivers and ponds and not to mess around with matches or boiling water. Or, indeed, to “always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere.” Watching them now, they feel alarmingly brutal, but these films were still being shown in the early eighties and sank into my consciousness along with everyone else. However, the juxtaposition of these cherished childhood memories with the overtly drug-focussed rave culture kick-started something of a panic amongst the (self-appointed) moral guardians of the time. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
Before we get there, I think it is also worth stressing at this point just how segregated music was at this point in history. In the early nineties, the UK had a grand total of four TV stations and a handful of national radio stations. Satellite and cable TV were effectively novelty items, until the major sports began migrating to the premium platforms. This meant that anyone who wanted to dig about beneath the mainstream usually ended up in genre-specific, magazine-based silos, with minimal cross-pollination. Metallers, like me, listened to metal. Ravers listened to rave. Punks listened to punk. Dickheads listened to indie. You get the idea. By 1993, I had been exposed to the singles from The Prodigy’s debut album Experience enough for my young and curious mind to realise that they were a slightly different breed to their more disposable contemporaries. I vividly recall a degree of consternation from some of my metaller friends when I bought my copy of the album. That, however, would soon change.
The Prodigy’s members had coalesced during what was the peak of the Acid House movement, and it is not for nothing that the period in which they met was referred to as the “Second Summer of Love” – gigantic parties running all night long in fields, warehouses and basically anywhere you could set up a sound system, flooded with MDMA. And the
Music For The Jilted Generation reflected this change of mood. Considerably darker, as well as obviously more mature, more worldly-wise. It was a defiant finger in the air from a culture under direct and sustained assault from The Man. It was also, let us not forget, a fucking masterpiece. Electronic music probably runs a higher risk of rapidly sounding irredeemably dated than any other genre, and the fact that Jilted Generation still sounds fresh and credible a full quarter-century after it’s release underlines it’s classic status. Even the gatefold artwork on the album sleeve perfectly captured the zeitgeist. From a personal perspective, Jilted Generation was the soundtrack to the summer during which I turned seventeen and was…. well, doing all the things that one might hope to be doing at seventeen. Let’s leave it at that. It was a great summer.
Of course, at this stage, if anyone had a claim to be The Prodigy’s frontman, it was Maxim Reality. “Poison” was the first track to carry a full vocal, and not just samples, and it was only him with a microphone on stage. The fact that a group could even be considered a proper band when 50% of its members were “only” dancers
All of this meant that expectations for The Prodigy’s third album were particularly high. How the band stepped up to this challenge surpassed and confounded those expectations in a manner few had expected. Of course, in 1997 on-demand streaming video is quite a few years away from being a real thing, so for many of us, our first encounter with the new-look Prodigy was in a still-frame image. An black and white image of a tunnel. A tunnel containing a man. A man who, though familiar, had undergone a quite fantastical transformation into a quite literal party monster. The “Firestarter” video landed with a genuinely cataclysmic bang.
Everyone went batshit.
There were a whole range of emotions behind the reaction, but batshit was the net result. The song, as of course we all know now, was an instant classic, and would become their calling card. It hit the charts at number one. The arbiters of moral decency had a complete shrieking meltdown when confronted with this near-total manifestation of all the things they’d been warning their kids about. Here was this vision of tattoos, piercings and impractical hair, ranting and raging about starting fires. The BBC banned the video, but it was an ineffectual gesture – the track, and it’s imagery, became an instant cultural touchstone, provoking fear and fascination in equal measure.
The album which followed, The Fat Of The Land, became the fastest selling album in the UK chart history, further testament to the broad spectrum of their appeal, firmly established The Prodigy as household names. From literally cartoonish beginnings, The Prodigy achieved widespread critical acclaim and commercial success by becoming progressively darker, more twisted and grotesque. That, it is safe to say, does not happen often. Along the way, The Prodigy casually smashed through boundaries and blurred the lines between genres, and the last stage in this journey would not have been possible without Keith’s willingness to stand right in the eye of that storm, and to become a lightning conductor for that maelstrom of positive and negative emotions.
It would be fair to say that, after The Fat of the Land album cycle, The Prodigy took a few
By configuring themselves as a band, The Prodigy gave electronic music a more humanised form, and in the “Firestarter” video, Keith gave it a human face. His persona so completely embodied the attitude conveyed in the music. The images of Keith in those tube tunnels for the “Firestarter” video shoot are the definitive images of him. They are, I am sure, the first images that flicker through many of our minds whenever we hear his name. I fully intend to keep it that way.
If Liam is The Prodigy’s brain, then Keith was The Prodigy’s soul. From showing everyone how to dance to Liam’s music in the “Everybody In The Place” video, through to scaring the pants off everyone in “Firestarter” and beyond, Keith Flint has a strong claim to the title of dance music’s first bona fide rock star. Occasionally divisive, always provocative and a genuine pioneer. It is noticeably easier to be visibly “alternative” today than it was twenty years ago, and Keith almost certainly helped that change along.
Thank you Keith. We will miss you.