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 carefree, loved up high spirits of the time manifested themselves in the cheery, carnivalesque vibes of the songs on Experience. But the mood was noticeably darkening. The moral outrage at how such an ostentatiously drug-fuelled culture was bleeding into the mainstream and corrupting impressionable minds reached fever pitch, resulting in brutal police crackdowns on the “illegal” raves and the counter-cultures surrounding them, as well wide-ranging legislation being passed in the form of The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This is the law that classified rave music as “repetitive beats.” This is the law that “Their Law” refers to.
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 was often prime sneering fodder for their detractors, but Keith and Leeroy were as vital to The Prodigy as an overall proposition as Liam and Maxim. Their presence meant that The Prodigy were able to offer a visual spectacle that would compete with a full live band, despite the actual music being produced by a guy just pushing buttons, sliding sliders and turning knobs. In turn, this helped the rock and metal crowd who instinctively turned their noses up and music made by computers and not “real” instruments realise that rave was not a four letter word after all. A few guitar samples here and their didn’t hurt, either. It became as common to hear Prodigy tracks in rock and metal clubs as it was Metallica or Slayer, and a rich subculture of often highly-politicised crossover bands followed in their wake.
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 mis-steps. From a personal perspective, I got off the train with “Baby’s Got A Temper”, and never really got back on again. I have always been aware when the Prodigy have periodically released albums since, but I’ve never quite gotten around to seriously listening to any of them. It would be dishonest to attempt fit a decade of listening into a single evening, so I’m not going to try. I dithered over getting tickets to see their shows at Brixton Academy in 2017, and it sold out whilst I was dithering. That is a regret. Through a twist of demographic fate, the period covering the first three Prodigy albums coincided with the period I was spending every weekend in a nightclub. It would be plausible to assume that I have burned more calories dancing to Prodigy songs than any other artist. Like I said, we all went batshit.
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.