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The Prodigy

+ {Maxim}

Redefining a new, post-rave generation of metallic, hardcore electronica, The PRODIGY (the brainchild of boy genius/producer Liam Howlett) took the 90s by storm, while other groups fastened on to the emerging grunge, Brit-pop and metal-rap movements. Laying down their law, Braintree, Essex lads Howlett (synths/keyboards/turntables) and his gang of groovers, Keith Flint (singer, dancer and punk-raver), Leeroy Thornhill (dancer extraordinaire) and lyricist Maxim Reality (MC), stamped their own incendiary blend of futuristic rock’n’roll.
With their roots deep in hip hop, this irrepressible quartet of techno-terrorists spread their first waves of discontent through the harder end of the rave scene, releasing the `What Evil Lurks’ 12” EP early ‘91 on the (then) fledgling XL imprint. One track, the rave call-to-arms of `Everybody In The Place’, would subsequently rocket to No.2, when released whole-heartedly at Christmas, hot on the heels of The PRODIGY’s seminal debut hit (No.3), `Charly’. A masterstroke of genius, Howlett sampled a veteran Government TV ad warning children off playing with fire (a recurring lyrical obsession) and welded it to f**k-off, hoover synths and a juggernaut breakbeat. The mixed result: proof that ravers had a sense of humour/irony and a string of low-rent imitations sampling everything from “Sesame Street” to “Rhubarb & Custard”.
Borrowing from The Crazy World of ARTHUR BROWN’s hoary old chestnut of the same name, `Fire’ (twinned with `Jericho’) gave The PRODIGY their third Top 10 hit in a row (well, nearly), another breakneck-paced cut from their mechanistic-in-the-house set, EXPERIENCE (1992) {*9}. More assured and inventive than most of the weak cash-in albums to come out of the 12″ dominated rave scene, the record proffered alternate versions of the hits and killer new tracks like the brilliant breakbeat-skank, `Out Of Space’. By this point (and on the back of fifth hit, `Wind It Up (Rewound)’ the group were also making waves with their formidable live show, still largely gracing raves yet a far cry from your average P.A. featuring a scantily clad diva miming to a 15-minute set.
By 1993, Howlett was extending his horizons; a much in demand remixer, he worked on material for such diverse acts as DREAM FREQUENCY and FRONT 242, as well as poring over new PRODIGY tracks. The first of these, the wailing `One Love’ was initially released only on white label format, apparently to keep in touch with their underground roots. The record proper, still charted of course, going Top 10 in late ‘93 after a full release. `No Good (Start The Dance)’ was the sound of a group in transition, a speeded-up female vocal (sampled from Kelly Charles’ house hit) alternating with a thundering techno assault. The single made the Top 5 in spring ‘94, but it was hardly representative of what lay in store on MUSIC FOR THE JILTED GENERATION {*10}, later that summer. Opening with a sinister tap-tapping typewriter and spoken word intro, then slamming into a dark, twisting techno groove, it was clear Howlett was no longer “luvved up”. The album was breathtaking in its sweep, mapping out the future of techno, PRODIGY style, incorporating heavy riffing (on the two-fingered salute to the Criminal Justice Bill, `Their Law’ – with POP WILL EAT ITSELF), 70s style funky flute (the evocative `3 Kilos’) and even a trio of tracks, `The Narcotic Suite’, climaxing the album in blistering form. Obvious highlights were the utterly compelling `Voodoo People’ single (riffs and funky flute!; arguably The PRODIGY’s finest moment to boot) and the military stomp of `Poison’ (complete with techno-gothic video; a must-see). Almost symphonic in structure, the 8-minute `Break And Enter’ (highlighting a sample of Baby D’s `Casanova’), the TANGERINE DREAM-full-on `Speedway (Theme From “Fastlane”) and the obviously-titled `Full Throttle’ – subconsciously interpolating some “Me, Myself & I – JOAN ARMATRADING” beats – were adrenaline-junkie jewels. The double album was a UK No.1, establishing the band as major contenders who had far outstripped the narrow confines of “dance”, as was evidenced at their shows over the ensuing two years. White-gloved ravers blew their whistles hopefully, waiting in vain for `Charly’ or `No Good…’, while more recent converts contorted and thrashed wildly to the new material (when, that is, they weren’t threatening to shove the raver’s eardrum-rupturing whistles where the sun don’t shine!).
By late ‘95/early ‘96, The PRODIGY were also showcasing new material at live gigs, including an incendiary little ditty entitled `Firestarter’. Primarily Keith Flint’s baby, the “song” was released as a single in spring ‘96, giving The PRODIGY their first No.1. The frontman had, by now, fashioned his once flowing locks into a formidable luminous green Mohican and had also developed a stage act that made IGGY POP (circa The STOOGES) look like a librarian. The fine, upstanding British public were subsequently treated to the new improved Flint via the brilliant video (claustrophobically shot in the London Underground) on Top Of The Pops, resulting in an avalanche of complaints. Of course, the kids loved it, even toddlers were heard to garble “I’m a twisted firestarter” while dragging their hapless mums into Woolies to bag a copy. As for the song itself, Flint took a starring role, spitting out his demented cockney threats over depth charge beats.
The subsequent single, `Breathe’, was even better, an ominous JOY DIVISION-esque guitar riff segueing into the hardest funkiest breakbeats this side of The CHEMICAL BROTHERS. Arguably the single of the year, the track raised expectations for the forthcoming PRODIGY opus to fever pitch. Almost inevitably, then, THE FAT OF THE LAND (1997) {*7} was something of a let-down. There was nothing to match the dark majesty of `Breathe’ (thankfully included on the album along with `Firestarter’), but there were plenty of other tracks to “melt some brains” as Howlett put it. The insistent techno-hop of `Diesel Power’ (with Kool Keith guesting) attested to the group’s love of hardcore rap, while the BEASTIE BOYS-sampling `Funky Shit’ and Maxim MC-led `Mindfields’ were high-octane PRODIGY crowd pleasers. Minus points, however, for the dull collaboration with Crispian Mills (KULA SHAKER), `Narayan’ and the pointless cover of L7’s `Fuel My Fire’. Far more compelling was the insidiously funky `Climbatize’. But it was the album’s opener which had the nation’s moral guardians and pro-women groups in a tizzy; whatever the inspiration for `Smack My Bitch Up’, The PRODIGY were as defiant and unapologetic as ever. Politics aside, the album may not have fully met expectations but it still trampled on the competition.
Live, The PRODIGY remained a revelation, an electric maelstrom of colour and sound (and grimacing!), with an ability to mobilise a crowd unmatched in the musical spectrum. In saying that, their reliance on punk cliches without pushing the boundaries of dance music – which is what they did best – they risked becoming a caricature of themselves. MAXIM, meanwhile, sorted out his own GRANDMASTER FLASH-type breakaway-beat set, HELL’S KITCHEN (2000) {*4}, a record that missed the input of Howlett and sidekick Flint, its only saviours coming through his Skin (SKUNK ANANSIE) collaborative Top 40 single, `Carmen Queasy’ and the expendable but crafty, `Scheming’. Duly released from his PRODIGY duties, MAXIM delivered a second batch by way of FALLEN ANGEL (2005) {*4}.
Following the universally panned `Baby’s Got A Temper single (a UK Top 5 in summer 2002), The PRODIGY’s imminent comeback was put on ice as Howlett went it alone on his trusty laptop. The result was the UK chart conquering ALWAYS OUTNUMBERED, NEVER OUTGUNNED (2004) {*5}, a defiant avowal of the man’s guiding influences – industrial gurn, punk and new wave, beatbox hip hop – without too much recourse to the cyber-hooks which made them lords of the late 90s festival scene. Naturally, samples were still his raw material, filched from fashionably electro-fied sources and hotwired into the likes of lead single (UK Top 20), `Girls’ and the belly-dancing brutality of `Spitfire’. Liam H also dug deeper for the heavily “Love Buzz”-reliant `Phoenix’, a good idea if NIRVANA hadn’t already been there. And make what you will of Hollywood babe JULIETTE LEWIS foxing her way through `Hot Ride’, a grungy rewrite of the JIMMY WEBB-penned Fifth Dimension hit, `Up, Up & Away’. Even Liam Gallagher was hauled out for a fairly anonymous turn on `Shoot Down’; his brother Noel played bass.
Howlett was almost required by law to re-enlist the enigmatic Flint and Maxim, and spurred on by “rave” reviews for their hook-line, comeback single, `Omen’ (on their new Cooking Vinyl-distributed Take Me To The Hospital imprint), INVADERS MUST DIE (2009) {*6} was a vast improvement on their previous outing. Featuring on drums, Dave Grohl (of FOO FIGHTERS), `Run With The Wolves’, and Tim Hutton and (guitar) Amanda Ghost (backing vox) on `Colours’, the album was at least stretching the group’s musical prowess. In their limited-edition-styled singles such as `Warrior’s Dance’, `Take Me To The Hospital’ and the title track, The PRODIGY played their revved-up, rpm retro cards too close to their ever-beating, tub-thumping hearts. It seemed “Everybody was In The Place” for their career-stretching CD/DVD live-in-concert set, WORLD’S ON FIRE (2011) {*7} – no good, well just “start the dance”.
2015’s chart-topping THE DAY IS MY ENEMY {*7} awakened The PRODIGY of old, the inner beast inside in line with the group’s 1994-97 heyday, at least in sinister opening salvos `The Day Is My Enemy’ and electro-punk lead single `Nasty’ (calling 999 in a “Nasty Nasty” emergency – so to speak). Nourished by the added attraction of Nottingham’s SLEAFORD MODS, highlighting the in-like-Flint vocals of Jason Williamson (a match made in punk purgatory), `Ibiza’ was as wicked and wild as they’d ever been. As for the other collaborative piece, `Rhythm Bomb’ (alongside the helium-addled Flux Pavilion), the jerky `Roadblox’, `Wild Frontier’, `Medicine’ and others of the angry Nintendo Xbox “new rage”, Howlett and Co aimed for a razor-sharp sound equal to classic cuts `Poison’, `Firestarter’ and `Breathe’.
© MC Strong 1996-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2012-Apr2015

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