The Prodigy: burning down the house
July 1996: Things won’t ever be quite the same for The Prodigy following the incredible success of that record. Where next for the fire-starting mob now they’ve torched the rock ‘n’roll blueprint?
“30 years ago on 5th October 1990 we formed The Prodigy while out at a rave. I already had the first tunes written… Now we were a gang ready to take on the world… Liam Howlett, Keef Flint, Maxim, Leeroy Thornhill.” So tweeted the official Prodigy account this week to their 245.7k followers. No better reason, then, to post this brilliant July 1996 cover-story interview with the Essex mob. That summer, writer Andrew Smith tagged along to the Netherlands’ Pink Pop festival to observe a band riding the rollercoaster success of Firestarter. Released that March and their first Number One, it was the squalling, ranting, raving, cacophonous song of the year – and it would change the four members’ lives forever. Here Smith – his story accompanied by fantastic photography from Peter Robathan – gives us a ringside view of the start of the Prodge’s rock‘n’rave revolution.
It is a strange and unforgiving sort of God who places the changing room of the band you’re with bang next door to one of only two acts in the world who have publicly expressed a desire to kill you.
What’s worse (and this was always inevitable), the band you’re with, the one dance act Noel Gallagher rates, whose last album Bono took on holiday, whose last single Smashing Pumpkins covered on tour, whose Glastonbury show an envious stage director recently described as “the best theatrical event” he saw last year – the band of the moment, The Prodigy – think their neighbours are cool.
Buzzin’. They might hang with them afterwards.
So this is causing me some discomfort, but it pales next to the far greater unease Liam, Leeroy, Maxim and, especially, the horny-haired Keith, are visiting upon a Belgian radio journalist who’s been sent to interview them before they close the Pink Pop festival in Holland.
He’s sitting on a wooden chair, looking a touch nervous, wearing goggle-like specs and chunky headphones. With the mic in his outstretched hand barely visible through the bilious clouds of smoke, he looks a little like a doomed Luftwaffe pilot squinting anxiously into the mist.
In answer to the journalist’s question about the strangest show the Prod have ever done, Keith is spinning some yarn about a benefit gig in a prison to raise funds for a new library trolley. He is also trying to perch a folded-up towel on his head like a turban. The poor reporter tries to think of another question.
Keith has turned out to be The Prodigy’s secret weapon. There are stories of children being terrified by the sight of him shivering and shaking in the Firestarter video on Top Of The Pops, though the reality is that kids are fascinated, perhaps recognising him as one of their own.
Like it or not, he is the demonic public face of The Prodigy now, the one passing cab drivers shout “Oi, Firestarter!” at – all because of that one inspired, beautifully chaotic song. In the flesh, Keith could never be threatening, though. For one thing, he is seldom to be seen without a puckish grin playing on his lips.
Unusually long lashes give his eyes a soft, feminine quality. Short, stout, dressed in orange, he is like a cross between Max Wall, Uncle Fester, Toad of Toad Hall, Private Godfrey from Dad’s Army, Bart Simpson’s mate Krusty the Clown and, we have to say it, Sid Vicious.
When another magazine asked each member of The Prodigy, separately, what the single most irritating habit of anyone else in the band was, Maxim cited Keith’s notorious propensity for dithering; Leeroy his annoying behaviour while shopping (though this, he noted, was just one of many unfortunate traits); and Liam his sonorous arse, which “goes off like an alarm clock at six o’clock every morning”.
Keith, bless him, merely said: “Erm, nothing, really. No one really annoys me.” He’s what you call a “character”. Back in the changing room, in response to I don’t know what, Keith is proclaiming magisterially: “You know us, we never, ever get stoned.”
This is a lie. And, like everyone else in the room, the poor reporter is probably feeling a little bit stoned by now. He wants to know whether Firestarter didn’t amount to an arsonists’ charter? Whether Keith frightens people? (“Well, they get a little… cross sometimes.”) What don’t they like about touring? (Trench crotch, an ailment something like the trench foot they used to get in World War I, only, er, higher up.)
I find all of this encouraging. The Band Who Want To Kill Me, who fancy themselves as being at the forefront of the revolutionary vanguard (Rage Against The Machine, if you’re interested), are clearly going to hate these Essex-born enemies of sensibleness. Then the radio man comes back with what appears to be an innocent, throwaway parting shot. “Do you feel a kind of justification, headlining a rock festival as a techno band?”
Liam Howlett, The Prodigy’s bleach-blond musical engine, the one the others still defer to, seldom speaks. When he does, he is as economic with words as Keith is free-spending. He is displeased. “What makes you say we’re a techno band?” End of interview.
Four days later, a final exchange on the telephone is coming to a close.
“Can I ask you a few questions now?” Howlett says. This is unusual. But of course he can. He asks first what I like about The Prodigy, then what direction I’d like to see them going in, “what Prodigy you’d want to see in a year’s time?” Personally speaking, the fact that the second question may even be asked provides an answer to the first.
The truly great thing about Liam’s Prodigy is that virtually anything is possible. Last year’s lauded Music For The Jilted Generation album established them as a dance act who don’t work the way other dance acts work. They are probably the most misunderstood group in Britain. Liam knows this, but he doesn’t enjoy it the way other artists might claim to. He is a populist. It causes him anxiety, even as reconstructed indie critics arrive bearing bold slogans about shock techno and our dance nation’s bright, eclectic, radical future.
Howlett may have begun as a purveyor of tunes to the discerning raver, but he mistrusts, even despises, club music now. He sees his own work as being at the opposite end of the spectrum from the likes of Orbital. That stuff is aimed at the head, just like its antecedents. Kraftwerk is rarefied art-wank. House is trivial. The energy he’s interested in is more chaotic. Though The Prodigy make dance music, their soul belongs to rock and when Keith came to him earlier in the year wanting to do a vocal track, the imaginative leap made sense.
The subsequent massive success of Firestarter (half-a-million copies sold in the UK) was the logical conclusion of a process which had begun several years ago. It has left Howlett with some complicated choices.
“You see, I didn’t really expect Firestarter to be accepted so well,” he explains. “I thought people wouldn’t get into it because of the guitars. I mean, I’d love to release another song like that, but it’s always in the back of my head that people will start to think that we think we’re a guitar band now, that we’re leaving our old thing behind. We’ve always said in interviews that we don’t want to be a techno band.”
What kind of band do you want to be?
“We want to be an alternative dance band with energy. We don’t want to give up writing good dance music and start writing dodgy rock’n’roll music. But that’s the energy we’re interested in at the moment. I wanted to make something more anarchic. It’s quite obvious we’re not a club band any more. The DJs weren’t really playing our records anyway, because of that snobbery once you get to a certain level. The thing is, if you ask most musicians what direction they’re going in, they make out that they’ve never thought about it, but they’re not telling the truth most of the time.”
Firestarter brought the richness of Howlett’s dilemmas into even sharper focus than the Jilted album had. As he will rightly point out, there was nothing futuristic about it: the earth-shaking rush of the kick drum; the shuffling hip-hop beats; the otherworldly instrumentation; and Keith’s Satanic vocal – these were all things that had been heard before, but never in quite this way.
It combined the eternal dance experience with the visceral thrill of rock. But it was a pop song, wasn’t it? If The Prodigy play their cards right, they might now rocket to another level entirely. Could they not become the biggest band on the planet? Liam says he’s not sure they want to. He doesn’t want to play stadiums. He doesn’t want to be handing out awards to his celebrity pals at The Brits.
On the contrary, Liam will insist, Firestarter has made no difference whatsoever. He won’t confirm that Minefields, the slow-burning tune which was scheduled for release as a single round about now, was withdrawn because of it, though he will wonder “how the fuck d’you follow that song?” when pressed. For the time being, he’s concentrating on the next album, which is half-finished and likely to appear in October. He’s trying not to think too hard about the rest.
Born in the quintessentially Essex town of Braintree, Liam Howlett was 11 when his mother left home for another man, leaving him and his sister to be raised by his father, who runs an industrial adhesives company. Three out of the four Prodigy members are products of what Essex-heartland Tories would call “broken homes”, though none of them will admit to having been affected by it.
Howlett, incidentally, is still Essex as fuck. He resents, for example, the association between his band and the anti-Criminal Justice Act protests made (on the basis of its sleeve art and the Their Law track) after Jilted was released.
Will you be voting in the next election?
“The only thing I could give a fuck about is whether I have to pay more tax or not, so whoever brings the cheapest tax rates, I’ll be voting for them.”
You don’t care what party it is?
“No, I don’t give a fuck. I usually just think about what affects me, and I don’t really think about anyone else.”
Isn’t that a tad selfish?
“Oh, of course it is, yeah. I told you I’m selfish, didn’t I? But I’m only selfish to people who I don’t know. I’m not selfish to those around me: me girlfriend, family, the band, people like that. It’s almost like a nobody else-really-matters-apart-from-people-who support us type thing.”
This is straight out of the Essex Man Handbook, isn’t it ?
“Essex has got the wrong picture painted of it… although, sadly, I kind of fit into that picture pretty well (laughs). But, I’ll tell ya, I laugh at some of these people who like to drive around town in their souped-up Fords with the music blaring out the window. I’m not one of those people, you know what I mean? I’m definitely more of a London head, I’m not an Essex boy.”
Didn’t I read that you drive a (boy racer’s wet dream) Cosworth Escort?
“(Laughs) Yeah, I’m sorry, I do, yeah. And I’ve got an AC Cobra.”
Keith’s got one of them too, hasn’t he? What is an AC Cobra?
“No, Keith’s got a TVR. I’ve got the Cobra, my all-time favourite car. It’s a huge American muscle car, 600 horsepower. I’m really into cars.”
The young Howlett hated school sports, especially football, preferring street activities like skateboarding and BMX riding. He was good enough at art to gain a grade B at A‑level and was stunned to be refused a place at the local art college in Braintree. In the event, it turned out to be a blessing, as he got a job as a graphic design assistant in London, commuting from home between 1988 and ’90.
He was a hip-hop kid at this stage, not much interested in acid house, which he found flat, unmusical and cliquey (the angular beats in many Prodigy tunes still owe more to hip-hop than other dance forms). It wasn’t until the company he worked for went bust and he decided to return full-time to Braintree that some pals coaxed him down to a club called The Barn, which was the centre of the Essex rave scene.
Almost immediately, he was hooked.
“I didn’t really give a fuck about work by that time. Plus, getting into puff sort of changes your whole outlook on life. Starting to experience a few different drugs was, like, a really eye-opening thing. It made me feel like I was cleverer than everyone else that hadn’t taken it – especially with Ecstasy. I didn’t become arrogant, but in my own head I found myself thinking: ‘Yeah, I’ve experienced a lot more than you people here.’
“I never said it, but it made me feel much more, sort of, worldly. It gave me quite a bit of confidence. That led on to starting the band up.”
To cut a short story even shorter, by the beginning of 1991 he had secured a deal with XL Records in London. In August, the single Charly made number three in the national chart, swiftly followed in December by Everybody In The Place (number two). Four further hit singles and a top 20 album, Experience, came before the end of 1993, but by then something had changed in Howlett’s mind.
The Prodigy sold lots of records – in fact, he began to feel that he could knock off these rave anthems in his sleep – but had no respect. That the media found it possible to concoct a rivalry between them and 2 Unlimited tells you everything you need to know. By then, he’d long given up taking Ecstasy, fearing that it would dull his creativity. You could play people any old shit when they were high.
One night in Scotland, he looked down from the stage and thought: “What the fuck am I doing here?” He wanted a change of direction. “I liked the energy, but not the corniness. In the early years, I was surprised at how many times we managed to pull it off. I decided that the next record was gonna be something for me.”
Now, onstage in Holland, the fruits of this gamble are plain to see. Maxim stalks the stage, chatting and rapping, his snake-eye contact lenses adding to the presence which, like so many performers, only manifests itself in front of an audience. Keith shakes and sweats, changing costumes twice, as Leeroy spars with relative grace. Behind them Liam pummels his instruments, as the vast crowd, who have been camping in the chill rain for three days and should be as miserable as sin by now, go utterly wild.
Howlett might never have been allowed to change course so smoothly had not fellow Essex boy Keith Flint followed his stepbrother (his parents – father a civil servant, mother a school secretary – had parted when he was 12) to Braintree some years earlier. By 1990, Essex was the drug capital of Britain, courtesy of Harwich, the cast coast gateway to Holland and northern Europe.
It is no coincidence that so many rave labels sprung up in the county at this time. Braintree, location of The Barn club, was the centre of both the record and drugs trade. Essex police based their drugs squad there. The men accused of killing the three big dealers after Leah Betts’ death are from Braintree.
At The Barn, Flint became friendly with Leeroy Thornhill, and the two became a double-act with a reputation for being anywhere, livening up any party. “If there was a party, they’d be there, especially Keith,” chuckles Liam. “Everyone would be going up to him, saying: ‘What are you on? What’ve you had?’ He looked as nutted as everyone else, but he probably hadn’t had anything. That’s how he is naturally.”
Sitting in his hotel room relaxing before the Pink Pop show, Keith does nothing to dispel the impression Liam gave of him. He is affable. Most noticeable is the way in which, by the time he reaches the end of a sentence, he has nearly always contradicted the initial premise.
Ask if there’s anything he doesn’t like about being in a band, for instance, and you will get: “Yeah, of course… No, not really. It’s not because it’s all roses and birds and drugs and fast cars and jet planes, just ’cause it suits what I’m about. I’m slightly nomadic. I don’t mind drifting off and sitting in a van for two hours, totally uncomfortable. I mean, yeah, I do moan. I don’t want to sound like I’m Mr Completely Satisfied. But sometimes I enjoy that! I find that it gets me up and out and I’m far more lively than maybe I would be.
“If you could just take away people’s preconceptions about you, it’d be perfect. I mean that is… that is… that is that, you know what I mean?”
Of course. Furthermore, when anyone in the band recounts an anecdote, it’s nearly always about Keith. Like the time he found a cool bowling shirt in Australia with the initials “WFI” on the back, bought it and wore it everywhere, only to be asked one day by a puzzled fan why he was going around sporting the initials of the local Women’s Institute?
Or the occasion in Japan when, pissed on tequila, they were trying to photocopy his arse in a supermarket and had to get an assistant to adjust the exposure while he sat there with his trousers round his ankles. He himself will tell you how, a little while ago, a couple pulled up alongside them in a car park and the woman was heard to say through her rolled down window: “Oh look, Harold, there must be a circus in town. They’ve got a clown onboard.”
So Keith and Leeroy approached Liam, who was DJing at The Barn one night, asking if he could use some dancers to help take his music to the stage. He agreed immediately, but he also knew that they’d need an MC to galvanise things. Enter Maxim.
Snake-eyed Maxim (born Keith Palmer) works harder than anyone else onstage, acting as a lightning rod for the others’ exertions. When asked what animals best represent the individual members, the band’s longtime manager, Mike Champion, saw the happy-go-lucky Leeroy as a hyena, Keith as a Tasmanian devil, Liam as a lion (creep!) and Maxim as a panther.
At 29, Maxim’s a few years older, quieter and more guarded than his colleagues. Like Liam, but decidedly unlike Leeroy and Keith, he always intended his life to revolve around music. He appears to be handling the increased interest in Keith since Firestarter with remarkable good grace, as indeed they all are. He’s the one who will tell you that The Prodigy are all about getting “real” and “just doing what they do, man”, oblivious to the fact that what the rest of us like about The Prodigy is their decidedly tangential relationship to reality.
Leeroy won’t even get so avant-garde as this, mind. Standing six-and‑a half feet tall, he’s a gentle giant, less reserved than Maxim, but careful with his dignity. He has no piercings. Ever conservatively dressed, he is the only one who likes football and reads books (mainly horror and sci-fi). There is a music critic’s theory that to be successful a band must pass the Monkees Test – that is, be able to appear as distinct, cartoon-like characters making up a multi-faceted whole.
The Prodigy pass the Monkees Test with flying colours with Leeroy as the happy-go-lucky one and Liam as the smart one, Keith as the mad one and Maxim as the deep, considerate thinker. It goes without saying that, individually, they are all more complex than this implies, but when they’re together, this is how they function. The Prodigy is very much greater than the sum of its parts. They are the original Last Gang In Town, taking no hostages.
Later, Keith is in his bedroom, pacing the floor, waiting to be interviewed. Leeroy has just rushed in to tune the TV to a Dutch porn station and then vanished just as mysteriously. “I mean, I fucking live it,” Keith is saying. “I won’t try to put into words my loyalty to the band for their sake, ’cause they know it, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Without it I’d be in a right pickle.”
Did you always know you were going to come through, Keith?
“Sort of. When I was younger I used to have these panic attacks. I’d say things to myself like: ‘One day I’m gonna be a dad – how do I wallpaper? Fuck! I don’t know how to fucking wallpaper! I don’t know how to be a dad!’ I can’t remember the point I was making now. Oh yes – I always did have these little voices in my head that said: ‘You’re going to be all right. Don’t worry about that.’ It was like that at school. I was bright enough. I’ve got quite a large intelligence. I got all that tested out ’cause I was quite a bastard at school, so they sent me off to be examined.”
You were a bastard?
“Yeah, but not a nicking-bikes-and-hands-up-girls’-skirts type. It was more: ‘Can you please write something or pay some sort of attention or go home?’ I knew what I was going to need for life and what I wasn’t. And this wasn’t, so I wasn’t going to listen. Of course, I soon realised that I wasn’t going to slip into the comfortable job afterwards and that without money I couldn’t go on all these trans-Europe bike expeditions I had planned. So there was the realisation that I might have cocked it up a little bit.”
Has your image change affected you greatly?
“No. Yeah. This is such a kind of psychological aid. Just to watch people pause… They stare at you and they look at you and then they think that they don’t owe you anything for their invasion of your privacy at that moment other than a disapproving snarl, look-up-and-down type, how-dare-you-be-in-the-same-building-that-I’m-in sort of look. I love staying in all the nice hotels and driving a nice car and seeing all the people thinking: ‘He must have stolen that.’
“It’s an extension of my personality. It’s better to get to 60 thinking: ‘Fuck me, I’ve been in bed with a ton of women, I’ve done every one of my sexual fantasies, dyed my hair every colour I’ve wanted to, had everything pierced I’ve wanted to, I’ve got tattoos that are all saggy and baggy and don’t look like anything, but I don’t give a fuck, because when I was 26 I was tooting around feeling the bollocks.’”
What do you find attractive in people?
“I like to see solidness in people. I almost want to be able to look up to the people around me. I have to be driven on by the people I hang around with.”
Do you go off them quickly if they disappoint you?
“No, I don’t… Yeah, I suppose so. Yeah, all right. I can. God, I can’t work myself out sometimes, whether I’m nice or nasty. Everything that you see onstage is me. I’m no philosopher, but I’m much more careful now than I used to be.”
Two days on, back in England, The Prodigy are playing at the launch party for the latest Tarantino/Rodriguez movie, From Dusk Till Dawn. They hadn’t been looking forward to this one, imagining that the atmosphere will be frosty and a bit cool for them. The Prodigy are better appreciated, and feel more at home, in clubs or at festivals than drowning in free beer at the Ministry Of Sound. That’s what they thought, anyway.
In the event, they are wrong. The crowd is as out of control as Keith in his yellow tartan kilt, with his stage baton through his nose. Maxim looks possessed. It’s a treat to see them up this close, I think, noting with a mixture of satisfaction and regret that – whatever Liam says to the contrary – there may not be many more chances.