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Sep 13

THE PRODIGY – “Firestarter”

Popular167 comments • 6,642 views

#736, 30th March 1996

Twenty years after 1976, punk rock lived on – in the critical imagination, at least. It was part benchmark, part decoder ring: the moment and movement later upheavals had to match (but never really could) and also the handbook for understanding any development. Trends in newer musics would be analysed for parallels to those misty, gobby days. Was the emergence of gangsta rap a kind of “black punk”? Was rave dance music’s “punk rock”? Was the New Wave Of New Wave – well, the clue was in the name. The answer to any of these questions tended to be “no”.

Punk cast a long, increasingly ludicrous and annoying shadow. But it was a shadow a canny group could use as cover. The Prodigy drew blatant inspiration from punk – they called a DVD of their early videos “Electronic Punks”, and Keith Flint looked and sounded the cartoon part. They also, cleverly, set themselves up as a hostile force relative to their genre – one-time inventors of toytown techno, now scouring the charts (superclub dance included) with a purging anger. And this, more even than the spikes and snarls, was real catnip to the punkspotters.

So “Firestarter” delighted an awful lot of people. It was pure aggro – in your face, adrenalized, ultra-modern. The chassis of rave taken out of the clubs, retouched, and set roaring amidst new audiences. But behind the shock to your system was a thrill of more comfortable recognition. Ferocious and sleek it may have been, but its playbook was enjoyably familiar. In a pop scene full of agreeable pageantry, The Prodigy both stood out and fitted in. “Firestarter”’s music couldn’t have come from any other time: its attitude and vocals read from an older script.

The parallels only ran so far. “Firestarter” is a magnificent single because of a very unpunky virtue – its craft. Liam Howlett had demonstrated a gift for building tracks across two albums – one full of glorious, rushy rave melodrama; the second more self-conscious and grumpy but still full of tracks whose surges, climbs and throbs were perfectly deployed. Some dance music built tracks like spaces you could get lost in. Prodigy records were more like action scenes – sequences of tension and release whose thrill-power hid their expert choreography.

None more so than “Firestarter”. The band released a mix of this without its royalty-draining Breeders and Art Of Noise samples, but even though each lasts seconds, taking them out scuppers the song. The squalling, sloppy Breeders riff is like an engine revving up – echoed all through the track by doppler effect guitar tones rising and falling over to the sides of your earspace. The Art Of Noise’s contribution is even briefer – a clipped “Hey Hey Hey!” – but it structures the ride, turning up like a time bonus, pushing you on to the next part.

That videogame analogy is how I hear “Firestarter” because my context for it was completely hijacked by Wipeout 2097, the PlayStation’s superb future racing game whose soundtrack was a document of “electronica”. The 4-man house I was living in had 2-and-a-half jobs between us, none paying much. Nightlife was out, consoles were in. The PlayStation was the most precious object in the house, and we played Wipeout endlessly. Almost always, I picked “Firestarter (Instrumental)” from the soundtrack – if I’d not heard it as a four-minute hymn to velocity before, it soon became one.

That’s still the way I hear it. Everything in the song bar the beats hurtles past me, those micro-riffs jockeying for position like rival ships. The bumps and bass drum crunches punctuating the song feel like the parts where your craft would rear up to jump a gap then thump down, and the break where the song drops underwater brings the darkened tunnel sections of a Wipeout track powerfully back.

Which also means I hear Keith Flint, the pivot of the song, as an intruder in it, a capering goblin. Which works – for all his bug-eyed bragging his most telling claim is his first: “I’m a troublemaker”. It’s the kind of thing you call a small boy with a mischievous streak, not a filth-infatuated mind detonator. On later and lesser tracks Flint would come off as more genuinely menacing, his aggression more heartfelt – but here he’s a kid who’s been let loose, giving the track an edge of destructive glee and swagger.

Memories of Wipeout may seem like a diversion, but I think they help put “Firestarter” in the cultural context it anticipates, not the punky one it inherited. “Firestarter” isn’t just a link in a chain from Johnny and Sid, it’s part of the chain to ‘bro-step’ and GTA. This song feels fresh now because its energy is more like the speed and flash and casual boy-on-boy aggression of PlayStation-era videogames than it’s like punk, and that energy has shaped our culture for better and worse.

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Comments

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  1. 151
    Ed on 22 Sep 2013 #

    @135 – To shed more light on another murky mystery: the problem with Bittersweet Symphony was not just the sample.

    Try singing the first lines of BS, and then The Last Time.

  2. 152
    Ed on 22 Sep 2013 #

    Although, to make it murkier again, The Last Time was itself thoroughly plagiarised from The Staples Singers, James Brown, and a trad Gospel tune, according to Songfacts: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=478

  3. 153
    Andrew Farrell on 22 Sep 2013 #

    #148 – a lot of places make a bigger deal for birthday parties, of the sort that takes more than usual attention from the staff – in this case it would make sense to limit the number of them.

    I am in general on the side of people who are being a “kind and understanding human being” for money, particularly when they’re being asked to do so for free.

  4. 154
    enitharmon on 22 Sep 2013 #

    I have a recollection that the father in the Cricklewood birthday case hadn’t actually booked the birthday package at the centre but had been allowed to use a room that happened not to be in use by a staff member acting ultra vires. The police were called in an ensuing fracas and, as police are wont to do in such circumstances, acted to defuse the situation by removing the antagonist from the scene.

    As with most tabloid “barmy jobsworth” stories it’s a lot less outrageous once the facts are allowed to emerge.

  5. 155
    Alan Connor on 23 Sep 2013 #

    “Most absurd dual credit is presumably Jagger / Richards”

    I was tickled at the time to see Dylan in the credits for Beck’s Jack-Ass, presumably because it had a sample/re-performance of Them’s cover of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, even though the sample was of Them’s guitar sprinklings, not of anything that exists substantively in any Dylan version of the song. (I can’t remember whether that extended to Beck’s own self-cover of Jack-Ass, the mariachi Burro croony thing.)

  6. 156
    glue_factory on 23 Sep 2013 #

    Re:150, blam-blam!

  7. 157
    Mark G on 23 Sep 2013 #

    #159, I believe some of the versions of the song were titled “Strange Invitations”, which is a clever ruse to separate versions of the same song without samples, from the version(s) that do.

    (quick check on Discogs: In fact, the mariachi version was called “Burro”, so that’s three versions of the title…)

  8. 158
    EndlessWindow on 23 Sep 2013 #

    Aside from the Britpop number ones – which tended to stick around in the national conciousness and in playlists far after their initial chart runs anyway – this is one of the first chart-toppers I really recollect. Perhaps in a similar way to punk, the playground reaction really wasn’t that far removed from a novelty record: look, big shouty scary guy, isn’t he weird? Oh, and our parents think it’s just noise? Well, terrific then. Even if it didn’t feel seismic per say, it was such a break from the norm that for those of us who heard this as children, it automatically had novelty status bestowed on it. Admittedly, it was probably the video more than the song that made the real impact, but Firestarter would be known and liked five years later at high school alongside contemporary crazes like a (bunnied?) angry white rapper in a way that only the bigger Oasis numbers would be.

    It does stand up very well though: as has been pointed out above, the fact that Fat of the Land era-Prodigy was the wellspring for a lot of recent, more rockist developments in house, drum’n’bass and what eventually became bro-step/IDM. That Firestarter remains a far more exciting and (by comparison at least) far more nunanced production has helped it avoiding the fast-forward aging process that a lot of dance music generally suffers from.

    Regarding the on-going popularity of The Prodigy though, a lot of it’s down to how effectively The Prodigy re-branded themselves from a rave outfit to a dance-act-for-rockers from this record onwards. Take Them On, On Your Own set up a lot of the distortion and compression that French house/blog house would get big from in the mid/late noughties (think Justice, SebAstian et al – all also very big with a rock crowd!), and their most recent one went back to the Fat of the Land sound again from what I’ve heard of it. Whether’s it due to a rock/metal audience always having a greater sense of respect for the elders than other audiences or just the way that it’s remained a set tribe with a firm sense of canon – a sixteen year-old metalhead is bound to have an Iron Maiden shirt in a way a sixteen year-old pop fan clearly isn’t going to be that interested in Bros or SAW and so on – but the way The Prodigy tapped into a metal crowd gave them pretty astonishing legs. Hell, they headlined Download two years back, so these days their fanbase is decicedly more NIN than KLF!

  9. 159
    Cumbrian on 25 Sep 2013 #

    Re: the video game link and my earlier comment referencing GTA V. The music is still good. However, and mindful of upcoming Mancunian bunnies, it might just be the video game equivalent of Be Here Now. Perhaps more on this – if I remember – in 1997.

  10. 160
    Tom on 28 Sep 2013 #

    Apologies for lack of posts, I have been off in Istanbul at a conference. A city whose tourist traps are some of the most beautiful in the world, assuming you survive the taxi rides to get there. But I am, like the Mack, back, and will try and get something done tomorrow.

  11. 161
    lonepilgrim on 29 Sep 2013 #

    As a tribute perhaps, you could get a look alike to do your Popular community service

  12. 162
    @el_blister on 29 Oct 2013 #

    Otra maravilla más de Freaky Trigger en su sección Popular: Firestarter de The Prodigy http://t.co/V20vqMABml @freakytrigger

  13. 163
    Patrick Mexico on 3 Nov 2013 #

    Hmmm. Going off The One That Scared Grannies now for some reason. I gave it 8 in September, and an 8.9 in my own private Pitchforkio. But tonight for some reason it’s struggling to scrape a 6? Why? Well…

    I’m tempted to to take an opportunity (one of only two chances on Popular) to show my support for Keith and co. Using classic rave aesthetics AND appealing to a Kerrang! audience was admirable; especially with all the moronic divisions between “townies and moshers” in the next decade I was caught in the crossfire of.

    Most albums courting a rave and indie audience like Screamadelica and The Stone Roses had a certain charm, but they were so rooted in an idealistic, “if you remember it, you weren’t really there” Sixties they risked the same “offering people what they can’t have” problem that Martyn Ware blasted Duran Duran for.

    MFTJG and TFOTL bypassed this with an unapologetic modernity; the clanking, banging, car-crushing plant sound repeated heavy metal’s Brummie birth by accepting the pub, club, or rave, wasn’t a place where you could be friends with everyone. You can have the best time of your life, there, of course, but accept the human condition. You’re not going to go to another galaxy. You’re not going to be wanting to hug a 26-stone former Chelsea Headhunter with chronic flatulence tomorrow. Mark your territory. The world is full of bastards.. but at least try and be a loveable bastard.

    Yet sometimes I’m left cold by the Prodigy. The cartoon punk antics of Keith Flint, their lack of remorse in calling tracks “Smack My Bitch Up” display a humourless, arrested adolescent thuggery. And it’s the same reason why as much as I enjoy a good half hour of Grand Theft Auto, and their use of classic, well, Scottish humour in sending up the excessive lunacy of Eighties Miami, early nineties Los Angeles or modern California (and Generation X culture) that goes completely over the heads of many GTAers, who just want to “fkn shoot ppl up n t8k advantidge ov hookas lyk a propa gangsta innit”, and tragically, take this careless, neo-liberal attitude into real life.

    No, not in the way the Daily Mail suggests violent video games suddenly make people violent; most human brains are far too good to be played like a fiddle, but playing a game consciously nurturing the mind of a soulless, chauvinistic doughnut is going to turn you into a soulless, chauvinistic doughnut. Indeed, back in 1996, nobody wrote “lad” in capital letters but it was already becoming a very dirty word to intelligent Britons, and like some of what Firestarter stands for, GTA makes me feel uncomfortable about the current neo-liberal mess Western youth are in: the constant chasing of alcoholic, narcotic excess just because it’s “there”; indulging in politically incorrect or “bad taste” pursuits with no saving grace of a dignified satirical motive (i.e. the vile people blacking up or going as Baby P to fancy dress parties); and the “oh, it’s their own fault” attitude to women , the disabled, or people who want something else from life other than obsessions with going to the gym, taking vain selfies on Facebook and going to gigs armed with camera phones with no deeper intention than making a statement that you’ve been to a gig. Of course, this isn’t the Prodigy’s fault, though you know what people say about Pendulum..

    Phew! Another more minor worry is that there’s probably people out there who think, say, Judas Priest, Mr. Fingers, and Afrika Bambaataa, were made-up artists recorded by session musicians for the game.

    Keith’s get up is a bit cartoon punk – someone dressed up as him won a [CBBC boyband] North and South video that, yes it was a CBBC boyband, but presenting it this way made me struggle to believe the notion it could ever cause the national scandal it did; the forced pronunciations of “fackin’ instigator” are too close to Danny Dyer’s advice columns for comfort; plus did we really need this in a year where the Sex Pistols played a generally pointless reunion?

    The Prodigy were sometimes a brilliant band. They just aren’t a band who’ve had a brilliant legacy. Speaking of which…

  14. 164
    @Patrick_Mexico on 3 Nov 2013 #

    I wrote a quick blog on the Prodigy – Firestarter… read it here.. not my best but anything to keep that site going http://t.co/0tTDBBQeFb

  15. 165
    Patrick Mexico on 6 Nov 2013 #

    I think I need to stop using this site in the wee small hours in a couple of cans. Any question using the post that uses the words “neo-liberal” twice in two paragraphs, my God. I’m also worried I take journalistic cues from the Conor McNicholas era of the NME.. but to quote Credit to the Nation, call it what you want. I stand by my original post, although maybe I should “rediscover” Pendulum – stop sniggering at the back.

    Even if I do reduce Firestarter to a lukewarm 6 the start of 1996 (plus Earth Song, and excluding Take That’s swansong, who despite my regular hostility, deserved better than a cover) this has still been the best run of number ones since spring 1990.

  16. 166
    Patrick Mexico on 17 Dec 2013 #

    God, I was a miserable git on this thread. Oh well, at least we’ll get to talk about this rum bunch again soon.

  17. 167
    thefatgit on 17 Jan 2014 #

    Meanwhile, on t’internet…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDXNfe2W8c8

    You’ll catch your death down in those chilly tunnels, Keith.

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