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.