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Sep 13

THE PRODIGY – “Firestarter”

Popular172 comments • 11,504 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. 1
    Tom Ewing (@tomewing) on 17 Sep 2013 #

    “Firestarter”, Wipeout 2097, punk hangovers and the birth of the bro. http://t.co/SaPmJR1SCa – new Popular entry.

  2. 2
    Steve Mannion on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Roared with delight at them finally getting a #1 (as pointed out at least once before ‘Everybody In The Place’ would’ve done it but for Freddie Mercury’s passing) despite conceding upon first listen that it was my least favourite single of theirs to date. But it was exciting seeing how far they could go (again particularly as a band who repeatedly refused to mime or even perform live on UK TV).

  3. 3
    JLucas on 17 Sep 2013 #

    What I remember most about this record is my mum loved it. Not because she was some kind of unlikely middle aged rave fan, but because she found it completely hilarious. She loved Keith Flint in the video. He was a minor cultural phenomenon (the image is surely ingrained in the memories of anyone who grew up in this period) but he was too cartoonish to be truly threatening.

    I can’t speak with any particular insight on the record. I was too young for it to resonate with me as anything more than a slightly strange novelty record. I understood why it was popular – it had a memorable hook and a funny dancing man in the video. But I’d have mentally filed it alongside Babylon Zoo and the Outhere Brothers rather than any of their contemporaries, most of whom totally passed me by.

    Listening now and in the context of their other hits – which I paid scant attention to at the time, aside from Smack My Bitch Up which of course caused a bit of a furore and was a playground catchphrase that kids used without really knowing why or what it meant – I understand it better. But the air of the novelty song still hangs over it, probably unfairly but there we are. It’ll always be the song with the dancing goblin my mum liked first and foremost.

  4. 4
    Kat but logged out innit on 17 Sep 2013 #

    This went down VERY WELL INDEED at the last Popular night.

    I LOVED it when it came out – my old faves The Prodge had discovered grunge, just like me! Even my metaller chums liked it! Plus it came with its own little urban myth of Keith dancing on LIVE TUBE TRACKS in the video (totally a myth, you can’t even see any rails)! This is possibly the last cassingle I bought – my dad won a CD player in a raffle soon afterwards so I could finally play my CDs in my room instead of going downstairs to the living room.

    It’s still a total banger, although the outro goes on just that little bit longer than it needs to.

  5. 5
    lonepilgrim on 17 Sep 2013 #

    as my only previous exposure to the Prodigy was via occasional exposure to ‘Charly’ and ‘Everybody in the Place’ I was surprised to find that they could produce something as concise and compelling as this track. I get the punk connection but for me musically it suggested the post-punk sounds that Massive Attack were to explore on Mezzanine a few years later

  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 17 Sep 2013 #

    #4 I never heard that myth but would’ve liked to have seen Keith nonchalantly step aside an oncoming train – perhaps in homage to Joe Perry in Aerosmith’s ‘Livin On The Edge’ clip.

  7. 7
    Izzy on 17 Sep 2013 #

    It’s tribute to just how good The Prodigy were that you could make a good case for this ranking in the lower half of their singles to date and yet still a borderline 10.

  8. 8
    Billy Hicks on 17 Sep 2013 #

    …so shall I be the first (and maybe only) one to grumble that they were better in the old days?

    For years and years, right up to 2004, this was the only Prodigy track I knew. The words ‘Prodigy’ and ‘Firestarter’ were linked together as with the image of Keith Flint in the tunnel. For some reason my main memory of this is associated with about a year or two later of Brian Conley performing this on TV while blacked up as Al Jolson, as part of a medley that also included the theme tune to the popular kids show…oops, bunny. So yeah, Prodigy were Firestarter, that rather noisy song with the shouty scary guy.

    Then I heard ‘Out of Space’ on MTV Dance at the age of 16 and was absolutely blown away.

    Soon after, ‘No Good (Start the Dance)’ played on Radio 1 as part of Dave Pearce’s Dance Anthems show and the same happened. And hearing the tracks on those first two albums, Firestarter and everything past that point immediately seemed so watered-down and, well, ‘poppy’ compared to all that had gone before. All these songs that, even in my first listen in the mid-noughties, stood out in comparison to anything else in the then-current charts. Not until 2009 would they finally release something that even remotely near compared to their rave roots, but until then I would have called this the point they lost their way and sold out to the crowd. On its own, Firestarter is enjoyable. Listening to it having heard all nine previous single releases before it, it’s a major let down.

    Out of Space and No Good would have got the 10s from me had they risen that high, but this falls a lot shorter.

  9. 9
    enitharmon on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Listened to this the other day¸ complete with video. Gave me a headache but otherwise left me unimpressed. Clearly there’s something I just don’t get.

    Good Vibrations it clearly ain’t…

  10. 10
    ciaran on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Thought with the week that was in it it would be a 10.

    Nearly all the single releases from MTFJG would get at least a 9.Played No Good recently and was still highly impressed.

    The prodigy released such great records in 93/94 that they were worthy of the colossal hype Oasis were but the simple rock formula was always more of a friendly crowd pleaser element to oasis than the ‘from-god-knows-where’image the prodigy had.

    Firestarter felt more like a makeover than a sell out.It was a shock for 2 reasons 1) There was now a face to this act and 2)it was unlike any release that had gone before it.MFTJG was not dissimilar from the previous album but singles wise Fat of the Land was nothing like what they did before. The image of the mad man wearing a stars and stripes shirt in the underground tunnel was disturbing certainly.

    The image was much parodied.Can recall Lucozade of all things making an ad around it.

    Been a while since I heard it.Its OK but I would prefer the next release of theirs even if it may feel ‘watered down’ to the rest of you.Still clearly better than what Babylon Zoo were aiming for earlier that year.8 would be about right.

    You rarely hear it at all nowadays.

    Narayan would still be my favourite tune from FOTL.That would be an 8 or a 9.

  11. 11
    thefatgit on 17 Sep 2013 #

    I for one, had felt jaded and out of love with the charts. There were more important things to consider, (I was engaged to be married) and “Wonderwall” had been my final single purchase. But “Firestarter” and The Prodigy’s next single changed my attitude, and I eagerly bought “The Fat Of The Land”.

    This song was part-alarm, part-slap in the face for the bored and jaded, like me, in a JEEZ! WHAT THE FVCK IS THAT? kind of way. I had been exposed to “Out Of Space” with its Max Romeo in the Magic Roundabout nuttyness and “Voodoo People” which kinda pointed me in the direction they were going, but I was TOTALLY unprepared for “Firestarter”. I recognised the Art Of Noise sample straight off. The Breeders’ guitar-snarl was new to me. I suppose it was the video that really grabbed my attention. Keith flint running his power-saw along the rail, sparks flying, like his vocal technique, angular and abrasive…hell, he even looked a bit like Blixa Bargeld! Dancing as if his life depended on it. Exposing his pierced tongue, breathing in Hidden London’s forgotten dust. Welcome to the filthy Underground! We’re THE MORLOCKS and we’re dragging you tame ELOY down to our HELL! Our HOME! The punk aesthetic was secondary, really. The music was fascinating. Liam is perhaps, our first proper Trainspotter (in the sample-geekery sense) on Popular. A magpie who possesses a breadth of knowledge across multiple genres. We’ll come across more people like him as Popular progresses into its second decade.

  12. 12
    anto on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Alone amongst my group of friends in not really getting The Prodigy (I was always told they were ‘really good live’ which is actually the kind of thing that puts me right off a band – I mean you hear people say that about Stan Boardman) my indifference was such that ‘Firestarter’ at number one came as a bit of a surprise, and not one I especially savoured although I suppose it is a rather impressive track.
    A girl I knew at college met them once outside the MTV studios in Camden Town once and said they were to a man, perfect gentleman. Keith Flint in particular turned out to be a big, cuddly, firestarting teddy bear.

  13. 13
    Mark G on 17 Sep 2013 #

    #4 yeah, I would have knocked one point off for having nothing on the last minute or so. The vid just has snippets of Keith Flint wandering around a bit.

  14. 14
    James BC on 17 Sep 2013 #

    A total banger, obviously, BUT actually dancing to this carries a high risk of either looking like a maniac or getting tired halfway through and giving up. Not recommended for every occasion.

  15. 15
    Andrew Farrell on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Note of translation: Wipeout 2097 = Wipeout XL in the states – though it probably had a different soundtrack?

    The advent of Playstation was definitely a moment of “You are in the focus of the world, this is the future and you are there” for me – if it shared that with punk it also shared the retroactive writing out of the female element – that didn’t really happen until the rise of the X-Box.

  16. 16
    Andrew Farrell on 17 Sep 2013 #

    #14 bear in mind I have danced to No Good (Start the Dance) all the way through…

  17. 17
    Auntie Beryl on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Music For The Jilted Generation set the Prodigy up as a band against the Criminal Justice Bill – ludicrous definitions of repetitive beats and gatherings introduced by a late-period Conservative government dancing, ironically enough, to a tabloid tune.

    Amused me, as only two years before the band were wearing matching jumpsuits and goofing about on a farm in videos.

    Firestarter took both elements and made hay. The accessibility of the first album, which was overlooked on the second; and the fury, the anger of the later release. And stirred in Something For Keith To Do.

    It’s not their best record. Of 1996, even. It’s still a bloody good single, and a worthy number one. Eight.

  18. 18
    Jody Macgregor (@jodymacgregor) on 17 Sep 2013 #

    What if I just link to everything @TomEwing writes from now on? Here he is on ‘Firestarter’. http://t.co/MtXJj7HBFc

  19. 19
    pootle on 17 Sep 2013 #

    It is excellent, but ‘No Good’ is better. It just makes me think of people saying “At last! A dance frontman!”, as if you have time to look at someone on stage when you’re dancing.

  20. 20
    Auntie Beryl on 17 Sep 2013 #

    I agree. No Good might be their best single, and that would have been a strange viewpoint back in the late 90s; but it seems to be something of a consensus now.

  21. 21
    Auntie Beryl on 17 Sep 2013 #

    Although to your point about looking at things whilst dancing, the rise of superstar DJs from this point in 1996 was quite weird.

    Oakenfold headlined the second stage at Glastonbury in 1999, I think. I was there and it felt very odd. Twenty thousand people dancing in a field BUT FACING FRONT. And then there was that old bloke from Beats International.

  22. 22
    Erithian on 17 Sep 2013 #

    By spring 1996 I was on the way to completing the research for the book I had to write in time for summer 1997 – the 75th anniversary history of Erith & Belvedere FC, founded 1922. Every Saturday morning I’d head down to Bexley local studies centre, then housed in the fine Tudor mansion of Hall Place, to trace the club’s history through newspaper microfilms. I’d have my Walkman with me to follow the footy commentaries in the afternoon, with a dash of Radio 1 in the morning. Which is how I come to associate the walk down Gravel Hill to the handsomest building in Bexley with “Firestarter”, as I first heard it walking down the hill and was blown away.

    Pushing 34, I guess I wasn’t the target audience for it, and God knows I’d dismissed enough “rave” music in the past, including some Prodigy tracks, but I suppose I was with J Lucas’s mum on this – I just found the punch, the tension, the sheer drama of the track irresistible. Keith Flint doing the perfect cartoon Johnny Rotten impression, the samples cleverly deployed, the ideas flowing – and the video, once you saw it, a thrilling, parent-alienating thing stalking TOTP in the tradition of early Stones or Alice Cooper (filmed in the disused Aldwych tube station – so no, no live tube tracks!). I tried “Fat of the Land” shortly afterwards and, well I’ll agree with Ciaran above about “Narayan” – repetitive yet hypnotic, the same kind of effect as “Born Slippy”. I won’t be defending “Smack My Bitch Up” though.

    A couple of nice memories from the Prodigy’s time as a Top Pop Group: Keith Flint seen chatting to Spike Milligan at an awards ceremony and declaring afterwards that the near-80-year-old comic genius was “still very much with it” (I had to chuckle at the shock-horror evil goblin using the phrase “very much with it”). Then there was Q magazine describing the band (in a pattern resembling a bunnied phenomenon we’re not far from now) as Boffin Prodge, Scary Prodge, Bez Prodge and Scary Bez Prodge.

    Fascinating bit, Tom, about your association of this track with a video game – so maybe this review appearing in our 10th anniversary week isn’t as relevant as this review appearing on the day of the GTA5 launch.

  23. 23
    mapman132 on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Tom was really teasing us with this review – thought it was going to end with a 10, but instead, just short. Anyway…

    The Prodigy were largely unknown in America before “Firestarter” made its belated appearance on MTV and modern rock radio in early 1997. I wasn’t usually into this sound at the time, but it had perfect timing for me, as I was going through a really rough time of 80 hour workweeks, and this song was great for working off my frustrations. “Firestarter” would peak at #30 on the Hot 100, but a few months later, the album unexpectedly (to me) debuted at number one, no doubt helped by the “Smack My Bitch Up” controversy. I’m going to go 8/10 here.

    And apparently the video made just enough mark on US culture to inspire this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNbx6iF-vQI

  24. 24
    Chelovek na lune on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Maybe, even at the age of 21, as I was when this was out, I was well on the road to being a young fogey. Not a clubber, and indeed living, when in the UK, a good 15 miles from the nearest nightclub, and further still from any I might have chosen to frequent. So… while I could, and can, appreciate some aspects of this – in places it really is breathtaking…I’ve never lived it, got lost in it, given myself up to it, even appreciated it as I did some of their previous singles- or indeed one coming up soon enough. Which is pretty much what a track of this nature demands: submission or death. I chickened out. Scariest record anywhere near the top of the charts since Silver Bullet’s ’20 Seconds To Comply’.

  25. 25
    @awardtour on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Breeders, Art Of Noise, RT @tomewing: “Firestarter”, Wipeout 2097, punk hangovers and the birth of the bro. http://t.co/DPaNhuDPMQ

  26. 26
    Ed on 18 Sep 2013 #

    While we’re reminiscing, my first ever comment on Popular – after years of lurking – was an attempted defence of The Doors against Tom’s scorn, in which I argued that “ridiculous but awesome” was one of the essential qualities of great pop. This record is Exhibit A for that argument: silly, scary, calculated and utterly thrilling.

    It’s also the noisiest Number One since ‘Voodoo Chile’, which I guess makes it the second-noisiest Number One ever.

    I agree with Izzy and Billy that it’s not their best, by a long chalk. The first time I heard ‘Out Of Space’ remains one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. But as a Number One, and a cultural phenomenon, it’s still fantastic.

    It’s a 10 from me, and I’m ever so slightly disappointed that Tom didn’t agree.

  27. 27
    Brian on 18 Sep 2013 #

    #9 I think not being Good Vibrations is kind of the point.

  28. 28
    swanstep on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Howlett’s big innovation beyond general, advanced sonic architecture seems to me to have been figuring out new ways to hit the ‘one’ with unprecedented volume (a mastering achivement as much as a recording/mixing one). We’ve talked a bit about how the loudness of Oasis’s records helped put them over the top, but the loudness of particular beats on various tracks of The Fat Of The Land blew my mind at the time. This is for me the deepest connection with contemporary stuff: the JBs hitting the one becomes Parliament’s whole-band-lean-in becomes Howlett’s sub-sonic slams becomes dub-/bro-step drops.

    Anyhow, Firestarter hits the one pretty hard (though not as hard as TFOTL’s best track, the John Barry-gobbling Mindfields) and plays a nice trick in its intro: we think the big downbeat is the four but when things spring to life, ha ha, it’s the one alright. As others have mentioned, Firestarter runs out of ideas half way through (whereas Mindfields doesn’t), but the first two minutes are a glorious racket, and a real meeting of (grunge and rave) tribes w/ the spirit of John Lydon presiding; the sort of pretty decent thing that never bothers the top of the charts. Except this time it did. Just an 8 from me (Mindfields would be a 10), but Firestarter’s success is incredibly cheering.

    Oh and Smack Up The Orinoco Flow.

  29. 29
    Tom on 18 Sep 2013 #

    There’s a soon-coming number one I think of as noisier still!

    And as everyone has said, “Out Of Space” is better, though I didn’t factor that into the marking.

  30. 30
    hectorthebat on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Sample watch: as well as the breeders and art of noise samples, there is a sample of “devotion” by ten city

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