17
Sep 13

THE PRODIGY – “Firestarter”

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#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. 61
    flahr on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Not as repetitive as the version in my head but not as noisy* either :( [6/7 but 6]

    *for instance, there is a 2012 number one I would consider noisier, and it’s by R***** W******s ferchrissake

  2. 62
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 18 Sep 2013 #

    was Keith really wearing a Stars and Stripes shirt, slap bang in the middle of Britpop?

    haha, GOOD POINT

  3. 63
    Tom on 18 Sep 2013 #

    This was also the time, incidentally, I was getting stuck into the world of Arguing On The Internet. One of the first online pests I encountered was ‘Peter The Prodigy Fan’ on USENET, who had an extraordinary ability to turn a discussion on almost anything into one about the Prodigy, how they had reinvented dance music, how nobody else ‘got it’, and so on. I can’t now remember whether he was angry when someone called them ‘electronica’ or when someone didn’t, but whichever, he was angry a lot.

    (Another notorious one-issue troll at the time went by the name ‘Sally Kentwaite’ – references as carbon-dating for the memories.)

  4. 64
    Rory on 18 Sep 2013 #

    #48: have “svengalis” been getting their claws into that money-pot since the beginning of popular music?

    Speaking of svengalis and money, have a read about how Berry Gordy ended up on the songwriting credits for “Money (That’s What I Want)” and Barrett Strong got mysteriously (and rather outrageously) taken off them.

  5. 65
    James BC on 18 Sep 2013 #

    What about the mysterious V Ford, credited for No Woman No Cry? I’ve heard that Bob Marley wrote the song himself and just gave the credit to a friend out of generosity.

  6. 66
    Mark G on 18 Sep 2013 #

    #59, oops yeah Wilson Picket obviously. Honest, my minds eye had that RSG performance by Otis (I videotaped this off the TV and a good job I did, it’s not available otherwise. (It’s probably on Youtube by now though))

    Wikip has a bit about this on the song’s page:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_of_a_Thousand_Dances

  7. 68
    Izzy on 18 Sep 2013 #

    #45: I’m drawing a blank I’m afraid. I remember the Jubilee Line being reported at the time, but most hits I’ve found suggest Aldwych, some say Jubilee, and one very specific hit names some disused tunnels under King William Street that haven’t been part of the tube since at least the 1920s.

    Watching again, I think there may be more than one location. The tunnels seem fairly large, and I know Jubilee tunnels are built slightly wider to accommodate an escape walkway beside the track (there’s none visible, but then most of the time there are no rails so you can’t tell). On the other hand, they’re taking an angle grinder to the rails, which seems hardly likely to be allowed somewhere where they were to come to be used every three minutes.

    What makes me sure of the Jubilee Line though is the ventilation(?) shaft that Keith dangles down – it’s ringed the same way as the tunnels and is pretty wide; he’s not touching the sides. I think it unlikely that an old line, especially a very short stretch of an old line like at Aldwych, would have such generous provision.

    More to the point: one thing I definitely did manage to ascertain in my research is that Keith was 44 yesterday. Happy birthday Keith!

  8. 69
    Rory on 18 Sep 2013 #

    As usual, I watched this again on YouTube in preparation for the impending Popular entry, but as far-from-usual, felt a rush of adrenalin that I rarely experience when re-hearing songs I haven’t heard in a while. Because “Firestarter” was my own gateway drug to a world of music I had previously underrated, and ushered in a new listening regime, not quite displacing but certainly squeezing my mid-’90s Britpop fixation. When I think of what I was listening to in the late 1990s through to about 2001, Big Beat is a big, big part of it: the Chemical Bunnies, the Propellerheads, Mezzanine, and especially the Prodigy. (That and lounge music, and I don’t think Dean Elliott will be bothering us at Popular.)

    When I was sixteen, I was exposed via a tape-swap with friends to an album that overturned half of what I thought popular music could be. “It’s so bad it’s good,” he said, and while I agreed about his second claim, I disagreed about the first: there was nothing bad about Never Mind the Bollocks, it was all utterly thrilling. Other punk bands never got hold of me in the same way, but Johnny Rotten set the Sex Pistols apart; his London drawl sounded like little else in the pop of the time, a time when so many non-American singers pretended an American accent. I was fascinated by how he could turn every sneer into a hook.

    Later Lydon projects didn’t snare me the same way, although I found a few songs to enjoy on PIL’s greatest hits, and “Open Up” worked for me too. And then came this: this glorious explosion of sound, as close as singles of the 1990s came to “Anarchy in the UK”. There’s Keith Flint, sounding just like Rotten and looking like a mohawk bulldog; for a listener whose experience of London had been heavily influenced by West End souvenirs, this was None More London (although apart from his early years, Flint is actually The Only Way is Essex). And there’s that mixed-up and maxed-out electronic howl, which I would come to explore further in the Prodigy’s back catalogue (and on this single’s parent album): so good it’s good.

    Like #23, I thought this was going to end with a 10 too, and was inwardly going “yes! yes!” – but a 9 will do. But what’s with that lowly readers’ score of 7.2? Let me see how far my 10 will nudge it up.

    (And Erithian @22, you may not want to defend “Smack My Bitch Up”, but I will: it was a fantastic album-opener, sounding even bigger than the two monster singles it sat alongside, with a sample that may have been unfortunate in implication but was sonically irresistible in repetition. If I can live with songs that speak far more blithely and in far more detail about murder, I can live with that four-word sample.)

  9. 70
    MikeMCSG on 18 Sep 2013 #

    #39 Not quite the same thing but I remember seeing Russ Abbott in the lower reaches with “Atmosphere” and wondering what sort of mess he’d made with the Joy Division classic.

    I think this was the last number one where it was possible to feel mildly surprised that something so loud, unmelodic and confrontational had got to number one. Though I don’t like the record I did enjoy it sending Take That packing.

  10. 71
    Steve Mannion on 18 Sep 2013 #

    One of the things I disliked about the elevation of Keith as lead vo
    calist was that the previous highlight of Prodigy videos tended to be lanky Leeroy’s fancy footwork and his role in the band seemed to decrease further from this point on until he finally left a few years later.

    Coincidentally (or not) just as Keith had maximised his Rotten-esque image the Pistols themselves had announced their reunion and tour, freely admitting they were just doing it for the ‘filthy lucre’, and had Stuart-Psycho-Pearce introduce them onto the stage at one show in the wake of his memorable penalty against Spain at Euro 96.

  11. 72
    Wadey on 18 Sep 2013 #

    this seems as good a point as any to join in on this wondrous site. I’m looking forward to the noisier No.1 up ahead soon.

    My key memory of Firestarter is that the video was done in the then soon-to-open Jubilee Line. Also, why did The Breeders allow this sample (and later on Mirwais’ Disco Science), but not the Cannonball lift in Lo-Fi Allstars’ Disco Machine Gun?

  12. 73
    @tomcopy on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Keith Flint, a ‘capering goblin’ http://t.co/dbYqzpVQdC

  13. 74
    ace inhibitor on 18 Sep 2013 #

    enitharmon@50 – ‘Firestarter isn’t School’s Out either’ – isn’t it? Seems a pretty apposite comparison to me. Cartoon schlock-horror punk v cartoon schlock-horror rocker; pretty interchangeable, too silly to be really scary, teenage nihilism (‘school’s blown to pieces’); the appeal all about noise/riff rather than tune (SO’s 2 note chorus barely counts as one).

  14. 75
    enitharmon on 18 Sep 2013 #

    ace inhibitor @ 73

    Yes, you are right, it’s a very close comparison and that why I picked it as an example from my own teenage years (as I think I mentioned in the relevant comments it was particularly apposite as it coincided with my leaving school). Alice Cooper did it long before The Prodigy and, I would contend, did it better. (I suppose you could argue that The Kingsmen did it ten years before that but I’m not going into that now). That puts paid to the idea of Firestarter as something to slap a parents’ generation with (I being a parent of a 15-year-old on 1995). More than that, it seems to me that Vince Furnier is saying, stuff the system, stuff the old traditional ways, I’m going to do my own thing in my own way. Whereas Keith Flint is saying, I’m a hopeless case, all I can do is destroy. Even that isn’t convincing; in the video it seems to me that for all Keith’s cod-menacing posturing he comes face to face with a shadowy antagonist he realises he can’t cope with (did I read this right?) It reminded me of Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday realising that his number was up.

  15. 76
    Matt DC on 18 Sep 2013 #

    Tom’s right to point out that there’s an entire strand of pop music that doesn’t quite begin here but it’s the point at which is forces itself into the wider consciousness. It’s easy to forget how huge the Prodigy were about to become – they had a number one in the US, that’s more than most British bands, including Oasis, managed. And it’s the biggest signpost on the road yet to Skrillex and one strand of current EDM, that takes in the (mostly dreadful) Spawn soundtrack and arguably bits of nu-metal and onto people like Pendulum as well.

    The music it’s been partly responsible for has been largely awful but it’s the crystallisation of a kind of pop that didn’t really exist before.

    FWIW The Prodigy headlined the second stage at Glastonbury four or five years ago and I was amazed how young the crowd was.

  16. 77
    glue_factory on 19 Sep 2013 #

    Re:63, my favourite point of intersection between the Prodigy and usenet was a list of definitions of dance-music genres that was posted on alt.rave in the early 90s. English clearly wasn’t the author’s first language so it was full of lovely attempts at informal, “street” speak. The two that stick in my mind were Hardcore: “get to know the Prodigy” and Trance: “nice success in Switzerland”.

    I could still find it via Google about 5 years ago, but appears lost down the back of the internet now. Which makes me rather sad.

  17. 78
    23 Daves on 19 Sep 2013 #

    Thanks to BT-related asshattery after my house move (sending engineers to my house when I’ve specifically said I won’t be in that day, then not sending engineers on days I’ve booked off work to stay at home and wait for them) I have no internet access at home at the moment, so I’m a late arrival to this discussion. This means that most people have already said what I was going to, namely that this wasn’t the best Prodigy single so far, but it’s great all the same.

    However, “Firestarter” was also interesting to me because of the “hey” sample from Art of Noise. Liam had previously contributed to an Art of Noise remix album (the Prodigy remix of “Instruments of Darkness” had been issued as a single which just missed the Top 40). When interviewed about it at the time he had to admit that he didn’t much care for most of their music, but respected their place in electronic music history. This has always made me wonder if he went on to have a change of heart, or if he just discovered the sample and felt that it locked in brilliantly with “Firestarter” (it does) and should be used regardless of his personal tastes.

    Regarding the previous discussions on Morley’s role in the Art of Noise, it is a little rich that he was ever awarded songwriting credits for this or indeed anything else. It seems the most he did was invent their image and create extensive liner notes, which is admittedly a significant contribution but not one that usually delivers royalties. Anton Corbijn certainly didn’t get royalties from Depeche Mode for the many films and stage sets he created for them, for example, even though his contributions seemed to be a major factor in enabling them to become a “serious act”.

  18. 79
    Jo C. on 19 Sep 2013 #

    #54 Yes, Paul Morley gets a composer credit on this track in my work database.

  19. 80
    Steve Mannion on 19 Sep 2013 #

    I’m surprised the “Hey!” (‘the Hey that launched a thousand ships!’ as Morley stated during the Art Of Noise’s merged performances of ‘Beatbox’ and ‘Close (To The Edit)’ during their turn-of-the-millennium tour) wasn’t sampled much more than it was tho – can’t think of any other examples.

    Sad synth-spotting: the shimmering sweep after the second verse and beat cut is a preset from the (monophonic, UGH) Korg Prophecy which hadn’t been out long before ‘Firestarter’ but it was fun messing around it with one of those in Turnkey on Charing Cross Rd not long after and triggering the very same sound.

  20. 81
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 19 Sep 2013 #

    #78: but how do you structure the argument? Morley shouldn’t get royalties because Corbijn didn’t? Or Corbijn should because Morley did? Did Corbijn fight on this point and lose? Or did he trade of his loss of potential earnings here against what comes in from royalties of reprints of his many Mode photos? (How well did he negotiate here?)

    There are plenty of types of contribution for which there isn’t an easy bogey to establish fact of deserts of royalties, let alone proportion. What Morley did for AoN is in one sense nebulous and obviously very arguable: but it really *isn’t* nothing (without him, no them). Should he get a one-off fee or a royalty? If a royalty, to be gathered how?

    I have a friend who’s a successful, respected stage-designer. One of the pieces she worked on scored a totally unexpected hit — performed all over the world, made into a Hollywood movie. She had a very tough-minded agent, so was able to negotiate “above the line” earnings — a percentage in other words — of all the various performances all round the world, and a tiny sliver of the film too, when the rights were sold. For the various overseas performances, it’s fair to say she has input: she continues to be asked to fly off to new oversee stage-builds, even though she gets there the theatre’s own designer and chippies often largely ignore her presence, as they imitate her design from photos and drawings. For the film, her input is basically untraceable: but it’s bought her a house. She is quite sardonic about the randomness of this: she was in a morally strong position when the opportunity presented itself, but without a smart tough agent she’d have ended up with nothing beyond the initial one-time-only fee.

  21. 82
    glue_factory on 19 Sep 2013 #

    #79, just for the record, I think Morley *did* contribute something to the Art of Noise which needs rewarding somehow (I love most things ZTT touched, and they wouldn’t be ZTT records if they hadn’t, somehow, been through Morley’s filter of pretentiousness) . I’m just not convinced there’s much/any of his contribution left in Firestarter.

  22. 83
    Tom on 19 Sep 2013 #

    I think pop is the one area of life where homeopathy works.

  23. 84
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 19 Sep 2013 #

    homeoptimism

  24. 85
    @NedRaggett on 19 Sep 2013 #

    So @tomewing’s Popular has hit the Prodigy’s “Firestarter.” What more do you need to know? http://t.co/OlnO06vYtE

  25. 86
    James BC on 19 Sep 2013 #

    Early rave: “Hey man, one love, everyone come and join the party.”
    Response: Fear, mistrust, marginalisation, persecution and eventual criminalisation.

    This period Prodigy: “Actually no, we don’t like you and you won’t like us. We are weird misfits, we have pierced tongues, we hang around in tunnels glowering at wandering cameramen.”
    Response: A fortnight of tabloid outrage followed by number 1 hits, universal acclaim and global superstardom.

  26. 87
    Dan Worsley on 19 Sep 2013 #

    Love this record, however it’s tinged with some sadness as Bill Drummond apparently scrapped any idea of making further records after hearing this.

  27. 88
    Cumbrian on 19 Sep 2013 #

    #87: Apart from Fuck The Millennium, presumably.

  28. 89
    Alex on 19 Sep 2013 #

    Four things. 1) Firestarter was awesome. I was 16.

    2) Further, you’re right about the link between the Prodigy and computer games – a close friend of mine used to swear by Music for the Jilted Generation as the ideal accompaniment for games (usually flightsim or fps).

    3) two years ago, Jamie XX played the XOYO first birthday party* and dropped No Good/Start the Dance, and we did.

    4) Music for the Jilted Generation. Hmm, now there’s a title that should have given us all a clue about the Era of Maximal Disappointment lurking ahead of the Happy Nineties (as Zizek apparently calls them).

    *operational note – I see they’re having another first birthday party. how d’you make that out?

  29. 90
    23 Daves on 19 Sep 2013 #

    #81 – Yes, it’s a tricky one. There’s also a moral argument to be had here (who actually directly contributed to the songwriting process and are they rewarded fairly?) an artistic argument (does a person need to contribute directly to still have an influence on the sound and be rewarded a writer’s credit?) as well as the legal one (what does it say on the contract, pal, and can it be negotiated in anyone’s favour?)

    I’d never thought about it before today, but on the “Who’s Afraid” album Morley contributed a lyric sheet with instructions to “sing along”. As any fool who ever read the songwords in Smash Hits knows, The Art of Noise only really sang “Dum” and “Hey”, whereas his contributions were almost like Dadaist poetry (though I don’t have them in front of me at the moment and am relying on memory). I suppose one question would be whether he presented these to the group prior to recording to influence the end results, or whether they were thought up afterwards? It’s possible Brian Eno has managed to grab himself songwriting credits for not much more…

    #87 – I was re-reading bits of “45” last night off the back of this discussion, purely to remind myself of Drummond’s view of The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers. He did seem to think that by the time the late nineties emerged, the KLF had slipped into a kind of sub-130bpm, gentle, slow-tempo irrelevance. Apparently they obtained a Sherman drum machine on the cheap to try and get a similar sound for “F–k The Millenium”, but it didn’t quite capture it (am I alone in actually liking that single, though?)

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