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Sep 13

THE PRODIGY – “Firestarter”

Popular172 comments • 11,505 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. 91
    Tom on 19 Sep 2013 #

    Re Music for the Jilted Generation – the inner sleeve of that record is a thing of wonder. All the subtle delicacy one would expect from the Prodigy, in painted form.

  2. 92
    Tom on 19 Sep 2013 #

    I’ve always thought, too, that they were a group that got worse with every record – at least until I gave up, which was after FOTL. They were still good enough that Fat was worth listening to, but Experience is probably the best single-artist album of the rave era. At the time of Jilted Generation and FOTL this was seen as a bit of a challops – even “Out Of Space” never quite got its due – but it feels more acceptable now.

  3. 93
    Steve Mannion on 19 Sep 2013 #

    #91 Ah the genius “I’ll start cutting the rope HERE” approach of that inner sleeve’s chief protagonist (I initially wrote ‘poster’ because Richard Russell claimed on Twitter last year that they still get requests for large prints of that inner sleeve to this day).

    A future Popular entry has perhaps the most absurd sole credit ever – the person in question’s contribution not in any part of the music or its lyrics, just the facilitation of its release (afaik).

  4. 94
    iconoclast on 19 Sep 2013 #

    This is my first comment here, so I think I’ll start with what is clearly a minority opinion. Before you get the flamethrowers out – remember, it’s only an opinion.

    This, along with a number of preceding Number Ones in related genres, is a textbook example of the disappearance of craft in popular music. It’s not so much a song as a slapdash collection of noises put together to sound gimmicky and noisy enough to seem “edgy” to those too young, or drug-addled, to know better; but it does no more than that, palpably runs out of ideas after its first half minute, and subsequently fails to develop in any meaningful way. Ultimately it merely sits there and smirks, and is just a little bit too irritating to be totally forgettable. I gave it a fair hearing, but I’d rather pull my own eyes out than willingly listen to it again. THREE, which feels generous somehow.

  5. 95
    enitharmon on 19 Sep 2013 #

    iconoclast @ 94

    You are never alone on Popular! (YANAOP)

    You and I will stand together against the hordes,

  6. 96
    Andrew Farrell on 19 Sep 2013 #

    Not a bad parody, 6/10 – to go the distance you would have had to claim that you could clearly write something better than this yourself.

  7. 97
    thefatgit on 19 Sep 2013 #

    I suppose another reason Morley at ZTT was determined to get paid, was the example set by Wilson and Gretton at Factory Records, which also had a kind of manifesto, in-house genius producer (Hannett) and an eclectic roster. The difference was that Factory famously bled money on virtually everything they were involved in, while ZTT in their heyday were wringing every last drop of money from their projects (thinking Frankie Says t-shirts by Katharine Hamnett). The money they made from Frankie, AoN and Propaganda meant they could indulge less commercial acts like Instinct and Anne Pigalle. Morley had a hand in virtually everything, in much the same way Wilson did. Wilson was just crap at business. There’s more to it than that obviously. I remember the early 80’s being a climate where any “idiot”* could become a kind of music mogul (specifically thinking of Stevo at Some Bizzare).

    Oh, and hi there Iconoclast. Always good to read differing opinions, like Enitharmon (Rosie) above.

    *Stevo, although having no qualifications, was definitely not an idiot.

  8. 98
    Mark G on 19 Sep 2013 #

    #93, most ridiculous solo writing credit ever goes to “Can I kick it” by A Tribe Called Quest”, the single =(L. Reed)

  9. 99
    Rory on 19 Sep 2013 #

    Very entertaining challopsing, iconoclast @94 (to use the word Tom introduced me to today). I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t let “textbook example of the disappearance of craft in popular music” lie… I can accept that the sound produced here may not be to one’s liking, that it may well just be noise to you, but the notion that Liam Howlett is lacking in craft is just… well, ridiculous. Demonstrably false, in fact.

    It wasn’t for nothing that I chose Dean Elliott to name-check in this thread in reference to the lounge revival of the late 1990s. Forty years before the Prodigy, he had been doing similarly impressive work with layers of sound to often bizarre effect – but always engaging, and always the epitome of craft.

    Howlett’s complex sampling, altering and layering of sound in this track and others (even on the Prodigy’s less compelling later albums) is nothing less than awesome, as Jim Pavloff ably demonstrates in the video I’ve linked above (which you should watch through to the 7-9 minute mark for some nice video japery). Even if you don’t like the results, don’t diss the craft.

    I say this as a 28-year-old then, 45-year-old now, who in 1996 had never been addled by a drug harder than red wine, or Scotch today.

    “Slapdash”. Pffft.

  10. 100
    Steve Mannion on 19 Sep 2013 #

    I tried reading the textbook on the disappearance of craft, but all the pages were blank, WUH? #isthisthingon

  11. 101
    swanstep on 20 Sep 2013 #

    I think iconoclast, 94 has in mind *song*-craft, and it’s true that there’s little of that in Firestarter. There’s tons of, what we might call, *perfomance*-craft in F. though, e.g., finding and tuning and combining all these strange timbres so they all work together, defining and occupying a new musical niche is *really* hard to do (a decade’s remove from their heyday I’m struck by how distinctive, how well sonically architected Prodigy’s stuff is). But, hey, if someone doesn’t want to grant that anything but song-craft and maybe a few selective kinds of performance-craft (but not manipulating electronic sources and samples and working the ass off a whole studio) have value in pop or music more generally, that’s their choice. Talk of ‘disappearance of craft’ appears to express a fear that song-craft, as such, is dying out. I don’t think that that’s true, but there’s no doubt that in an era of recording song-craft’s not the only locus of endeavour, and for me that’s a reason to try to be open to excellence in these other dimensions of popular music. [My thoughts in this area have long been shaped by hearing Jon Brion distinguish between songs and performance pieces: http://youtu.be/Y_RsLDMeRj4.]

  12. 102
    Ed on 20 Sep 2013 #

    There’s precisely as much song-craft in ‘Firestarter’ as there is in ‘Route 66’, ‘Louie Louie’, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or ‘Sex Machine’.

    My conclusion is that song-craft is what I think the statisticians call orthogonal to great pop. Sometimes you get it – Smokey Robinson, Paul McCartney, George Michael, Guy Chambers, Xenomania – and sometimes you don’t.

    There’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t make song-craft your criterion of excellence, but there’s a whole lot of other great stuff out there.

  13. 103
    Ed on 20 Sep 2013 #

    @91, @93: The ‘Music for the Jilted Generation’ picture is fantastic, isn’t it?

    The best gatefold sleeve since ‘Tarkus’. And maybe the last truly great one ever.

    Thanks Steve for pointing out something I’d always missed: the drug-addled raver is cutting the wrong rope!

  14. 104
    ace inhibitor on 20 Sep 2013 #

    enitharmon@75-

    Agreed that vince/alice and keith were representing 2 different things (and that’s ‘representing’ as in ‘doing an impression of’, of course – at ages 24 and 26 respectively when recording, their credentials as the voicedoms of troubled youth were on the cusp of tenuous, at best). School’s Out in its glam panto way still feels vaguely connected to that 60s generational rebellion myth, yes, (like a cartoon version of the Little Red School Book). Whereas Firestarter seems to be channelling the internalisation of and (in the absence of other options) embracing of a deviant/criminal identity (so maybe a more apt comparison is with the Officer Krupsky song in West Side Story). And we could construct a whole sociology here maybe, about 1972 being just about the last time that parents and teachers could be safely assumed to represent the old, traditional ways, and not to have gone through their own versions of That Revolution Stuff. And about how much more difficult it is to live or perform an idea of parent-slapping-stuff-the-system rebellion when those parents and teachers are chuckling wisely and saying ‘ah yes, we were like that at your age’ (and maybe ‘but we did rebellion better/more optimistically’). How much more brutal and absolute your refusals might need to be, but also how much more ironically knowing, aware that this has all been done before. (You lucky 60s kids had it so SIMPLE with your yoof rebellion!)

    And this tension, it seems to me, is what is so brilliantly articulated in Firestarter – in its carefully crafted brutality (see Tom/Rory/Swanstep upthread), and its fantastically clipped, compressed, anti-haiku of a lyric, but also in its silliness, its knowing smirk and cod-menacing posturing that knows just how cod it is. (There’s an almost deliberate awkwardness, as much as anything,in Keith’s postures in the video). Like its saying both we’ll give it a go, and how ridiculous this is. And that tension is also encoded in your response to it enitharmon (we did it better in my day); but its also encoded in MY response to it at the time, as a 30-something (but only 4/5 years older than Keith!) which was applause from the sidelines, something like ‘This is fantastic, even if I don’t want to buy it or dance to it’, and – unforgiveably, but undeniably if I’m being honest – ‘It’s an Anarchy in the UK for the 90s!’ Which brings us back to tom of course. Its also a tension which seems to me somehow encoded in Popular’s intense socio-politico-musicological-aesthetic discussion of the supposedly ephemeral – and in pop music itself as the product of 40/50-somethings paying 20/30-somethings to pretend to be the rebellious teenagers they hope will buy the records. Or, will buy the records as a proxy act of rebellion while they complete their A Levels and their UCAS forms).

    All of which tense reflexivity is why Firestarter is not just better than School’s Out but possibly the best number one ever.

    PS on drug-addling – can you be addled by anything other than drugs? Can Rory be red-wine-addled? I’m mostly tea-addled, these days.

  15. 105
    iconoclast on 20 Sep 2013 #

    @99, @101: Heh, well put; I won’t dispute that this song is appreciated and enjoyed in many different ways, and I certainly won’t diss the craft. It’s just that, well, that kind of craft is not what I look for in music, and after hearing the song for the first time in 17 years and applying my (clearly inappropriate) criteria to it, “slapdash” was one of the words which came to mind. But, hey, de gustibus non disputandum est; it’s what makes Popular such a fascinating place to exchange opinions.

    [Almost the same age as Rory, btw, and teetotal, if you hadn’t already guessed.]

    @91, @93, @103: There’s no dispute here; it’s a great picture, and wonderfully expressive – full of naive wide-eyed idealism and (IMHO totally justified) righteous anger at the same time.

    Oh – could you define “challopsing”? That may be a useful word to fling back at me in future :-)

  16. 106
    Rory on 20 Sep 2013 #

    Urban Dictionary has “challop” as “Abbreviation for challenging opinion. A challop is usually advanced by someone seeking to seem edgy, while still wanting approval. See amirite?”

    (The “still wanting approval” overtone is perhaps a little mean in your case, iconoclast, as my impression is you’re proud in your refusenik stance and unconcerned whether others disagree – as you’re perfectly entitled to be.)

    I like that “s” that Tom had at the end (apparently a variant). It brings challops/challopsing closer to collapse/collapsing. Which seems apposite. If not challoposite.

  17. 107
    Rory on 20 Sep 2013 #

    #104 I’m not often red-wine-addled these days, with young kids to look after. But in truth I was pretty late to the grape, even later to the malt, and only recently to the hop. As a Yoof I was the boring one who was always the designated driver because he didn’t drink.

  18. 108
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 20 Sep 2013 #

    a veritable agora of mutual challops :)

  19. 109
    iconoclast on 20 Sep 2013 #

    @106: at least I’m pretty certain it was used in the first sense :-) You’re dead right about my “stance”; I had absolutely no expectation that the reaction of the entirety of Popular would be “Oh, iconoclast, you’re right, we’ve all been deluding ourselves for the past seventeen years”. It’s been a lot nicer, too, than “Oh, sod off Grandad”, which I was a bit scared of.

    Anyway, there’s probably a hefty discussion in here somewhere about the different types of “craft” which go into making popular music, and how each of us reacts to/looks for each of them.

  20. 110
    Ed on 20 Sep 2013 #

    While we’re challopsing: where does anyone get the idea that ‘Schools’s Out’ is in any way positive or constructive? They’ve got no class, and they’ve got no principles/principals, and they can’t even think of a word that rhymes.

    As a contented primary school pupil in the 70s, I found it deeply disturbing and scary.

  21. 111
    Cumbrian on 20 Sep 2013 #

    @109: “Anyway, there’s probably a hefty discussion in here somewhere about the different types of “craft” which go into making popular music, and how each of us reacts to/looks for each of them.”

    There likely is. The question is can we do it without mentioning r***ism and getting all pejorative about what different people like? I suspect we can – as the comments crew here are generally pretty open-minded – but it would be a rarity for a music discussion to go down that route without doing that.

  22. 112
    enitharmon on 20 Sep 2013 #

    An agora, Mark? Me and iconoclast hardly an agora make!

    Far be it from me to have any intention of being edgy. My feeling is that I’ve seen it all before, this trying to attract attention by trying to shock, and it loses potency with every incoming wave. When you’ve already done Little Richard and The Kingsmen and The Who and Captain Beefheart then the Sex Pistols just look like tiresome posturing and Firestarter looks and sounds downright puerile.

    When I first came to Popular something Tom had already written – along the lines that pop got better with each succeeding decade – was a real provocation to me and I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me. Tomorrow Never Knows was as groundbreaking as anything from Bill Drummond or The Prodigy in experimenting with the possibilities of sound, but with little more than scissors, sticky tape and an analogue tape-recorder. Saying something’s better because it makes use of a roomful of costly electronics (which in itself gives the lie to the supposed cry of the downtrodden) is rather like those comments on film forums that rubbish 2001:ASO for crap special effects, or The Maltese Falcon for being in black & white.

    The craft that I see is missing is inventiveness; that which creates originality from the everyday, not from twiddling the knobs on a big machine!

    I suggest that the most groundbreaking piece of popular music ever is the original Doctor Who theme.

  23. 113
    thefatgit on 20 Sep 2013 #

    Wasn’t Delia Derbyshire twiddling knobs on big machines, also?

  24. 114
    Tom on 20 Sep 2013 #

    #112 The question becomes though – since we can’t uninvent the costly electronics, how do we recover that idea of craft? What George Martin and Delia Derbyshire (and eg early Spectrum and BBC games programmers) were doing was pushing the available equipment to the edges of where it was possible to go. This is certainly a definition of inventiveness, and something I love and respond to aswell. But once the “edges” of the technology become more distant, what can you do? Is inventiveness impossible? Are there different edges or limits you can push against?

  25. 115
    Tom on 20 Sep 2013 #

    Re Challops – I don’t think Iconoclast was being Challops-y, and I don’t think Rosie ever has been.

    The challopser expresses (mildly) non-conformist opinions in a way that seeks approval. In this he’s a cousin of the troll (non-conformist opinions, seeks disapproval), and the me-too-er (conformist opinions, seeks approval). What unites them is their essential bad faith – it’s the tone of response that matters, not its content.

    (Logically there must be a fourth character – expresses conformist opinions, seeks disapproval. The “internet hardman” sort of fits, as does the ‘daringly un-PC’ style of commenter, but neither quite catch it….)

  26. 116
    enitharmon on 20 Sep 2013 #

    But once the “edges” of the technology become more distant, what can you do?

    I believe that in a slightly different musical context it is dismissed as “noodling”.

  27. 117
    Tom on 20 Sep 2013 #

    Actually I think the fourth box on my quadrant is the stan? – constantly fighting phantom battles even though they usually hang out only with people agreeing with them.

  28. 118
    Rory on 20 Sep 2013 #

    How everyday is a £1500 Rickenbacker, Rosie? The whole point of the musical changes ushered in by computers is that the price of the machines came down, and opened up their inventive possibilities to many more people.

    Twiddling knobs is a noble pastime, as every teenager knows. Erm.

    I don’t think this is better than Tomorrow Never Knows or Baba O’Riley or Anarchy in the UK or the original Doctor Who theme. I don’t even think it’s better than all of the other songs on The Fat of the Land. But I still reckon it’s a 10.

  29. 119
    Pink champale on 20 Sep 2013 #

    No doubt Firestarter was made using hugely expensive equipment, but early Prodigy records were pretty much made in Liam’s bedroom weren’t they? (Even if not there’s certainly plenty of pushing against primitive equipment in rave – eg “voodoo ray” because there wasn’t enough sampler memory for the whole phrase “voodoo rage”). Mind you I like Charley and Out of Space more than Firestarter, so who knows. U&K what was the cost of an electric guitar in 1964 vs a sampler in 1991?

  30. 120
    Rory on 20 Sep 2013 #

    Ah nuts, my edits got lost in cross-cutting-and-pasting, and now the system is blocking me from changing it. For “the whole point of” read “a key reason for”.

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