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Sep 13

THE PRODIGY – “Firestarter”

Popular172 comments • 11,662 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. 121
    Pink champale on 20 Sep 2013 #

    Ah, Rory beat me to it

  2. 122
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 20 Sep 2013 #

    early radiophonic workshop was home-made technology mainly, though they had good access to the BBC’s recording machinery and studio set-up in maida vale: when i interviewed them in 1992 the youngest new member was working on a fairlight using then-groundbreaking digital editing technology (Cubic, was it called?)

    the original doctor who theme tune was made using the frame of a grand piano played like a cymbalom and a ring modulator, iirc

  3. 123
    Steve Mannion on 20 Sep 2013 #

    I’m not sure ‘Firestarter’ sounds or was significantly more expensive than anything from the second LP really. Howlett’s set-up was still based around the Roland W-30 workstation for sequencing and as mentioned the well-under-a-grand Korg Prophecy features.

    The use of the song and, crucially, its video in the Olympic opening ceremony (the quick cut to the image of a fearful Keith in the video) suggests it had shocked some (it would be fascinating to compare the vid with a full colour version – and after all not many hits this big have black and white videos). No other song featured in that sequence got quite that same treatment. I got the impression Danny Boyle was working from a popular feeling (not just his own experience) that it was one of the most arresting images from British music videos ever (easy to argue that the irony given Keith’s US flag shirt only conveys a greater ‘Britishness’ in the process) and although I have mixed feelings about it all I do love it when a chart-topper’s video has an impact on the level of the song it supports.

  4. 124
    Kat but logged out innit on 20 Sep 2013 #

    YOU GUYS I can’t believe you had a conversation about royalties without me!11!! Anyway I can exclusively reveal (without too much data protection act breachin’) that Kim Deal receives around 13 times more royalties from “Firestarter” than P Morley does. As songwriting royalties are split equally between musical and lyrical contribution (i.e. if you do both music and lyrics, you get a share of both pots*) Howlett gets less than you’d think as he’s only down for music AND has to take his share out of what’s left after the samples have been distributed.

    *UNLESS you are the person being sampled, when it varies! That gets way too complicated for comments boxes so best left as an exercise for the reader.

  5. 125
    iconoclast on 20 Sep 2013 #

    @114: you can always create limits for yourself, such as composing on instruments you can’t play very well, or not using the recording/effects software you’re used to. There’s always “flexible strategies”, too.

  6. 126
    Izzy on 20 Sep 2013 #

    124: no no no! I’d love to know chapter & verse on this.

    Also, if Morley gets x and Deal gets 13x, how much *does* Liam get? Most importantly, does Leeroy get anything?

  7. 128
    Tom on 20 Sep 2013 #

    #125 Sure! But this is basically gamification of the creative process – can be useful/productive/personally challenging (I do it myself as listener and writer too) but I don’t think it fits the definition of inventive Rosie was advancing.

  8. 129
    weej on 20 Sep 2013 #

    #75 – Since “I’ve never done any drugs” seems to be the new “I did loads of drugs” let me say (just in case anyone’s taking score) that I took quite a lot of ecstacy for a few years and can’t even imagine Firestarter being played in a dance club. An indie club with a wide selection policy, maybe, but the point is it’s not druggy music, there’s nothing more to be ‘got’ that way.* In a sense I can see it prefiguring big beat in that sense. As computer game music I can understand it completely though.

    My favourite Prodigy LP is still Experience, apart from the lack of the “proper” mix of Charly on there,* and Jilted still sounds good too – Poison in particular, always felt Maxim was the superior frontman live, and he really makes that song in a way Keith can’t quite – then No Good to follow, just fantastic. As for Firestarter, well, I liked it at the time, but like so much in 94-97 I’ve wrung out all the joy I can from it and am no longer tempted to go back. I’m glad I can avoid giving it a score – 9 is perhaps what it deserves, 5 is how I’d probably feel about it in reality.

    *I know this won’t be news at all to perhaps 70% of people reading this, but it’s worth saying for the 30% anyway.
    **A 12-year-old’s quibble, but one I’ve never managed to outgrow.

  9. 130
    thefatgit on 20 Sep 2013 #

    #129 Yes I can confirm as a frequenter of Rock clubs, Firestarter goes down a storm in that environment, much like the snakebite does.

  10. 131
    Kat but logged out innit on 20 Sep 2013 #

    #126 I used to bore the socks off people in the pub all the time with this stuff!

    SO there a few interesting (‘interesting’) case studies for ownership rights/sample disputes etc, ranging from Alan Price’s “sorry, I couldn’t fit all everyone’s names on the form so I just put down mine” on “House of the Rising Sun” to the huge mess of “Pump Up The Volume” (see Popular threads passim) to bloody Mick Hucknall getting the full whack for “Fairground” despite having the Goodmen sample listed (both were published by EMI for their UK rights so I guess they settled for a lump sum instead of a percentage?)

    The 50/50 music/lyrics split isn’t set in stone, and at the end of the day people (or realistically, their publishers) can put down whatever and whomever they like on the form, assuming they don’t think they’re gonna get sued later. Or indeed, split into two publishers for your post- and pre-1967 works HI THERE LENMAC SONGS AND MACLEN SONGS then bloody well merge back together when everything gets sold to Sony (I don’t know how many hours of my life I wasted on that). The 6/6 split (easier to divide between 3 band members than 50) is part of a standard method used to estimate royalties if the publisher hasn’t done their job properly (or indeed, the work is MS/unpublished). However this generally only gets used for foreign, obscure or older stuff where the original form has literally been eaten by the dog or indeed never existed. It can get super interesting (‘super interesting’) when the lyrics are translated, e.g. ‘Seasons In The Sun’ – what share of the lyric 50% does Jacques Brel get for the English version (by Rod McKuen)? Well, it depends… (sigh)

    Also all that’s just for performance rights – the sync (permission to use Song X in advert Y) is usually negotiated directly by the publisher or the artist, and the mechanicals are usually 100% to the publisher (perhaps to cover your advance, perhaps because they’re screwing you over), and if you’re unpublished, well… good luck to you getting anything at all. There’s a rough breakdown here of different songwriter royalties. I used to deal with tv/radio performances and later on ringtones and even later on iTunes, which was a total bloody nightmare. The difference between dramatic and non-dramatic on tv and film is Totally A Thing – you (sometimes) get more money if your song is playing on the jukebox in the Queen Vic where the characters can hear it, than if its just dubbed over the top (like the DUN-DUN-DUN-DUNs). As far as I know there is still actually a team of people watching through 3-month-old episodes of Eastenders to verify whether Bianca was humming the French or English version of “Seasons In The Sun”.

    Oh and it’s all completely different in America.

  11. 132
    Izzy on 20 Sep 2013 #

    Wow, that’s extraordinary. What I’m taking from that is that it’s all up in the air, within certain broad parameters, and that the precise split gets thrashed out at the time of first publishing? It sounds a minefield, but I suppose that you never get actual disputes because if there’s no agreement beforehand the track simply doesn’t get published? Which is in no-one’s interests, so generally things get worked out? But obviously the bigger names have more clout so can push for a bigger piece of the pie.

  12. 133
    Andrew Farrell on 21 Sep 2013 #

    #123: I remember Firestarter appearing but not in any special way – the one track that got standout treatment from that was Pretty Vacant, on with live footage for over a minute out of what was only 15 minutes (still my favourite 15 minutes of telly this millennium)

  13. 134
    Andrew Farrell on 21 Sep 2013 #

    Most absurd dual credit is presumably Jagger / Richards, after some legal strongarming the writers of Carter USM’s After the Watershed (and the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, but I care about that about 1% as much as the Carter track)

  14. 135
    Izzy on 21 Sep 2013 #

    I don’t know about the Carter track, but with Bittersweet Symphony the sample is barely discernible (and comes from an arrangement of a Jagger/Richards song that they had nothing to do with). I have no idea why The Verve didn’t pull it and replace with a loop of their own – using an uncleared Allen-Klein-controlled sample was obviously madness.

  15. 136
    enitharmon on 21 Sep 2013 #

    Lieber and Stoller could be pretty litigious. A quick shuftie at my collection turns up Michael McDonald’s I Keep Forgetting with a credit to Mike and Jerry based on nothing more than a similar title. Samples don’t come into it.

  16. 137
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2013 #

    The lawsuits go all the way back to the Original Dixyland Jass Band in 1917!

    Leader Nick La Rocca made so much of the band’s score-illiteracy—“I don’t know how many pianists we tried before we found one that couldn’t read music” —that ousted clarinetist Alcide Nunez decided to copyright LSB with a Chicago publishers. The courts, one Judge Carpenter presiding, ruled that there COULD be no copyright entitlement, because “No human being could listen to that result on the phonograph and discover anything musical in it.”

    I’m assuming that LSB didn’t at that point exist in written form — this would become and I believe remains a minimum requirement for copyright per se. Certainly right up till the 1970s you weren’t able (in the US at least) to copyright something based only on the existence of a recording: the change in the law, lobbied for by the record companies, came with the arrival of cassette taping. (Kat will probably know the details better — I have them among the notes for my unfinished but never actually abandoned critical history of music and technology, but not accurately lodged in my memory.)

    None of this solves the problem of ownership, or of multiple contribution in varied proportion: and it’s not enough to argue that only those “in the room at the time” are entitled to claim — the entire purpose of writing and recording is to function as a time machine, to bring someone’s sensibility and creativity out of the past into the present alongside you, as inspiration or resource or (sometimes) co-creator. In some ways the dated silliness of judges is quite useful — it acts as a brake on the shared assumptions of the people young enough and with enough gumption to shift the rules purely in their favour (rather than everyone’s favour, if you see what I mean).

    (I was trying to find this story on the internet last night and failing: I’d misrecalled that the copyright battle was about their million-selling “Tiger Rag”, the first jazz-related hit, rather than “Livery Stable Blues”.)

  17. 138
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2013 #

    (Actually, rereading their various wikip entries more carefully, I see that LSB was also quite likely million-selling and certainly a hit: but that Tiger Rag was, as I’d remembered, their first and biggest recording — for Aeolian-Vocalion, rerecorded more successfully for Victor — and their signature tune.)

    (Aeolian-Vocalion! What a great label name!)

  18. 139
    glue_factory on 21 Sep 2013 #

    Re:124 out of interest are the “hey, hey, hey”s lyrics, music or both?

  19. 140
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Sep 2013 #

    #132: You most definitely do get disputes! What usually happens is that two publishers claim for the same song and immediately it goes into counter-claim where Someone Has A Look At It (i.e. a team of dudes on the floor above the dudes watching Eastenders). Both works are suspended and neither party gets any money until it’s all resolved. The resolution usually means Expensive Legal Shiz for the wrongful claimant so unless it is blindingly obvious that the song is a rip-off AND you are a top client of yr publisher it’s not worth your while. So for example poor old Dot Allison (who is LOVELY) would be unlikely to convince her publishers (Sony) to counter claim Madonna and Stuart Price’s “Sorry” (Warners) despite the chorus being suuuuuper-similar to “Substance”. Perhaps they settled instead? Perhaps the fact that Felix Da Housecat probably should have filed a separate remix claim for that anyway muddied things? (Remixes normally get paid to the original writer — except when they don’t.) Anyway, the majority of disputes are boringly beef-free and relate to which publisher controls the rights for a particular country.

    Another good bit of ancient copyright mentalism is Happy Birthday To You, which will be in copyright until 2016 in the UK (I think) thanks to some canny ‘re-registering’ by Mildred Hill’s younger sister Patty (if she hadn’t added her name on, it would have expired here in 1986, 70 years after Mildred’s death). The US works differently (the 70 years thing doesn’t apply to early works) has had various law changes incl the hilariously named “Sonny Bono Ruling”, and there will probably be more in the future, so I expect it will eventually expire in the year 2525 exordium and terminus.

  20. 141
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Sep 2013 #

    #139: Both!

  21. 142
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Sep 2013 #

    Or as Judge Carpenter would say: neither!

  22. 143
    Jimmy the Swede on 22 Sep 2013 #

    Kat – Did you hear about that guy in Cricklewood recently who arranged a birthday party for his 8 year-old daughter at a play centre? The organisers informed the man that because he had not paid for a “birthday package”, it was not allowed for him either to light the candles on the child’s birthday cake or to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. Dismissing this instruction as quite rightly absurd, the man lit the candles anyway and he and the group of children started to sing. A female staff member promptly called Plod who raced round and nicked him.

    Not quite as bad as the club entertainer on the Isle of Wight who had his collar felt for “racially aggravated harassment” a year or two back. His crime? He was performing “Kung Fu Fighting”…

  23. 144
    Izzy on 22 Sep 2013 #

    Did either of those actually happen? People do do absurd things, but I’ve seen too many Daily Express scares to take these things entirely seriously without full details.

  24. 145
    admin on 22 Sep 2013 #

    Re cricklewood story, that’s not quite right http://www.barnet-today.co.uk/news.cfm?id=24434 “The police became involved because the female member of staff who spoke to Mr Dougherty felt threatened by his intimidating behaviour during the incident”

  25. 146
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Sep 2013 #

    [x-post and pwned but I’d spent such an absurdly long time typing this up I’m not rewriting it]

    Obviously we don’t know the actual detail of either story, but assuming the first isn’t total invention, if the playcentre charges a higher rate for birthdays — whether or not this is in any way connected to copyright law, which I somewhat doubt* — and the dad refused to stump up the extra when this was pointed out, then I don’t really see how in law his action was any different from shoplifting (where Plod is also always called). If you go to the till in M&S and say “These sandwiches are overpriced, I’m only paying half,” the person at the till will not say “You’re quite right, fair dos”. If you make a scene and stand your ground — and I find it hard to imagine that the dad in question did not make a scene, but as said, we don’t know any of the details — then the shop will call the police. And the fact that the sandwiches are indeed wildly overpriced will not help your cause.

    *If they had to pay extra for the requisite licence to let it be sung in a public place — since unauthorised performance in a public place is copyright infringement — then this extra will be passed onto the public. If so, it would certainly make more sense to spread the added cost among ALL the parties they offer and demand a single price (avoiding this kind of scene), in case ppl discovered it was someone’s birthday at a non-birthday party and spontaneously broke into song. But if they offered different rates, and the dad was merely being a cheapskate — or indeed Legitimately Outraged at such Gouging and Taking a Political Stand — then yes, how are the police not going to get called?

    In the other case, the dude was clearly guilty of offering material long past its sell-by-date.

  26. 147
    admin on 22 Sep 2013 #

    isle of wight bar story http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-13205220 asian man takes offence to a performance (of KFF) and then “subjected to racial abuse”. the tabs reported he was specifically offended by the lyrics, the bbc story doesn’t make that link quite so directly.

    I have no difficulty imagining either side of the story – misunderstanding, on the one hand, on the other and more likely hand actual poor-taste performance and poor heckle/argument ensues.

  27. 148
    Jimmy the Swede on 22 Sep 2013 #

    It is undeniable fact that both of these incidents took place, although as admin points out there may be more to these stories than meets the eye.

    Cricklewood – It would appear that the father had in fact attempted to purchase the “birthday package” from the play centre but was told none was available. (How it couldn’t be made “available” for a guy to light eight candles and then lead the singing of a ten second song is not immediately clear but never mind!) Thus, Mark is technically correct with his sandwich analogy. The “package” had not indeed been paid for and thus for the most pedantic of reasons, the woman’s intervention has to be justified through gritted teeth. In the practice of being a kind and understanding human being, however, it was bollocks. Her consequent call to Plod does appear to be more to do with feeling “threatened” by the defiant father rather than the “theft” of the lighting of eight candles and the singing of a ten second song. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the utter small-mindedness of this daft woman in front of a group of infants was the root cause of all of this. She might just as well have told them that there was no Santa Claus. She should be ashamed of herself.

    As for the Kung Fu Fighting story, if the performer had indeed racially abused the passer-by then, yes, he should indeed have been bought to book. If however (as other accounts suggest) he was nicked solely for singing KFF then this is clearly absurd. I wonder what would have happened had Carl Douglas himself been performing his song and had been reported to Plod for “racially aggrevated harassment”? THAT would have been a bit of a poser for the Old Bill!

  28. 149
    Alan not logged in on 22 Sep 2013 #

    apols for commenting as admin, I was doing some WP upgrading at the time. I try to reserve posting as admin for actual site points of order, and I wasn’t doing it to act as a voice of authority, sorry if it comes out that way. I was just attempting to show the conflicting views in the stories which i think i did ok, and the borrowed ‘authority’ works against that context.

  29. 150
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Sep 2013 #

    and I’ve been watching old episodes of Law and Order all week, while I’ve been book-boxing and trying to write: so I’m a bit hopped up on “how ‘what we obviously have here’ is not what we actually have here” :)

    *pulls sam waterston face*

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