MORE THAN MEETS THE EAR
by Rob Ager September 2011 ©
Update March 28th 2013
I was recently sent this copy of a 2002 press clipping from Australia, in which Keith Flint describes the Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned album as "partly a response to the September 11th terrorist attacks". The quote ties in very much with themes explored mid-way through this article. Thanks to Adam Blake for this info.
Watch the 50 minute video version or scroll down and read the extended text.
1. Creativity Unleashed
2. Underhanded rebellion
3. Media Wise
As you’ll no doubt guess from the title of this article, I’m a fan of The Prodigy and therefore have a bias toward the music in question. However, my knowledge of music theory is limited. So, in awareness of my own limitations, this article is not going to be an exploration of aesthetic musical composition – though specific samples and lyrics will be referred to where they relate to other, non-musical, themes. I also won’t be rambling about which are my favourite Prodigy songs and albums or attempting to promote their music to non-fans. No, the factors that I intend to explore here go beyond aesthetic appeal, and hopefully into territory that fans and non-fans will find of great interest.
What got me interested in writing about The Prodigy was a combination of their unusual videos (an area in which I do have technical knowledge) and the scope and intensity of the band’s appeal, which spans many genres. Originally I was intending on a short review of their Firestarter song and video, but quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to do the topic justice without referencing key aspects of the band’s history and the larger context of their music and videos in general. Eventually I gave in to the realization I’d need to do a full study of the band itself.
At this point there will probably be some readers already taking exception to my naming of The Prodigy as a “band”. Although they’re not a band in the traditional sense of each member playing an instrument, I’m taking the liberty of referring to them as such – my reasons for which will become apparent as we explore the topic at hand.
My sources for this article, aside from the band’s music and videos, include a variety of interviews, press articles, live performance footage, and two published biographies by Martin Roach and Martin James. The artwork featured on their singles and albums will also be a frequent reference point.
For accessibility I’ve broken this study up into three topics. The first chapter, Creativity Unleashed, will explore the approach to musical and theatrical creation used by The Prodigy as this is a particular area in which creative artists in many fields can learn from the band’s working methods. Chapter 2, Underhanded Rebellion, will examine the ideology of the band, which is as important to their broad appeal as the music itself. And chapter 3, Media Wise, will examine how the band have personally managed their own public image with a level of precision and efficiency few PR “experts” would be able to match.
1. CREATIVITY UNLEASHED
The dividing line between art and product is constantly being drawn, erased and redrawn by artists, their financiers and the press. This isn’t so much a matter of ideological confusion, but rather an ongoing war between emotional / intellectual expression and profit-seeking.
Although it’s generally recognized that financiers are in it for the money, but are necessary for the industrial and distribution aspects of artistic communication to the masses, there are a great many “artists” whose core motives are identical to the financier. Identifying which artists lean, and to what degree, in the direction of expression vs profit-motive isn’t always a simple task. Naturally, the profit-motivated “artist” must cultivate an image, a convincing persona of “artistic expression” that attracts impressionable members of the public to buy and promote their product. Corporate designed boy bands and girl bands, and the vast commercial revenues they generate, are obvious example of how powerful artificial artist identities can be.
For PR professionals this cultivation of a fantasy image is an art unto itself, being that the PR professional doesn’t have to maintain internal denial of their own motive. But for the “artist” it’s a different story. In order to conduct interviews, live performances and other communications with fans the artificial artist must uphold their manufactured identity. They must repress their own awareness of the profit-motive and convince themselves, at least partially, that their manufactured identity is real – sometimes living the false identity permanently. The music industry, even at the underground level (from which The Prodigy originated), is rife with these artificial artists.
With The Prodigy there are several telltale signs that reveal their artist identities to be comparatively genuine. The band emerged naturally through a real underground phenomena, the rave scene. Although rave is now a commonly used term relating to dance venues, the original rave scene had no corporate funding or mainstream media advertising – the parties taking place, often illegally, in warehouses. The music was simple, catchy and largely lyric free, with one purpose … to make people dance.
In the late 1980’s Keith Flint and Leeroy Thornhill were friends and regular ravers simply enjoying themselves. Their style of dance was already being developed recreationally for enjoyment. Elsewhere, Liam Howlett was into the hip-hop scene, but was becoming disillusioned with its elitism. So Howlett wondered into the rave scene, where he was witness to Mr C’s DJing at the Barndance in Braintree. Mr C was the creative impetus behind The Shamen, one of the leading artists of the rave culture. Howlett’s choice to call his emerging musical act The Prodigy suggests a strong influence from The Shamen – the names of the two artists overlap in meaning. The Shamen’s En-tact album also had a musical style that was a little more sophisticated than other rave music and seemed to be leaning in the direction that The Prodigy would eventually go in. The album even included odd bits of guitar sampling.
In the hyper-positive, ecstasy-fuelled rave environment Liam was able to develop his own music, free of the hostilities sometimes found in the hip-hop scene. This was important in that Liam never sought to be a star. He was happy to make good music for others to dance to, but wasn’t interested in the limelight. However, Keith Flint and Leeroy were used to the limelight as their style of dancing had won them crowds of admiring ravers. After Keith and Leeroy met Liam the three formed an act – Liam creating and playing the music at the rear of the stage with Keith and Leeroy performing their naturally developed dance routines in the foreground – an arrangement that captalized on each member’s talents. The emerging band then attracted the MCing talents of Maxim and years later a guitarist, Gizz Butt.
This natural emergence through a real underground movement, free of corporate design, created a hardcore Prodigy fanbase in the rave circuits. A handful of hit singles such as Charly and Out Of Space, initially boosted by buyers from the rave scene, introduced the band to a wider audience and gave them scope to gradually transform their music to appeal to multiple genres.This progression of simple music from an underground non-corporate environment also happened for several bands in the punk movement, a genre that appropriately would become fused into The Prodigy’s act. And going further back in history the underground Vaudeville circuits in the US spawned talented comedy acts like The Marx Brothers.
The advantage of this natural emersion in a real underground context is that the artists are subjected to ongoing feedback from real audiences and are less subject to PR experts advising the artist to imitate other artists. Several of the Marx Brothers best films consisted of scenes that were tested and refined for months in the Vaudeville circuit before being put on film. The difference can be seen in their later, less acclaimed, films which were merely scripted and shot without live testing.
This live testing has worked for some of The Prodigy’s biggest hit singles. Both No Good (start the dance) and Breathe were being played live by the band months before their lyrics were written. So while a track like Breathe may have come across as a risky, stylistic transition upon release, its affect on audiences had already been anticipated.
Liam’s song-writing methods also include several deviations from the norm. An important factor is that he doesn’t force himself to create music when the creative vibe isn’t there.
“I go in and out of the studio for sporadic periods. I don’t go in there for hours on end. I’m looking for that initial vibe, be it from a beat, a sound, a loop, whatever. Nothing is planned, nothing is deliberate.” – Liam
Simple distractions, such as the whole band being addicted to the computer game Tombraider, have resulted in album delays, but Liam’s insistence on writing when the creative juices are truly flowing has kept his songs from sounding artificial.
Another element in The Prodigy creative method is that they primarily write for themselves. It may sound like an elementary point, but so few artists really adhere to it. As a raver Liam created the rave music he and the band wanted to hear, with Keith and Leeroy dancing to Liam’s demo tapes at home, testing the songs before they were played live.
At times this devotion of the Prodigy to their own musical tastes has even come into conflict with their fans. Liam explains the live use of their punk inspired track Fuel My Fire as a replacement encore for the more commercial No Good (Start the dance).
“We originally started putting it at the ends of our sets because I was sick of doing No Good (Start the dance). We always ended on that track with people from the audience dancing onstage, but then we decided we wanted to do something the opposite of that to really fuck people off. It was like ‘Dance to that, you cunts’. It was just total antagonism, but then we really started to like that track.” - Liam
Fuel My Fire also happened to be the closing track on the band’s Fat Of The Land album. The lyrics of the track clearly express contempt for an unidentified back stabber, a ‘liar’, but when sung live the line “people like you just fuel my fire” suggests the band’s dual attitude to their fans. Their performance is fuelled both by the audience’s enthusiasm and a desire to break free of musically limiting expectations expressed by that same audience. This has been a regular feature of The Prodigy’s creative output. Most of their albums have defied expectation by shifting musical styles, and thus challenging their fans to do the same.
This refusal to be constrained by perceived musical genres is a key strength of The Prodigy and it’s reflected in the band’s musical tastes outside of their own music. Liam has cited non-dance acts such as The Beastie Boys and The Specials as important influences. He’s also said that he prefers Senser to Rage Against The Machine, Senser being much more varied in stylistic scope, in fact similar to the Prodigy in many ways. Liam has also cited Queen’s soundtrack for the film Flash Gordon as a major influence. Listening to music outside their comfort zone has been a key strategy for the band when Liam has encountered writer’s block.
Liam has revealed to interviewers that he often builds songs around images and feelings rather than specific ideas. He explains the creative impetus behind his three track “narcotic suite”, the final three songs on the Music For The Jilted Generation album:
“Musically I try to set the scene for people. …. The first track of the set ‘three kilos’ is a good example of that, I pictured this smoky room with a load of laid-back people in there with this whole smoky vibe, and I could hear the music that went with that environment. Then the second track ‘skylined’ had a whole uplifting rush feel to it. The last track ‘claustraphobic sting’ was inspired by visions of real paranoia, a real ‘depth of hell’ track. …. The whole piece was all pictures to me … Another example is the track ‘speedway’ which is also very visual. Quite a lot of tracks on the second album were like that. In that sense I write like an ambient artist, I see pictures in my head, I’m good at putting music to pictures.” – Liam
This visual factor may be a contributory element to the quality of Prodigy’s music videos Firestarter and Breathe, as if the music was written with such images in mind.
On the technical side The Prodigy surprisingly don’t rely on having the most up-to-date equipment and software.
“I still use basically the same set up as I did when I started. I use a 16 track desk instead of Cubase, which has 64 tracks, which most people use. You lose the wood for the trees so easily with technology, and I’ve seen too many bands do that.” - Liam
Producer Neil McLellan worked with Liam on Music For The Jilted Generation. He described Liam’s unusually fast writing style, his lack of reliance on the latest technology, his manual inputting of content as opposed to looping, his high degree of experimentation and his willingness to quickly throw away ideas that aren’t working.
That last point is an essential one. Freedom of experimentation has to be balanced by an honest self-critique. The Prodigy’s willingness to discard songs that don’t reach their self-defined minimum standard has resulted in albums that are unusually lacking in “filler” material. Possibly the best example of this is the production process for their Firestarter video. A video was shot for the single that the band felt was too commercial. Rather than release the unsatisfactory video to justify the expense of having shot it, they simply scrapped it and produced a new one. The result was a much improved version that helped make Firestarter a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic, easily recouping the lost expense.
These kinds of wise creative decisions are directly linked to the band’s insistence on complete creative control of their own output. The band decide precisely what music they create, the content of their videos, the artwork on their album and single releases and the costumes and set design of their live performances. This gives artistic consistency to the band.
All of these creative habits result in a finely tuned balance. An open-ended attitude towards musical scope and free experimentation, followed by self-defined quality control, has helped the band connect with the public artistically and commercially.
2. UNDERHANDED REBELLION
Given The Prodigy’s commercial appeal and the energy of their music, it is easy to overlook subtler elements of the band. For example, little mention has been made of the subliminally encoded faces on their later album Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. The album cover, the video for its first single Girls, and the artwork featured on all subsequent singles from the same album depict vague impressions of human faces made out of other objects.
Psychologists sometimes use Rorschach inkblots to elicit information about a subject’s state of mind – the idea being that the symmetrical inkblot means nothing until the viewer projects their own interpretations onto it. The Prodigy’s version is a sort of inverse inkblot, in which the images do have intended meaning, but the artist has disguised that meaning within a seemingly random collage of objects. This is an interesting progression from artwork accompanying the band’s earlier material. The hit single Charly featured a vague, demonic image of a cat and the Music For The Jilted Generation album featured a metallic screaming face emerging from a grey backdrop.
There’s more to this use of subliminal faces, but we’ll return to that topic shortly.
Another subliminal aspect of The Prodigy is that their music, videos and artwork frequently tell the story of the band while shaping it. Though they achieved huge international success with their Music For The Jilted Generation album in 1994, The Prodigy were yet to crack the US market. Their follow up album, Fat Of The Land, and its first single, Firestarter, featured subliminal details relating directly to their cultivation of the US market as it was happening. For example, the punk-inspired reinvention of Keith Flint’s image, which was showcased in the Firestarter video, included his wearing of a stars and stripes sweater – a distorted version of the US flag.
The black and white presentation, combined with the shock-distraction of Keith’s overall image, made this simple US flag motif less obvious. The artwork for the album also included references to the band’s intention to break into the US.
The psychedelic crab arriving on a beach with its pincers raised is more than likely a reference to the band’s aggressive arrival on US shores. This is supported by the Herman Goerring quotes in the inlay card “We have no butter, but I ask you would we rather have butter or guns? Shall we import lard or steel? Let me tell you. Preparedness makes us powerful. Butter merely makes us fat.” Rather than being some sort of endorsement of Nazism, this quote appears to be a question directed at the US music scene regarding what kind of music they want to import. The album title Fat Of The Land reinforces the importance of this question as central to the album’s purpose. There is more to be said about the use of the Goerring quote, but we’ll cover that in part three.
The rave scene, from which The Prodigy emerged, wasn’t musically sophisticated and it lacked the kind of subliminal communication that came with The Prodigy’s change in style. But the rave scene did have its own ideology. The scene didn’t produce much literature to define its philosophical intricacies. Rather, it simply lived them. Ravers would attend loosely organised dance venues that were often secretly and illegally organised in obscure warehouses. Ravers would forget about the frustrations and emotional shackles of money and politics – the supposedly civilized world – and dance to simple, positive acid techno music. Their pursuit of free, joyous expression and celebration was, of course, aided by the latest wonder drug, ecstacy, which ironically helped both fuel and destroy rave as an underground movement – similar to the effect LSD had on the hippy movements of the 1960’s.
But ecstacy alone wasn’t the cause of rave’s destruction and re-emergence as the corporate-managed and largely uncreative dance scene we have today. The authorities, for better or worse, played their part. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, included a number of infringements on the rights and freedoms of the British public. In part, the bill was designed to destroy the rave culture. This angered many artists in the rave scene, including The Prodigy.
In the same year that the Criminal Justice bill was passed, The Prodigy released their critically and commercially successful album Music For The Jilted Generation. The whole album is infused with messages, both obvious and subtle, regarding the establishment attack on rave culture. The album title refers to its audience as “The Jilted Generation”, “jilted” meaning a sudden and unexpected rejection, in this case a rave generation rejected by the British government. The cover artwork depicts the band’s sudden change of style to a punk-inspired techno-anarchy. A screaming metallic face is pushing its way out of a featureless grey surface – a voice against the emotional blandness of life under an ever more interfering stiff upper lip establishment.
The inlay artwork paints a clear ideological and economic division between ravers and their government opponents.
Sandwiched between the album’s credits is a summation of this newfound anger “How can the government stop young people having a good time. Fight this bollocks.”
The song titles are pro-anarchy. Titles such as Break & Enter, Their Law, Full Throttle, Speedway, The Heat (The Energy), Poison and the closing Narcotic Suite suggest an endorsement of joy riding, drugs, trespassing and criminal damage to property. Break & Enter, while signalling a musical break from the album’s introduction and entering of its track structure, features a sample of a window being smashed. Their Law features a no-nonsense lyric “Fuck ‘em and their law” in combination with the band’s first inclusion of heavy guitar. And next to the track listing is a photo of Liam pointing a finger to his temple, perhaps an indicator of the band’s shift to a much more tactful style of communication.
Were the band really angry enough to endorse criminal anarchy? Probably not. Their anti-social message was more likely a way for the band to antagonise the anti-youth establishment. The interesting thing about this is that The Prodigy showed no political motivation prior to the introduction of the Criminal Justice bill. They were simply ravers who bashed out unusually catchy and inventive dance music. Their musical path would likely have been very different if it wasn’t for the British government's war on rave. Although Liam has claimed in interviews that the band aren’t political his stated musical preferences frequently include bands who are clearly political, such as The Beastie Boys, Senser and a variety of other punk and hip-hop acts.
The politically confrontational messages of Music For The Jilted Generation continued with Fat Of The Land. Firestarter was attacked for being a supposed promotion of arson, but no mention was made of the simple metaphor that Keith is the Firestarter because his last name is Flint. The follow up single Breathe featured a gothic, decayed looking video that veered into the realms of industrial metal imagery, similar in tone to Nine Inch Nails’ Closer. And then came Smack My Bitch Up. Again the band claimed innocence in their intentions, but the video reveals the opposite – antisocial and sexist behaviour is showcased from the perpetrator’s point of view, but it’s revealed in a mirror during the final few seconds to be a woman who committed the acts.
Elsewhere on the album, tracks such as Serial Thrilla and Fuel My Fire further the band’s techno-punk anarchy message. And in between these two albums a live video release was called Electronic Punks, clearly indicating their ideological shift towards anarchy.
After the massive sales and media coverage of Fat Of The Land and its single releases, The Prodigy released another antagonistic single, Baby’s Got A Temper. This time the band’s critics weren’t so quick to take the bait, despite a video in which corporate executives drink milk, a drug metaphor (also used in A Clockwork Orange), and turn into techno punks. The music wasn’t nearly as inventive and the band’s critics were less susceptible. After this the Prodigy went low key, possibly while Liam was rethinking the themes of the band and its style of communication. It took seven years for their next full studio album to appear.
In the meantime Liam’s Dirtchamber Sessions release in 1999, a mix album of other artists’ work, featured photos of combination locks with the dials mostly set to 1’s, 9’s and 0’s.
This may well have been an indicator of the band’s next change in style. Their antagonism of anti-free speech critics had become too obvious, so it was time for the band to become more cryptic.
So, after a seven year gap since Fat Of The Land, The Prodigy released their next studio album Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. Several of the band’s now predictable themes, such as their punk-antagonism and calculated baiting of the media with controversy, were dropped. The new material was less commercially viable, but something that really caught my interest was the video for the album’s first single Girls.
None of the band members were featured in the video and, though very catchy, there was little in the music that would make it an obvious Prodigy track. Instead, we’re offered a bombardment of suggestive computer graphics. A figure with a stuck on mask face wanders through an artificial city of gleaming buildings and strobe lights. Giant sets of ruby red lips sing from giant display monitors and fighter jets fly about the skies. Further into the video these giant lips fly around the skies with the jets, their teeth having turned into fangs. The cross symbolism between flying lips and fighter jets is also evident in the painted designs on the planes. The missiles under their wings are painted to appear like lipsticks, as are the noses of the planes, which are lined with shark teeth – a parallel with the fangs seen in the flying lips. There’s certainly something deeper going on here.
Throughout the video we see symmetrical animations of objects arranged to suggest faces. The choices of objects in these illusions is interesting – a film reel, dogs breathing fire, disco balls, and most interestingly, a selection of military hats. Not being a military man, I’m not familiar with the exact historical placement of these hats, but I did identify one – it was the hat of a US Airforce Senior Airman. The artwork cover for the single itself furthers this symbolism of military airpower fused with the lips of a glamour model.
Dials from a cockpit dashboard as eyes, an officer’s hat with the insignia pixelated (probably because the intended inginia would have provoked controversy) and a giant mouth made of two sharks with the fanged teeth of the glamour model in the centre. Note also that the officer’s hat is glamourized in the same pink colouring as the model’s lips.
The Girls video is undoubtedly a subliminal critique of the televised glamourization of air bombing campaigns in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which occurred a year before the Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned album was released. With this in mind, the rest of the cryptic graphics in the Girls video make much more sense - the blood red skies, the armies of Nazi-like war drummers with glamour model faces and Gestapo type uniforms.
The young male character, whom likely represents a Prodigy band member or the viewer of the video, strolls happily at first through the artificial paradise but begins to express doubt then horror as he witnesses the immoral glamourization of war. In anger, he throws something at one of the propaganda tv screens. Then he throws something at one of the planes, knocking it out of the sky. He shouts his disapproval of the marching war drummers and throws something at them too, knocking a group of them out of line, but his ultimate enemy turns out to be a giant glittering golden disco ball sat at the top of a building, from which the armies of marching drummers came. The protagonist of the video soldiers on, ignoring the war beats and tv screen propaganda. And finally he pushes the gold ball from its pedestal, after which we see the artificial paradise beginning to crumble in flames – the fighter jets now embedded, nose first, into the ground.
This opposition to US-led war for global domination seems to be the central theme of the whole album. Its cover art features a military officer’s hat, again glamourized in pink, along with dogs of war whose breath is made of explosions.
The inlay card shows another set of luscious lips, this time on a dance floor with glitterballs for eyes and a fleet of planes emerging from its mouth.
This bares similarity to the cover of Kubrick’s anti-war classic Dr Strangelove.
The reverse cover includes another face, made of animals fangs, explosion ear rings and a pink water pistol. Again war is fused with glamour.
The song titles on the album continue the war references. Spitfire and Memphis Belle are nicknames of WW2 fighter planes and Phoenix is a mythical bird of prey. Phoenix features the lyric “Can’t you hear my love buzz”, again the sexing up of an air bombing campaign. Spitfire is undoubtedly a WW2 reference as revealed in its lyric “If I was in WW2 they’d call me spitfire. Fire cause you know that I can.” Its video is a bombardment of subliminal flash images cutting between the band’s live performance, war footage and what appears to be a slasher horror film.
The artwork for the Spitfire single also shows an interesting variation on the subliminal war themes. This time the illusionary face is made up of a plane propeller and an insect’s eyes and wings under a royal crown, topped with a gold ball and cross, its mouth a set of jaws depicted by a foothold trap. Is this an anti-royalty message?
There’s also a track called Action Radar with lyrics parodying the hunger for wartime battle. And the album’s final track is called Shoot Down, which includes the lyric “Shoot the gun. Too many tied to the bang, bang, bang”.
Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned is laced with anti-war messages, but in my research for this article I’ve found hardly any mention of these themes by music reviewers.
The third single release from the album was Hotride. No obvious war themes with this one, but the video is unusual. A group of Chinese children and teenagers run amok – joyriding, trashing offices and fighting with security guards and police. The video seems to be a rehashing of antisocial themes from the band’s Music For The Jilted Generation era, but placed in a Communist police state setting. It’s true meaning, if there is one, is obscure.
The next Prodigy album (the latest at the time of writing this article) was Invaders Must Die. There appears to be less subliminal content this time around, but the video for the single Warrior’s Dance is highly symbolic.
Again, the band are telling their own story as it is happening. Three cigarette cartons are brushed into a gutter with a curious “insurance” company sign in the background. The cartons morph into animated people, representing the three remaining members of The Prodigy, Leeroy having left the band previously. The first carton, most likely representing Liam, stamps the other two into action. They sneak into a store by slipping under a door, play their music and build a stage. The cartons on the shelf, obviously their audience, spring to life and dance to the music, while the band set them alight with giant matches. The antisocial themes of Music For The Jilted Generation and Fat Of The Land are present – the band being Firestarters once again. The disappearance of the three band members back under the door at the end of the video, while their fans burn to the music, sums up the band’s habit of reaching a certain level of commercial viability before disappearing into hiatus.
“The music business is like a big trap and that’s why I never like to put both feet into it. I like to stand back and laugh at it because if you jump into the mainstream completely then you are never going to escape. Songs like ‘Firestarter’ burst onto the mainstream and bend it, twist it. Then we retreat back under ground. That’s the best way.” - Liam
This Now you see me, now you don’t approach also works for Liam within the band. Not being particularly interested in the limelight, he expresses himself not just through music, but through the other band members. Particularly, there are some interesting parallels between Keith and Liam. The “Inflicted” tattoo on Keith’s stomach was chosen by Liam, just as most of the band’s theatrical designs are. Liam’s own image is a sort of toned down version of Keith’s punk appearance – his blonde hair lightly spiked, where as Keith goes all the way with his inverse mohican. The Firestarter video especially draws parallels between Keith and Liam. Keith performs his insane punk-reinvention of dancing as Liam stands on screen with him, silent and still, but at one point Liam gently sways from side to side, a slight imitation of Keith’s more exaggerated version.
Whether Liam consciously puts the other band members, especially Keith, forward publicly as his own crazy alter-ego is difficult to tell, but the metaphor seems to be there. His self-inclusion in the band’s videos as a casual observer also occurs in No Good (Start The Dance) and Breathe, he is the ever-watchful overseer.
Another subliminal aspect of The Prodigy is their use of animal and insect imagery. It was their Fat Of The Land album that really introduced this.
In addition to the crab, the cover showcases their new ant logo and the inlay card depicts a row of ants carrying leaves. Most likely, the ant logo is a crowd power symbol, as in an army of ants. The Firestarter video includes occasional shots of Keith as a symbolic spider hanging in a web and its cover art features a painting hung on a wall of flame-imitation tiger fur.
The Breathe video is choc full of insects and animals. A rat exploring a chemistry set, a centipede on a book, fighting cockroaches near a plughole that parallel the confrontation between Keith and Maxim through a hole in the wall, an alligator that parallels Liam’s bed-ridden insomnia, a demonically-suggestive goat skull. Then there’s Maxim’s new image which includes tiger stripes and cat-eye contact lenses, and there’s Keith’s devil-horn haircut and the flesh-like wall paper which sprouts hairs and breathes to the beat. The common denominator among these vermin is their representation of danger. The video is intentionally dirty. It taps into our fear of infection musically, ideologically and chemically (note the empty Ortol bottle on a shelf). The band members are depicted as street level vermin living in squalor, plagued by mysterious books, chemicals, defective lighting and plumbing, and hostile neighbours.
Aside from being a fiendishly cool visual montage, there may even be some social commentary here. The nailed wall paper, old text books and reversal of gravity give the impression that there is something else being communicated. Perhaps the gravity reversal is intended to suggest submersion within water. The cover art for the Breathe single shows a cryptic fish out of water, which along with the “Breathe the pressure …Come Play My Game … inhale, you’re the victim” lyrics hint at the viewer’s fish out of water feeling induced by the stylistic shift from their earlier music and videos.
This era in the band’s history also introduced the regular use of animal stripes in their live performances. And biographer Martin James describes one of the band’s live set ups: “The speakers have spiders clinging onto them. Not ordinary spiders though; these arachnids are ten feet tall with human heads, all screaming in agony.” (p198)
All this animal and insect imagery links into the band’s appeal to primal energy and aggression, their appeal to unrepressed freedom of expression. This love of raw energy isn’t a publicity stunt, the band are regular thrill-seekers who love snowboarding and fast motorbikes. Their occasional hints of recreational drug use, such as the lyrics to Poison, fit with this philosophy too, as do the tribal beats and samples and tribal imagery such as piercings and, of course, the track Voodoo People.
The unleashing of pent up adrenaline has been communicated through Keith appearing in straight jackets or chains before being released upon the crowd. This was an element of their No Good (Start The Dance) video. As well as appearing in a smoke filled glass box, he has also been rolled into live crowds in a giant hamster ball.
The No Good video has some other interesting features. The dance takes part in a basement accessed, not through a door, but through a hole that’s been knocked in a wall. The dancing ravers are surrounded by damaged mannequins, a woman dances to impress Liam, but he walks away and smashes a wall down with a sledgehammer – clearly there’s a musical barrier of some kind that he wants to overcome.
A curious metaphor in the Fat Of The Land photo book (not the album inlay) is the use of mirrors in dressing rooms. The band members are seen with their faces distorted and one shows Keith baring his teeth to what is apparently his own reflection, but the reflection has a different expression. These images suggest a deliberate use of doppelgangers or alter-egos, as does the appearance of two Liams, on screen simultaneously, in the Breathe video.
3. MEDIA WISE
The Prodigy’s subliminal communication isn’t the only aspect of the band that has slipped under the critical radar. Their intelligent manipulation and handling of the media is equally impressive. Unlike the subliminals, which gradually emerged over many years, the band’s media savvy was developed quickly. Their first major run in with critical opponents was in 1992. The dance magazine Mixmag published an article titled “Did Charly kill rave?” At the time the article was released The Prodigy were the most successful artists to emerge from the rave movement and they’d acquired a wide and devoted fan base.
Don Phillips, the writer of the Mixmag article, put forward an accusation that The Prodigy’s hit single Charly had single-handedly destroyed the rave movement. His accusation, slyly disguised as a supposed question to the reader, was merely an attempt to undermine the band’s growing reputation. The ulterior motive wasn’t so well-disguised in the content of the article. He describes The Prodigy as “the ultimate cheesy teen rave act” and their audience as “a huge pile of 14-19 year old ravers”, before collectively referring to Liam Howlett and Prodigy fans as “those scruffy, spotty masses”. He describes their music as “simple often obvious and always over the top rave tunes” and refers to Charly as “Howlett's silly little novelty tune”. The writer even persuaded Liam to pose with a gun to his head for a photo, which would be used on the cover of the magazine issue containing the article, the young Liam being unaware of what the actual article content would be.
Don Phillips was undoubtedly working to an agenda, either personally or on behalf of the Mixmag editorial – an agenda of destroying The Prodigy’s growing credibility. That agenda probably stemmed from the relationship between high street music magazines and their music industry affiliates. In effect, corporate music magazines serve as advertising platforms for the music industry itself, which is one of the reasons so many mediocre bands are selected for undeserved praise. What would happen if a magazine like Mixmag, who make their bread and butter from the reputation of dance music, were to honestly admit that the dance scene has, over the last 20 years, become largely uncreative and bland? They would encounter resistance from the corporate music industry, the mediocre dance acts they sometimes artificially promote would be less receptive to interview offers, and they could massively harm their own sales if dance music began to lose its following.
Major music genre magazines partially keep themselves going by influencing public opinion for and against certain types of music. The rave movement was able to grow without magazine assistance and so it was in Mixmag’s interest, and the corporate music industry’s, to attack the lead rave act and thus the entire rave scene. The very title of the article is a trick question. Rave wasn’t dead at that point, but Don Phillips wanted the reader to assume it was. Within the article Phillips offers a quote that exemplifies the band’s opposition to corporate funded fakery.
"We try our hardest to steer away from losing that buzz, from being a live act. That's what we are. We don't want to go on Top of the Pops so we didn't. We didn't want to go in Smash Hits and all the other stupid magazines and stuff. Any interviews we did we thought through carefully and were in well read and respected magazines. " – Liam Howlett
Despite Howlett actually giving an underhanded compliment to Mixmag, by the very fact that he respected the magazine enough to be interviewed, Phillips ironically revealed in his malicious article the shallowness of Mixmag itself. Ten years later, Mixmag issued their semi-apology. A former Mixmag employee, Andrew Harrison, issued a more accurate correction in The Guardian in May 2011, “The Prodigy didn't kill rave, they reanimated rock'n'roll”.
The Mixmag article solidified the band’s distrust of journalist integrity and probably gave them a further insight into the character assassination tactics that would further be attempted against the band. Genuine underground artists who achieve eminence without major corporate funding or corporate magazine promotion are perceived as a threat, especially if they refuse to surrender control of their artistic vision in the face of fame and fortune. The music corporations don’t want bands that have an ideological position they don’t understand or especially that are anti-establishment. So, in all genres, we’re bombarded with music that has no political teeth. The punk movement gave itself over to forms of mindless, corporate funded, rock and metal ranging from self-glorifying glam to self-loathing nu-metal. The instrumental talent found among black artists in jazz gave itself over to corporate funded rap and hip-hop, which while occasionally being intelligent and politically active, mostly falls back into childish in-fighting and self-glorification.
Most bands will hand themselves over hook, line and sinker to PR executives if offered a big enough financial carrot, but The Prodigy are one of the acts who refuse to. They've declined collaboration offers from highly commercial artists such as David Bowie and Madonna because they know it would be seen as a sell out. They even declined Madonna's offer while they were on her label. Their absolute refusal to appear on the TV show Top Of The Pops, where they wouldn’t be able to decide the full content of their performance, would no doubt have turned executives’ heads as would their discouragement of mainstream radio shows playing their songs. Even in 2008 the band were publicly announcing their opposition to corporate industry control, and this time Mixmag’s coverage was more relaxed.
In the aftermath of the original Mixmag article in 1992 The Prodigy released a single called Fire (not Firestarter, which came years later). The video for the song marks The Prodigy’s first foray into counter-media tactics. The band, relaxing around a campfire, are intercut with cryptic computer graphics of their faces. A computer generated demon face with flame-like hair shouts the lyric “I am the God of hellfire and I bring you … fire!” At the end of the video it is briefly revealed that Liam is reading a copy of the aforementioned Mixmag issue. He tosses it into the campfire. The burning magazine metaphor was a simple counter-attack on the credibility of Mixmag, but the video was also a basic start for the direction the band were going in – punk-inspired anti-corporate angst with a dash of subliminals. The computer-generated demon face is likely related to Don Phillip’s attempt to artificially demonize the band.
Over the next two albums The Prodigy would continue expressing their zero tolerance of corporate interference, while developing sophisticated strategies for combating both corporate and anti-free speech opponents in the mainstream media. Liam’s next media trick was very well calculated. Realizing that commercial success had generated music press opponents waiting to jump on any mistake he made, he released two anonymous EPs on the underground dance circuits, Earthbound 1 & 2. These EPs were sufficiently different to the band’s previous releases so weren’t easily identifiable as Prodigy tracks. The anonymity also gave Liam the option of not revealing his identity if the EPs weren’t liked. However, the underground raved, so to speak, over the Earthbound EPs. Only after the praise infected the music press did Liam announce himself as the author. The music media had been baited. Any outright attempts to attack the new music by those who’d already publicly praised it would be completely transparent.
With the music press arm-twisted, Liam released the next Prodigy album Music For The Jilted Generation, which included tracks from the Earthbound EPs. The album was a massive international hit (with the exception of America) and, as we already explored, was a giant scream against the establishment attack on rave culture with elements of punk beginning to infect the musical style and live sets.
The Prodigy had begun incorporating calculated ideological traps. The track Poison is a good example. Liam is quoted by biographer Martin Roach as being aware of “drug ambiguities” in the lyrics and the cover art for the single shows a box labelled “RODENT BAIT”. In fitting with the confrontational style of the album, the band were likely inviting their media opponents to make ill-considered accusations about drug glorification. Rather than shying away from controversy The Prodigy were now fuelling it by design – laying conceptual traps for their opponents to discredit themselves.
The band members were also beginning to split into clearly defined individuals. In corporate-designed boy bands and girl bands, individuality is pretty much non-existent. Aside from variations on voice and looks the band members all act the same – dancing in choreographed unison, the opposite of the self-styled and unrehearsed dance styles of each Prodigy member. This can also be said of many so-called indie and rock bands, who dress and act to a toothless industry norm. With The Prodigy’s Jilted release, Leeroy was defined in the No Good (start the dance) video as the one with the superb footwork, in the Poison video Maxim is presented as the hip-hop inspired MC, Keith is presented as the semi-psychotic dancer who is kept in chains and straight jackets, and Liam is the quiet maestro overseeing the events.
By the time the band released Fat Of The Land in 1997, each band member had a unique style and image that would appeal to a different genre. Keith’s new image and style of dance instantly appealed to the heavy metal and punk genres without bowing to it. Firestarter was loved in the rock clubs, even though the song was basically electronica. Breathe took the dark elements further, appealing to the visual aspects of industrial and goth. And non-singles from the album veered off into other genres such as rap (Diesel Power) and punk (Fuel My Fire).
Though the band haven’t admitted as much, it’s very unlikely they weren’t aware of the potential controversy around the title of the song Firestarter. Over-sensitive critics demanded the record be banned even though the song lyrics and video feature no arson messages whatsoever. The anti-free speech opponents took their cue from nothing more than the song title. The reference to Keith’s second name “Flint” being a “Firestarter” went over their heads as did the comical artwork for the single. An old woman holds up a molotov cocktail ready to throw at the viewer (an artificial threat probably also referring to the b-side track called Molotov Bitch) and what at a glance looks like flames is actually tiger stripes.
Like Poison, this was another piece of “rodent bait” … and it worked incredibly well. Mr Flint served as the ignition device for a symbolic bonfire of controversy. Reactionary opponents of the song and video boosted its popularity and sales.
The Herman Goerring quotes in the album sleeve also baited critics into expressing anti-free speech paranoia. Absurd suspicions of The Prodigy being closet-Nazi sympathizers were voiced, but Liam was able to quickly brush these off. “How could I be a Nazi when I’ve been in a band with two black guys who have been my friends for years?” He also explained that simply using a quote for a thematic purpose is no different to using a sample. It doesn’t mean the writer ideologically supports the quoted source.
The shock of Keith’s image had worn off sufficiently by the time the Breathe video was released, so Maxim’s new tiger-striped, cat-eyed image was introduced. Here the individuality of the band members is showcased in a dance off between Keith and Maxim, a darker variation on Aerosmith and Run DMC’s Walk This Way. The surreal and cryptic nature of the Breathe video probably left media opponents in confused silence, but the next video, Smack My Bitch Up, was a direct assault on them. The video is filmed from the point of view of an anti-social protagonist who, on a night out, drinks excessive booze, takes drugs, picks fights, tries to sexually assault women in a lap dance bar, vomits in a toilet and takes a stripper home for a one night stand. Media opponents of the band would no doubt have been licking their lips while watching this video, plotting their articles to destroy the band’s image forever. Their over the top emotional reactions are even parodied in the music. Each time the phrase “Smack my bitch up” is heard a critic’s voice can be heard afterwards, shouting “Woah”. But imagine the deflated looks on critics’ faces when they saw the very last shot of the video. Instead of beating up the stripper, as the song title suggests, the protagonist, who critics would likely have hoped to be Keith Flint, turns out to be a young woman. Any sexist message perceived was non-existent and any attempts by critics at beating up The Prodigy in their articles would result in them beating up themselves, so to speak.
Regardless of the clearly intended ironies, many small-minded critics attacked the video. In America The National Organisation For Women showed a complete lack of insight into domestic violence and antisocial behaviour by claiming the song promoted violence against women – as if a mere song title would prompt a man to hit a woman? The simple reality that antisocial behaviour is committed by both men and women bypassed their sensibilities too.
TV stations either banned the song and video from their airtime, played versions with the lyrics altered or played it only late at night. Despite all these objections, there were still elements of Prodigy’s FOTL era that went over critics heads. Martin James, biographer and long time friend of The Prodigy, explains that the album cover of a crab is a metaphor of the band sticking two fingers up to their critics.
As has happened with so many forms of art, rebellion messages in The Prodigy’s music have become increasingly subtle. Subliminal encoding fused with plausible deniability, in which the rebellion message has a seemingly inoffensive double meaning, allows the band to either bypass the attention filters of free speech opponents or to simply bait them into launching an attack that backfires.
After the FOTL era these baiting tactics had become more transparent. The single Baby’s Got A Temper, with its drug implications, didn’t have nearly as much impact. So the band took a long break and went back to the drawing board.
The subliminally encoded anti-war themes used in their next album Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, in 2004, were much more subtle. In fact the critics barely noticed it, particularly being that this time around it wasn’t the critics who were being opposed. Album sales were still high, but without the in your face videos and controversy of FOTL the impact was watered down.
And this brings us to the most recent chapter in The Prodigy’s media journey. Their 2009 album Invaders Must Die doesn’t cover a lot of new ground musically. Instead it rallies the band’s fan base back in, which is necessary considering the gaps of 5 and 7 years separating their most recent albums. Covering new musical ground to reach new audiences isn’t a current priority being that pretty much the entire music market is now aware of the band.
As self-aware as ever, The Prodigy know that many will consider them to be a fading enterprise. Many music media sources have been happy to describe them as such. Countering the argument, the band parodied such attempts to brush them into a gutter with their Warrior's Dance single and video. Three cardboard figures leap from a gutter, set up a gig and set their fans alight. The metaphor continues with their live album and DVD, World's On Fire, released in 2011.
The Prodigy are playing to, and advertising, one of their biggest strengths - their live sets. Their tours still sell out regularly to a fan base who are loyal despite infrequent album releases, so by releasing the live DVD at this point in their careers the band are once again putting forward the case against their critics.
What The Prodigy will do post 2011 is a mystery. The fan base is still there, there hasn’t yet been a dance act that tops them and they’re comfortable making music in several genres. If their creativity and media savvy remains intact then their best music may be yet to come.