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Techno Man’s Land

A New Greatest Hits Collection Attempts To Rescue the Prodigy From One-Hit-Wonder Hell

TECHNO’S GREATEST HIT: There’s more to Liam Howlett’s Prodigy than “Firestarter.”

By Tony Ware | Posted 3/22/2006

The Prodigy plays Washington’s Nation March 23

The Prodigy was named in honor of the Moog Prodigy keyboard, a monophonic, entry-level synthesizer adopted by techno producers as a cut-rate way to make their bass as low as it could go. A mischievous grin must have spread across Liam Howlett’s face when he happened upon it. While dancers Leeroy, Maxim Reality, and Keith Flint are the ones you remember from the videos, Howlett was the motor under the candy-painted hood, the prodigy in the Prodigy who made all that racket with his little boxes. Howlett set out to establish the group as a unified affront that turned the tables on the turntables, flexing a confrontational, self-declared Sex Pistols-meets-the Bomb Squad aesthetic in the face of techno anonymity.

For American audiences, the Prodigy begins, and probably ends, with the petulant video for “Firestarter,” the lead single from 1997’s Fat of the Land. But the Prodigy’s output spans 15 years, as compiled on the recently released in the U.S. Their Law: The Singles 1990-2005 (as well as a separate, companion DVD compilation, both XL). No mean feat, as so many rave acts from 1990-1992 released debut albums that simultaneously acted as posthumous greatest-hits collections.

“Growing up I was into the Specials, then the Sex Pistols and Public Enemy,” Howlett says by phone from England. “But I didn’t hear just hip-hop or rock, I heard balls and excitement. I found the same sensations, but different ones, in the rave scene. [The Prodigy’s 1992 debut album] Experience came from that first wave of mates going out to parties, but then making tracks for selfish reasons, to hear what we thought was missing.”

Coming from a B-boy background, Howlett wanted to inject the fierce beats of hip-hop and the bass of reggae into dance music to make anti-house. But while Howlett was enamored of the cut-and-paste dystopian dynamics of industrial acts like Meat Beat Manifesto, he also possessed an indelible pop sensibility. The unhinged, carousel-like synth buildups and breakdowns of the earliest Prodigy tracks represented on Their Law—unabashed “buzz music,” as Flint would call it—culminated in “Charly,” a kiddie-core classic featuring a meowing kitty, first performed live in harlequin track suits. Dozens of similarly infantile rave tracks soon appeared, the blame for which was laid squarely at Howlett’s feet.

“People rarely pick up on how tongue-in-cheek Prodigy has been,” Howlett says. “It’s been a laugh each time we get banned—from a channel, from a scene—for supposedly presenting something threatening. But we needed to do it, sometimes the music needed us to do it.”

Disillusioned, Howlett took his music forward while taking the piss, doing the one thing no one expected from the clown prince of thumbsucker rave: getting serious. The second-wave tracks collected on Their Law—the intentionally dance-floor-unfriendly “Poison” (the debut of Maxim Reality on the mic), the Rage Against the Machine-inspired “Voodoo People,” the metal-riffing “Their Law”—are all from the Prodigy’s 1995 sophomore album, Music for the Jilted Generation, a concept record about the British government’s anti-rave Criminal Justice Act, which made large-scale, unlicensed gatherings illegal and prohibited “repetitive beats.” Featuring lyrics like “Fuck them, and their law,” it was an explicitly political, if inchoate, statement from former day-glo pacifier fiends.

Following Jilted Generation, the Prodigy’s profile was sporadic until the 1997 trifecta of “Firestarter,” “Breathe,” and “Smack My Bitch Up.” The new Prodigy material featured an actual guitarist rather than just samples, an addition sparked following a Denmark gig with Suicidal Tendencies and Biohazard. Ironically for the public face of “electronica,” it was the guitars and the overt rock moves that took Fat of the Land to No. 1 in the States, while still nicking everything from Art of Noise to the Breeders, Wu-Tang to the Ultramagnetic MCs. While those other great late-’90s U.K. imports, the Spice Girls, were riding high, the Prodigy covered L7. The now almost-quaint video for “Smack My Bitch Up” was probably Howlett’s most calculated attempt to offend to date—violence! drugs! lesbianism! vomit!—and it worked.

Howlett was canny enough to know that for electronic music to break in America it needed a stadium-filling stage presence and faces for magazines. Suddenly David Bowie wanted production assistance. U2 came calling with an opening slot on its tour dates. And, in an utterly bizarre flip-flop, the Beastie Boys denounced the Prodigy while Moby offered praise. Howlett and company went from raving in a muddy field to MTV, from selling cheaply pressed singles out of a trunk to being signed to Madonna’s label.

And following Fat of the Land came silence as the long awaited follow-up turned to “where are they now?” questions. There was the occasional large-scale appearance in far-flung places such as Moscow’s Red Square. A 2002 single, “Baby’s Got a Temper,” was less than a blip on the landscape. And one of the biggest bands of the late ’90s was demoted to a one-hit-wonder status as electronic music now feels as distant as grunge or neo-ska.

Then, out of nowhere, came Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned in 2004, the title perhaps a sly commentary on the group’s current status. Gone were Flint and Maxim and with them the barking, spiky-haired, cartoonish element that propelled the band to stardom in the U.S. Howlett, the lonely prodigy, was left to carry the name on sonics alone. Always Outnumbered is represented on Their Law by “Girls,” “Hot Ride,” and “Spitfire,” the usual punchy, loud admixtures of electro, IDM, and hip-hop that sound far more exciting divorced from the filler of their parent album.

“The last record was more of a personal record to me,” Howlett says. “Now people can expect something that carries the balls of the band.”

Their Law’s second CD contains the usual raft of B-sides, rare cuts, remixes, and live tracks. Howlett has claimed live is where the band really excels, unsurprisingly for a dance act, even one as rock-centric as the Prodigy. This claim might be why a band that hasn’t had anything approaching a hit in America in nearly a decade still commands a headliner’s ticket prices. In the U.K., the Prodigy is one of the biggest bands of the ’90s, up there with Oasis and the aforementioned Spice Girls. Their Law goes some way to redressing the balance in the States, rescuing one of the great pop bands from being remembered as “the techno thing, you know—the guy with the pink mohawk.”

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