Keith Flint, the fearsome looking frontman of British electronic dance group The Prodigy, has died at the age of 49. With him, you fear, has gone one of the most important music movements of the last 30 years.
The Prodigy is, or was, a strange group, all things considered. They emerged from the rave scene of early 90s Essex, with hits such as ‘Charly,’ ‘Everybody in the Place’ and ‘Out of Space’. The latter became a popular, upbeat, conciliatory anthem the band ended every show with, whilst ‘Everybody’ just missed out on number one.
But the group went mainstream with a much darker brand of music than the ‘kiddie rave’ of their debut work. Flint was at the forefront of this transformation, bringing an aggressive punk aesthetic to the band’s formerly placid, casual look, as well as howling lyrics and dancing that bordered on disturbing. Everyone has heard ‘Firestarter,’ The Prodigy’s first number one, and there isn’t a dance floor in the world that hasn’t at some stage seen a mass of head-banging to ‘Breathe,’ ‘Warriors Dance’ or ‘Voodoo People.’ The black and white music video for Firestarter, shot in a disused section of the tube, was banned by the BBC on account of Flint’s manic, transfixing performance, whilst ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ was banned from the airwaves in the US and UK due to its lyrics, which were said to promote misogyny and drug use.
But it was nothing if not successful. The Prodigy’s next six albums reached number one in the UK charts, all of them fast, angry and very, very loud. What made them so popular? Plenty of people have looked to the individual tracks for encouragement: is ‘No Good’ an embrace of damaging lifestyles? Was ‘Invaders Must Die’ a harbinger of the creeping nationalism that would engulf the West a decade later? Can ‘Their Law’ be considered a protest against authoritarianism, or a weary submission to its relentlessness?
The answer can be found in The Prodigy’s live performances, where Flint came into his own. To see the man before, and very often in, a crowd of thousands was to see the most destructive of human emotions made flesh. The endless bouncing, the feral noise, bared teeth and wide eyes were a sight to behold. The Prodigy represented an outlet for the release of feeling in an environment free from agenda. There was no political message, no figure to rail against. The band’s shows were a riot, the marrying of catchy, siren-like sounds of electronic music they had brought to the mainstream, and the glorious chaos of the crowds the mainstream studiously kept out. They were an orchestra of emotion, with Flint as the conductor. The feelings didn’t need articulation, just expression. They were the perfect response to pop that increasingly constricted and packaged its product.
Flint himself was a colourful character in his private life, with a sense of humour which matched the ferocity of his performances; to promote a tour in 2013, he shot a bizarre fly-on-the-wall review of a camping shop, which had no reference to music of any kind. He was also a motorsport enthusiast, founding a successful Superbike squad Team Traction Control, and a keen horseman, which landed him in hot water when he admitted taking part in trail hunting. He also ran his local village pub for three years, having saved it from closure, where apparently he would fine customers whenever they made a firestarter joke as he put kindling on the fire.
He leaves behind a unique band with a legacy for wild non-conformity. In an interview in 2015, he said of the state of modern pop music ‘We were dangerous and exciting! But now no one’s there who wants to be dangerous. And that’s why people are getting force-fed commercial, generic records that are just safe, safe, safe.’ The Prodigy were a bulwark against the generic, and British music has lost its music for its Jilted Generation.