It seems incredible now, with the Prodigy’s 20-year history as the figureheads of out-of-control, hedonistic, devotedly hardcore dance music, but there was a time when Liam Howlett was accused of killing rave. With their public information films cat-sampling techno hit Charly, “Liam was sincerely trying to capture the essence of rave,” ran an editorial from the August 1992 issue of Mixmag. “The tragedy was, he did.” Charly had let the great unwashed in on the exclusive secrets of clubland. “We will never remember Charly Says like earlier generations have remembered Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel, the Beatles’ Penny Lane or even the Clash’s London Calling,” the editorial predicted. The Prodigy responded by burning a pile of Mixmags in their next video.
It’s a sunny Sunday in 2011 and I’ve just played Charly for the umpteenth time. The Prodigy and my former employers Mixmag have long since made up and I’m remembering all the great times that went with that record. The Prodigy began as outsiders from resolutely unhip Braintree and they remained so, a stance that didn’t kill rave but sustained it as music that didn’t require outside validation to survive. They helped its multiple variants become the true, indestructible folk music of 21st-century Britain.
There was never any Prodigy manifesto, nothing designed to please NME, just a constant desire to go harder, louder and more offensive. The central thesis of their Music For The Jilted Generation album, released during the Criminal Justice Bill furore in 1994, was concise: “Fuck ’em and their law!”
Firestarter, from 1996, introduced Keith Flint as the new gold standard for pop folk-devils. The Fat Of The Land album made the Prodigy massive in the USA, a goal which that era’s Britpop bands had laboured towards with little success. The Prodigy had moved out of the dance bubble to supremacy in
a field of their own: electronic rock’n’roll.
In Kraftwerk, electronic music already had its Beatles. Now it had its Sex Pistols: outrage and excitement, always the same and always different. The Prodigy are still in love with their original obsessions: the noise, the heat, the energy, the whole glorious mind-cancelling abandon that reminds you that you’re flesh and blood. As their centre of gravity moved from records to ever-bigger live shows, clubbers discovered that a gig could be like a rave, with a focal point. And rock kids raised on Oasis or the Strokes found out that there was a more relentless form of live entertainment. Next week sees the release of World’s On Fire, a Prodigy live album and DVD, filmed at the Milton Keynes Bowl, their biggest-ever show, last summer. It shows how they stood still, in the best possible way, as the world kept coming back to their way of thinking.
Listen beyond a yowling cat sample and there isn’t all that great a difference between Charly from 1991 and Warrior’s Dance from 2008. Then or now, the message is the same and it’s the only one that ever mattered: “Come with me to the dancefloor/ You and me ‘cos that’s what it’s for”.