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Still Uniting, Still Fighting: The Prodigy Live At Warriors Dance
Dayal Patterson , August 4th, 2010 09:00

Dayal Patterson looks at the strange 20 year career of The Prodigy and, seeing them at the Milton Keynes Bowl, finds a group who still have the power to flatten the boundaries between dance and rock.

Launched upon an unsuspecting world in 1990 courtesy of a teenage Liam Howlett and his bedroom studio, The Prodigy, from the very start, were a pivotal act. Spawned directly from the loins of a staunchly independent underground dance movement, the group nonetheless set to work almost immediately in taking their sound out of the illegal outdoor raves and warehouse parties and into the ears of a wider audience. A product of their time, their debut recordings (found on the 1991 12" 'What Evil Lurks') and the live appearances that followed soon after, came at a point when forward-thinking acts were lunging for the lifeboat of mainstream acceptance as the UK acid house / hardcore scene continued to crumble under the weight of its own success. Increased publicity, frequently revolving around illegal drug use, fuelled a clampdown that would culminate in the Criminal Justice Bill and Public Order Act, a sordid landmark indeed in the history of draconian and undemocratic legislation.

Such a backdrop, however, not only acted to politicise the dance movement, but also profoundly coloured The Prodigy, adding a sense of authenticity and -perhaps more importantly - danger to a genre increasingly populated by novelty acts. Indeed, The Prodigy themselves would briefly be tarred with the same brush thanks in large part to first hit 'Charly', which featured the iconic and long-suffering cartoon cat of the same name, whose impenetrable meowings and do-gooding owner were a familiar sight thanks to British public information films. Despite the unusually eerie quality of the number, it was perhaps unsurprising that the song was ranked by sceptics alongside such dubious numbers as Sesame's 'Treet' by fellow Essex act Smart Es as an example of the cheapening and commercialising the rave scene.

While 1992 debut album Experience suggested that the act were far from a one-trick pony, it was the release of the stunning Music For The Jilted Generation in 1994 that introduced a darker and more mature approach, one that drew heavily on the spirit of protest. The notably metallic number 'Their Law' was immediately identifiable within the context of the Criminal Justice Act decimating the free party scene at the time, and should any ambiguity remain, an illustration inside the album's sleeve depicting a dramatic battle between freedom and oppressive, stifling order certainly clarified things. On one side of a treacherous chasm the forces of law and order marched forth from what appeared to be Mordor itself, while on the other sat a lush green land where a sound system had already been erected (whether it would still be green and lush after the party had ended is a question perhaps best left unanswered). The intended message seemed to be a rather Public Enemy-esque 'Fight the Power', though in truth it was probably somewhat closer to The Beastie Boys' 'Fight for Your Right to Party'.

Liam admits in the sleeve notes of 2005 singles collection Their Law that Rage Against The Machine's 1992 debut was a major source of inspiration during the making of Jilted, and in retrospect it makes perfect sense. Yet where Rage continued to define themselves in relation to their fiery political convictions, the Prodigy would instead take their rebellious impulses into increasingly ambiguous and self-consciously controversial territories. Liam's well-publicised refusal to allow road protestors to use the 'Their Law' song in a documentary film may have been somewhat disappointing, but did act as an apt illustration of the limitations of the group's political dabbling. Nonetheless such themes seem to have acted as the catalyst for a notably darker and more confrontational tone, clearly evident in videos such as 'No Good (Start the Dance)' and 'Poison', whose violent overtones stood in clear contrast to the happy-go-lucky vibe of their gloriously daft early efforts. The music itself had also taken a heavier, more rock-orientated direction, utilising guitar licks by Pop Will Eat Itself and Nirvana, whilst maintaining the slamming breakbeats.

It would be another three years before The Prodigy's interest in rock / dance cross-pollination was taken to its logical conclusion, the group drawing on a host of rock and metal musicians (not least Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello) for their much-awaited third album. The resulting opus, Fat of the Land, not only housed massive hits 'Firestarter', 'Breathe' and 'Smack My Bitch Up', but also made onetime dancer Keith Flint – now adopting a appearance more Sid Vicious than Neil from the Young Ones - into an unlikely frontman and star along the way. Having marked themselves from their early days as a live band - a clear departure from many of their peers in the dance scene who seemed content, even keen, to replace the live band with the DJ – The Prodigy set off on what would be a massive four years of touring, a feat still more or less unheard of for a dance act.

Even at the heights of their success during those years, however, the group never headlined a venue as large as the Milton Keynes Bowl. That the band are able to reach such an audience here at the Warrior's Dance festival is both incredible and heart-warming especially when one considerers their fall from grace in the years following Fat of the Land. Liam's decision to take time out following the lengthy tour stint would ultimately prompt the ever-driven Keith to dedicate himself to his solo act Flint, a decision that saw him missing (and likewise vocalist Maxim who resigned) from 2004's brave but disappointing Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned album, making it essentially a solo album for Liam. 2002's 'Baby's Got A Temper' - whose references to date rape drug Rohypnol came across as a somewhat contrived attempt at provocation despite the effectiveness of the tune itself - bombed and would stand as the last collaboration between Howlett, Flint and Maxim for some seven years, not least due to a year-long fallout between Liam and Keith over Always Outnumbered.

With The Prodigy seemingly spent and destined to rely on past glories, the appearance of last year's Invaders Must Die album was all the more pleasant a surprise. Had the group returned to the stage simply to churn out the classics it would surely have been enjoyable, but nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia. Instead the core trio gave us a powerhouse of an album that could arguably stand toe-toe with anything issued in the years before. Blending the melodic dance of the band's roots with the darker aggression of their later efforts, the album earned a generally strong response from critics, and more importantly from listeners, the group shifting a massive one million copies of the album, a genuinely remarkable number in an age of internet downloads.

That they can now top a bill featuring such highly-rated newcomers as Pendulum and Enter Shikari in front of 65,000 people illustrates the unusual, perhaps unique, position The Prodigy now occupy. In much the same way that Iron Maiden now manage to unite various generations of the metal scene after suffering a number of years out in the cold, so too the Essex innovators prove able to gather together 20 years worth of dance / rock fans – no mean feat given the generally forward-looking nature of the scene. Cutting edge enough to pull in a demographic not yet able to confidently buy alcohol from the Bowl's bars they nonetheless also have enough history to unleash numbers that leave all but the more, ahem, mature contingent of the crowd looking blankly at one another.

Flanked here by two suspended, glowing ambulances and with enough lasers to put Pink Floyd to shame, the group maintain their confidence and sense of showmanship throughout. Flint and Maxim remain the focal points, stalking a stage occupied by live musicians, while Liam lurks behind a wall of synths in much the same manner he has done since the group's birth. Despite the visual stimulation, it's ultimately the strength of the band's catalogue that takes centre stage, the group revisiting everything from 'Everybody In The Place' and 'Out of Space' and mid-period hits 'Breathe' and 'Firestarter' through to new numbers 'Thunder' and 'Warrior's Dance'.

The obvious limitations of the venue become clear as soon as one attempts to either withdraw money (seemingly only one machine with a mile long queue), buy a drink (add another hour) or indeed see the band (the 'golden circle' wristbands that allow entry to the front of the crowd really are essential, as watching Pendulum from the main crowd proves). There's also little doubt that the outlaw image of the group is hard to maintain in an environment defined by overpriced drinks and corporate sponsorship. But frankly that's largely irrelevant. The Prodigy may play boogeymen from within the establishment, but it's a role they've long perfected, and the band's second life has allowed them to continue the mission they set about in the early nineties, namely taking a stunning party to as many people as possible. And judging by the passion of the performance and the legions of people going crazy here, that's a goal they've achieved in style.

Prodigy picture by Rahul Singh from the official Prodigy website