‘It was just two mates who created something’ – the story behind The Prodigy’s iconic hit Firestarter
When most people think of The Prodigy, they think of the late Keith Flint in the video for their 1996 breakthrough hit Firestarter, sporting his trademark neon punk hairdo, black eyeliner, and a range of manic facial expressions that allegedly scared small children.
That track catapulted the band into global stardom, but they had already spent six years growing a devoted fanbase on the rave scene in Britain. They had met on the scene in Essex; Flint and Leeroy Thornhill were dancers and Liam Howlett was a DJ. They bonded over music and in 1990 The Prodigy was born. However, Firestarter was the first track to which Flint lent his vocals and thrust him centre stage, and it was to be their first number one single.
Howlett and Flint spoke about the process in detail on the triple J Inspired podcast just one month ago. They revealed that, like a lot of the band’s best work, Firestarter had a raw, organic beginning in Howlett’s home studio. It was late 1995 and he wanted to step away from rave and kick off the third album – The Fat of the Land - with a bang. So he sampled guitars and shook them up until they were unrecognisable as guitars. He added the churning sound from the Breeders’ song SOS, wrote that ‘miaow’ guitar riff on a keyboard, and finally added ‘drums from hell’.
The lyrics were written by Flint and Howlett and simply reflected Flint’s personality. Back in 1997 Howlett told Rolling Stone that Flint had “not a cent of common sense, but he’s actually really intelligent,” adding, “I’m the self-inflicted mind detonator’ — that’s him. He’ll build things up in his head until he’s on the edge of going mad. That lyric was spot-on.”
Speaking to triple j they revealed that Keith happened to pop around to Liam’s instead of fellow band mate Maxim that day, so he ended up on the track. “I said, ‘If you was going to put me on anything that [track] would be what I’d be on’ so [Liam] said, ‘Okay then we’ll grab a pen and paper. Let’s write something’ and that was it,” said Flint.
Eager to lay the track down they booked studio time in London, but after eight hours working on it with a mix engineer they couldn’t replicate the ‘compression and the attack’ Howlett had achieved in his own studio. So they ditched their efforts and reverted to the demo, which is the track that was released.
“It was just literally like two mates created this thing and we were really happy with it. It kind of sounded pretty raw,” said Howlett.
Similarly, Keith’s attempts to capture the energy of the lyrics in the vocal booth were ditched in favour of him performing like he would on stage, with a mic plugged straight into the mixing desk. This organic one or two-take approach is something they carried forth to other albums, even the newer material.
They’ve often spoken of their one and a half drive home together to Essex and the fact they played the track ‘over and over and over’. “That moment in time it was just two mates that created something and it was no one else’s. It was just ours,” said Howlett.
Flint spoke about his newfound role as vocalist; “In a way it was like, are we enjoying the process and the thing that was created or does this live outside of our own personal enjoyment? And obviously I hadn’t been doing vocals on stage and we were thinking, do we now exist with me as vocalist? Is that a good transition? Is that good for us? We were looking at each other going, ‘No, no, no, this is good.’”
The first time they played Firestarter live, they put it in the middle of their set. It was a nervous moment for Flint, who admits he looked Howlett “with the fear of God” before he started performing.
“You’ve got to remember no one had ever seen Keith with a mic in his hand, so it’s kind of like this is the very first time people have seen him doing a vocal or speaking,” explained Howlett. “It was a great moment really and then the tune finished and the whole place went silent and then [roar]. I’ll never forget it.”
The aforementioned video for the track went on to elicit a record number of complaints from viewers of Top of the Pops after it aired because Flint’s image was so terrifying. That iconic video was filmed in black and white in a disused London Underground tunnel. However, it started life as something quite different.
Speaking to the BBC last year Howlett revealed that he decided to bin the original, expensive video. “In the original, Keef was in a straight jacket and had this ball bouncing – it was just nonsense. It cost like £100,000 but I just put it in the bin,” he said. Director Walter Stem came on board despite their paltry £20,000 remaining budget. The video was filmed in black and white, Howlett said, “because we couldn’t pay for colour”.
Despite the issues, the video went on to earn them the Brit Award for British Video and NME Award for Best Music Video. The track itself earned The Prodigy their first number one, and indicated what was to come - no fewer than seven number one albums ensued.