Tuesday 19 March 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'It feels like someone is striking down the icons of our youth'

Demonic stage persona: Keith Flint, who died this week
Demonic stage persona: Keith Flint, who died this week
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

If there's one thing that remains a curse on human perception, it's "false pattern recognition".

It's what feeds conspiracy theories and allows us to mistakenly think we see recognisable shapes in clouds. Those stories you sometimes read about someone who has discovered the face of Jesus in a slice of toast? That's the human brain trying to put a discernible order on some lines and grooves in a piece of bread.

False pattern recognition came to mind this week with the desperately sad news that The Prodigy's main man Keith Flint had died by suicide.

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What would have been a 'normal' story about a rock star meeting a premature end seemed to be elevated by the fact it happened so shortly after the deaths of The Cure's drummer Andy Anderson and Talk Talk's Mark Hollis.

One death is unfortunate but random; three deaths seems excessive - and when you also include Luke Perry's demise during the week, those of who came of age in the 1990s would be forgiven for thinking that there's some mysterious killer out there, striking down the icons of our youth.

The problem with such a cluster of celebrity deaths is that eventually people just run out of superlatives and tributes, and everything begins to sound same-y and trite.

Yet the news of Flint's death seemed to strike a deeper chord than anyone, including the man himself, I suspect, could have predicted.

Yet when you think about it, that makes perfect sense both for who the man was and what he represented.

The Prodigy's place in the pantheon of great bands is secure - they managed to combine rave culture with a punk aesthetic and their live shows, with Flint patrolling the stage like a crazed guard dog, remain the stuff of legend.

Ask anyone who was at any of their many Irish gigs and they will readily admit that The Prodigy were one of the truly great live acts.

Their appearance at Féile '95 remains one of the greatest gigs anyone who was there can remember.

But these are much more timorous times than the far more free-spirited and rebellious 1990s and Flint was almost the personification of that attitude.

Much has been made of the juxtaposition between Flint's demonic, horned stage persona and the perfectly nice bloke he was away from the limelight. But that's because The Prodigy knew how to put on an act, and when Flint first grabbed the headlines with the brilliant video for 'Firestarter', he was one of the last true pop stars who knew how to terrify the mainstream.

Amidst all the tributes to Flint, comedian Kathy Burke probably said it best when she tweeted: "He did what all music stars are meant to do, he frightened your mums and dads."

Nowadays, in a world where parents and their children like to boast that they all go to see Ed Sheeran as a family, the fundamental joy of rock music - scaring your parents, terrifying your teachers and freaking out the mainstream media - has become sadly lost.

But what's even worse is that so many people seem happier with the beige, anodyne, studiously inoffensive nursery rhymes which currently occupy the charts.

The 1990s seem a much more distant age than the calendar years between then and now suggest and all the talk of The Prodigy and their legacy has prompted many of us to compare the two cultural eras - and this one is found wanting.

For example, when they released 'Smack My Bitch Up' as a radio promo, the furore was huge. A motion was passed in the House of Commons condemning the song and the video, UK newspapers queued up to demand the song be outlawed and the band prosecuted and, for one glorious moment, it was a proper battle of the generations.

It's also interesting to trawl back through the archives of the time to see how 'Smack My Bitch Up' was usually described as 'controversial.'

These days, of course, the word 'controversial' has been supplanted in the lexicon of outrage by the more personalised, subjective 'offensive.'

When they were getting static from all angles for that video - which only makes sense when you watch the last image - they had a choice of backing down, withdrawing the video and apologising for scaring the wrinklies.

That would have been understandable - after all, they had already been accused of promoting teenage pyromania for the 'Firestarter' video. But rather than retreat, they took the fight to their numerous critics. The brains behind the band, Liam Howlett laughed at the hysteria and said at the time that: "We want to push the boundaries as far as we can, and we want to take the piss out of the censorship laws. It is important that we challenge them."

Of course, social media has changed the relationship between bands and their fans.

Where once we would be happy to be splashed by a passing limousine if it carried a rock star, now bands and their fans have become friends.

That's neither good nor bad, it's simply a change in the way music is currently produced and consumed. But you don't have to be some old-skool, ageing raver still wearing your Smiley Face T-shirts to lament the fact that everything has become very dull, very sedate and oh so safe.

Maybe Flint's death will inspire some other young reprobate to kick against the culture.

God knows, we could do with it.

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