“I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator
I’m the fear addicted, a danger illustrated…”
The pop charts of March 1996 were a heady mix of boybands, Britpop and generic Eurodance… the perfect environment for The Prodigy to drop the devastating Firestarter, which was released on 18 March of that year.
Coming at the listener (and, thanks to the ubiquity of mid-90s MTV, the viewer) with more venom than Johnny Rotten at his most snarling, the track was arguably the group’s biggest hit, and paved the way for the group’s Keith Flint (RIP), heretofore a background dancer, to be thrust front and centre.
The track, as well as the album The Fat Of The Land that followed, ushered in a new punk-led era for the group, with thrash guitars becoming as fundamental a part of their live sound as Liam Howlett’s computerised beats.
In August 1997, The Prodigy gave an interview to Rolling Stone, with the cover of the magazine featuring the Essex native in his punk pageantry, in which Flint offered some background on the inspiration for his new persona. Five years on from the group’s debut, what prompted Flint to pick up a pen and start writing lyrics, interviewer Chris Heath asked.
“That’s unexplainable,” Flint responds. “Why does a river turn into an oxbow lake? I’ve spent six years expressing myself with my body, shouting with my body. It’s like a conductor of the music. From the party scene, when a tune came on and it was your tune, I wanted everyone to know it was my tune. Yes! Fuckin’ hell! Rockin’! Just yelling at each other, dancing away. This is just an extension of that.
“If I could get a mike and just go, ‘Fuckin’ hell! Fuckin’ hell!’ I would do it. That is the punk-attitude, DIY aspect of the Prodigy.”
When The Prodigy came to record Firestarter, Flint recalls how he and the group’s Liam Howlett listened to it about 30 times, mesmerised by the group’s dark new direction.
“I’m not a singer,” says Flint. “I love the fact that there’s people out there that have been trying since the age of nine to sing and get the voice right — do, re, mi and all that — and I can roar in, not ever written anything or performed lyrically anything, and write a tune that’s so successful. I think that’s a brilliant piss take on a lot of people, and that gives me a buzz.”
As for the lyrics of Firestarter, in which Flint refers to himself as a ‘self-inflicted mind detonator’ and ‘the bitch you hated’ – implying a degree of self-hatred – he was less forthcoming, however.
“It’s quite deep,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to say. I could explain it to you, but I wouldn’t for the magazine.”
As with many other Prodigy tracks, Firestarter incorporated a number of samples, woven into the final tapestry by Howlett, including a wah-wah’s guitar riff from The Breeders’ SOS, a drum sample from Ten City’s Devotion, and the most notorious of all, the “hey” sample, which was taken from Art of Noise’s 1984 smash Close To The Edit.
As Art of Noise’s Anne Dudley told The Guardian in 2018, “I love to say that we’re the third most sampled group of all time. The proudest for me was the Prodigy on Firestarter. They wanted our “Hey”, the one on Close (to the Edit) – no other would do. The royalties kept me in coffees for many years.”
The iconic video, directed by Walter Stern and filmed in the depths of an unused London Underground station, was filmed over a 12 hour period, with Flint in full-on deranged clown mode, or a ‘schizo-barmy Mr C meeting a speedball-bonkers Gary Glitter in hell’, as the NME put it at the time.
“People say Keith looks insane these days,” Howlett told the music paper. “But he’s been insane for five years! He was insane the day I met him dancing in The Barn in Braintree.
“People only started to notice when he dyed his hair. And obviously the press and the fans are going to latch onto him now. But it was always going to be like that. It’s a natural progression.”
According to an interview Howlett gave to the BBC a couple of years back, the now-famous clip was actually the band’s second attempt at a video for Firestarter, with the group having already spent a tidy sum on a video that was ultimately scrapped.
“The guy finished the video for Firestarter and I just hated it and thought it wasn’t good enough for the song,” he said. “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.” [If anyone knows where we might find it, we’d love to see it!]
The sleeve was designed by Alex Jenkins, art director at XL Recordings – featuring the notorious image of a grandmother clutching a Molotov cocktail – with the famous Prodigy lozenge logo using the Keedy Sans font.
And as for happy accidents, the now-legendary Stars and Stripes jumper, forever linked to Flint’s new image, was reportedly purchased on the way to the video shoot.
“I was on my way to the video and went to Camden Market to find something to wear,” Flint told Triple J a few years back. “I went to this second-hand store, saw the stars and stripes, and I liked the contradiction of us being this British band and wearing the stars and stripes jumper.
“It was five quid. I bunged it on, and it had its own impact. I really mildly thought about it, just threw it together, very DIY, and sometimes that natural, honest approach to just doing what you do always pays off. Nothing’s trying too hard.”
Firestarter was The Prodigy’s biggest-selling single to date, topping the charts in the UK, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, and Norway. In Ireland, however, it made it to #2, kept off the top spot by Richie Kavanagh’s Aon Focail Eile. Yes, we had forgotten about that one as well.
Happy birthday Firestarter, and RIP Keith Flint 🙂