Men of the moment; ROCK

No group captures the spirit of the 1990s quite like The Prodigy. Their prime mover tells Ben Thompson how they've done it

Liam Howlett - soft-spoken mastermind behind The Prodigy's globe- subjugating juggernaut of organised chaos - is a very busy man. If you want some idea of just how busy, Madonna recently asked him to produce her next album and he was obliged to decline, politely explaining that he just couldn't find a window. This is an eventuality that has arisen for many a Braintree 25-year-old. But Howlett is the only one who wasn't dreaming at the time.

Except that since the magic moment a little over a year ago when they released their incendiary masterstroke "Firestarter", Howlett and band- mates Keith Flint, Maxim and Leeroy Thornhill have inhabited their own waking dreamworld. The Prodigy had already been successful - with 1994's Mercury Prize-nominated No 1 album Music For the Jilted Generation, and a series of hit singles going back to 1991's infamous child-safety ad tribute "Charly" - but "Firestarter" took things to a new level. The thrilling conjunction of Howlett's crashing beats and Keith's crazed visage caused a pop frisson of seismic proportions.

The Top of the Pops broadcast of the song's extraordinarily intense video sent children and adults alike racing to hide behind the sofa. Howlett knew how they felt: The Sweet had done the same thing to him a few years before. Neil Tennant said (and he meant it as a compliment) that "Firestarter" was "not really a song". Howlett agreed - "It's more like ... an energy!" And on the back of this energy The Prodigy propelled themselves to what would have been the four corners of the globe, if only the globe had corners. Their follow-up single, "Breathe", every bit as sulphurous and magnetic as its predecessor, was No 1 in eight countries. No wonder Howlett now finds himself in a state of perpetual jet-lag. Prompt him to pick up a thread from earlier in the conversation and he'll be there in a flash - just don't ask him what month something happened in, because he won't have a clue.

In some ways this is just as it should be, because The Prodigy stand alone among their peers as the sound of the moment. While Oasis shadow- box with the spectre of the Beatles, and Radiohead release "the Dark Side of the Moon of the 90s" (Excuse me: is this supposed to be a good thing?), Howlett and co's perfect fusion of dance technology and rock dynamics is the only music explicable solely in terms of now. Their new album, The Fat of the Land, has been a long time coming. Howlett "got a bit bored for a while, but then suddenly it all made sense". On first hearing it, you notice that it sounds earthier and more organic than their previous two. Also, that the first track - a magnificent spiralling loop of disciplined savagery - goes by the less than edifying title of "Smack My Bitch Up".

What exactly is that supposed to be about? "There are two angles to it," Howlett explains unapologetically. "The first is the gangsta rap thing - when I first got into hip-hop I enjoyed listening to people like Ultra Magnetic MCs and Schoolly D whose lyrics were really on the edge [Note to those of a civilised disposition: for "on", read "over"]. But the main point was that when "Firestarter" came out there was so much ridiculous stuff in the papers [sample Mail on Sunday frontpage headline: "Ban this sick fire stunt record"] that I thought this time I might as well really give them something to write about."

The jury is still out on this justification, and if plans to release the song as The Prodigy's next single come to fruition, they will need to book a hotel. Defence counsel may point out that in the hard-bitten linguistic milieu of the modern dance idiom, a bitch is not necessarily female (Did not Keith Flint himself exclaim in the early stages of "Firestarter", m'Lud, "I'm the bitch you hated, filth-infatuated"?). But the judge could rule either way. Given that The Prodigy have not so much flown too close to the sun as through it and out the other side, people were going to be lining up to take potshots at them anyway. Howlett just decided to give them some extra ammunition.

At least The Prodigy's live reputation should remain immune to attack. "On stage," Howlett observes cheerfully, "is where everything makes sense." It was not always thus. The band started out doing thrown- together appearances on the early-Nineties rave circuit. Then Howlett began to feel that, "Making people dance when they're out of their heads on ecstacy wasn't really that much of a challenge." Impressed by the live impact of noisy Americans like Rage Against the Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and noting that "there was no one on the dance scene who could create the energy on stage that a rock band did," The Prodigy gave it a try themselves.

Picking up the spirit of collective euphoria which characterised the best moments of the UK Acid House explosion, and translating it into that most unreceptive environment, the outdoor rock festival, they transformed a dreary ritual into a vital and exhilarating spectacle. What with Howlett's controlling mania, Maxim's lethal stare and Flint's apoplectic exclamations - "Psychosomatic! Addict! Insane!" it was no wonder The Prodigy's breakthrough set at 1995's Glastonbury Festival prompted a renowned theatrical director to observe that theirs was the most dramatic show he'd seen all year.

The Prodigy will soon be heading off to America to co-headline the massive Lollapallooza rock circus. Howlett's head is already reeling from the US music media's frenzied attempts to get to grips with the nebulous disco entity they have termed "Electronica" ("I hate that word," Howlett says despairingly. "Why did they have to put an `a' on it?") - a catch-all genre pigeonhole into which The Prodigy are being bundled along with Orbital, Underworld and The Chemical Brothers.

It's no wonder there's some confusion on the other side of the Atlantic. Thirty-three years ago, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones knocked America off its feet by exporting back an anglicised version of its own undervalued indigenous black music. Now the same thing is happening again, but this time with hip-hop and techno instead of R'n'B. And Howlett - who drives an AC Cobra 247, whose dad ran a factory that made grouting implements, who had piano lessons as a kid but doesn't like to talk about them - is the man for the job.

! `The Fat of the Land' (XL, CD/LP/tape) is out tomorrow.

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