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.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine