Prodigy put their latest single on hold, too, because they'd planned to use a cover photo of a car smashed into a lamppost. "It was the right sleeve at the wrong time," commented Liam Howlett, Prodigy's leader, which seems very civic-minded of him until you remember that the title of this particular single is "Smack My Bitch Up". Not what you'd call a detailed dissection of violence against women (or dogs), the song contains no lyrics except the sampled refrain: "Smack my bitch up / Change my pitch up." I wouldn't say it encourages people to beat up their girlfriends, as some journalists have suggested - anyone stupid enough to blame a Prodigy song for their actions deserves an extra year in jail - but it's not a very pleasant title, either. Is it pro-violence? Is it "ironic" (the standard defence of rock stars embarrassed by their own lyrics)? Is it a shock tactic of such banality that you could sell it to Charles Saatchi? More likely, Howlett just bunged in the sample without thinking about the consequences. He may be a genius in the studio, but he rarely uses his brain elsewhere.
If you don't believe me, look at the sleeve booklet of Prodigy's current album, The Fat of the Land. A quotation runs all the way through it ("Would you rather have butter or guns?" etc), a quotation which has been attributed to Hermann Goering. Yes, you read that correctly: Prodigy have chosen to be associated with the founder of the Gestapo. And, remarkably, they've got away with it.
Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker was reviled by the press when he said that he prized the swastika as a mystic Indian symbol. Despite being Jewish, he was branded a Nazi. Prodigy's use of the Goering quote, on the other hand, prompted hardly any recrimination at all. Howlett helped to defuse potential protest by saying that, no, Prodigy were not Nazis, and nor, for that matter, did they condone violence against women. However, he also said that he was glad if people were offended. He said he enjoyed generating controversy, and he didn't want everyone to like Prodigy anyway.
So it's interesting that this desire to annoy doesn't extend to the cover photo of "Smack My Bitch Up", which was finally released this week. A picture of a crumpled car is hardly offensive per se, and it certainly doesn't compare with a quote from one of history's most repugnant figures. Even so, Howlett withdrew the original sleeve he had chosen, because he knew it might anger people in the wake of Diana's death - anger them so much, in fact, that they'd boycott his records.
This probably says worse things about us than it does about Howlett. We're prepared to condone fascist rhetoric and misogynist titles - indeed, many young Prodigy fans must get a frisson from pencilling the words on their geography folders - but we can't bear anything that may remind us of the death of the People's Princess. Still, just because we're blaming ourselves, it doesn't mean we should let Howlett off the hook. What happened to his artistic integrity? What happened to doing whatever he wanted, and being extra-chuffed if people disapproved? Prodigy claim to be controversial, but when that controversy is in danger of affecting record sales, they back down as quickly as anyone else.