The Critics: Rock: Scary Prodigy, Weak Prodigy and Temp Prodigy

Offering a defence of the Prodigy may seem like offering Chris Evans a payrise. After all, it hasn't been a bad year for the band, what with releasing an album that's topped the charts in countries most people haven't heard of, and, more importantly, in one country most people have heard of - America. None the less, the Prodigy's annus hasn't been quite as mirabilis as expected. In January, they were pegged as untouchable pop divinities, but The Fat of the Land (XL) had nothing on it that matched "Breathe" and "Firestarter", the tracks which had already been released. At this end of the year, the Prodigy's song-titles and videos are clogging up a lot more column inches than their music.

Seeing them in concert helps to get things back in perspective. The same people who crowned them as the country's best live act two years ago may now consider them to be Spinal Tap-rivalling spoof-rockers, but you'd have to be quite a Scrooge not to have enjoyed Wednesday's show at the Stratford Rex. The Prodigy are one of the most entertaining live bands around - and so they should be, given that three of the four members are employed principally to provide visual diversion. Two of these three, Maxim and Keith Flint, make a thrilling job of it, but you can understand the thinking behind the panto jibes. When Maxim frowns his way around the stage, some booing and hissing would seem to be the most apposite response. As for Flint, if you saw him in a film, with his Tasmanian Devil horns, his ripped Union Jack T-shirt, and metal protruding from various parts of his face, you'd complain about American directors perpetuating an image of London that hasn't existed outside Oxford Street postcard stalls for decades.

So no, the Prodigy aren't a genuinely threatening band. As Flint sticks out his studded tongue and shouts that he is a "damage destructor!", he doesn't literayy mean that your damage is at risk of being destructed. There's no real menace there. But there's plenty of great pretend menace, and that's what counts. The Prodigy serve up the controlled transgression and pseudo-danger of a horror film. It's not fair to compare them with Spinal Tap, then, because the joke of the Tap film was how bad all their theatrics were. The Prodigy's costumed scowlings may be no less ridiculous, but they're done with class and conviction, as Ozzy Osbourne's or Alice Cooper's must have been 25 years ago.

Their weak link is the third of the non- musical members, Leeroy, who doesn't even wear daft clothes or shout slogans about how frightening he is. Now and then he breaks into a minute's worth of drunken tap-dancing, but for the rest of the show he just wobbles. I say sack him, and bestow full-time membership on Gizz Butt, the guitarist who augments Liam Howlett's machine-made noises. He's got the Billy Idol hair and the studded leather jacket to match Flint's Vivienne Westwood- via-Vyvyan-from-The-Young-Ones image, and his ability to jump in circles while knocking out Iron Maiden riffs is more impressive than Leeroy's lanky shuffling.

The other ant in the ointment is Howlett's practice of linking his songs with a bass drone and some stiff-fingered scales, like a trainee Jean- Michel Jarre. Otherwise, the Prodigy Live Experience is one to treasure, even if it lacks the range necessary to be the UK's best. They make silly, juvenile punk rock, and that's a recommendation, not a criticism.

Last Sunday, with one support act down and one to go, there on the floor of the London Forum was the evening's first puddle of sick. Everywhere you looked, there were men in Statue of Liberty poses, beer glasses for torches. Football chants were chanted, Irish flags were waved. Ah, yes; you know when you're at a Shane MacGowan gig.

You know what the music's going to be like, too. The ex-Pogue's new album, Crock of Gold (ZTT) forgoes the adventurous diversity of his best work in favour of a big- booted ceilidh stomp, and his concerts do the same: the only variable is whether or not MacGowan turns up. This time, he did, but not until he'd subjected us to a long, long wait. This may have been a tactic to get the audience as drunk as he was, or it may have been due to the difficulty of extracting him from the pub, but either way it ensured him a roof-raising cheer when he finally shambled on.

It was mostly a cheer of relief to see him alive - by MacGowan standards, at least. Was this almost motionless, translucently pale figure - death cooled down - really arrested a week earlier for throwing a microphone- stand into the audience? He looked incapable of throwing anything, except up.

But compared with his usual self, he was positively Olympian. He was drinking what looked suspiciously like water, and his voice sounded suspiciously like that of a human being, as opposed to the demonic gargle he emitted from some orifice or other the last time I saw him in concert. He even danced a shaky waltz with Kirsty MacColl during "Fairy Tale of New York". There were no miracle-working holy men in evidence.

The actual job of being lusty and animated was left to MacGowan's backing band, the Popes, although "backing band" isn't an appropriate term: they were ranged along the front of the stage, and they had all the fire and cockiness that their leader hadn't. Their music was disappointingly genre- bound certainly, but no one does it better. If you've got the Popes - and the vomit, the beer, the football chanting and the Irish flags - you hardly need MacGowan at all.

On Janet Jackson's last tour, there was a sequence in which an unsuspecting man would be plucked from the audience and deposited in a chair onstage, where Jackson would treat him to what was more or less his own personal lap-dance, until the poor fellow imploded with humiliation and ecstasy in front of 10,000 people. On Tuesday in the Brighton Centre, Louise did her own version of this set-piece, only this time the stooge could barely suppress a yawn. You couldn't blame him. Louise hardly went near him, instead performing a muddled sketch involving a white-coated psychiatrist.

This little episode was typical of a show with two canyon-sized flaws. The first one was that the visual aspect necessary to distract us from the forgettable, will-this-do soul-pop was never properly thought through. Louise's main prop, for instance, was a trolley, and as she quickly realised, there wasn't much she could do with it except step on it and then step off again.

The second problem was Louise's chronic dearth of sex appeal, which was particularly disappointing given that photos of her in a bikini are probably the single biggest reason why FHM is the best-selling men's magazine in the country. In the flesh, most of which was covered, any hint of sensual charisma was replaced by a desperate, air-hostess niceness, as if Louise believed that a gig should be judged according to the number of times the singer says "Woo!" and "Ha-ha!" When her pop career falters, she'll make a perfect Sandra Dee in the London production of Grease. I don't suppose that will be a long time coming.

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