Liam Howlett: Punk and disorderly

Battery, arson, the Nazis... the Prodigy have been accused of promoting the lot. Now, after a silence of five years, another new single is causing a stink. Provocative or misunderstood? Martin James meets the band's Liam Howlett to find out

Tuesday 17 December 2013 06:34
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You may already have noticed the teaser campaign. Those pictures of a laughing policeman set against a flame-red background that have been posted across the UK's major cities. The same image that has cropped up everywhere in the national press. What you may not expect, however, is that this object of innocent fun from a bygone age is actually promoting the first new single for five years by the Essex-based electronic punk outfit the Prodigy.

Listen to the cynics and the critics, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the ad campaign is the only unpredictable thing about this single. Indeed, by the time "Baby's Got a Temper" hits the shops on Monday, it will have been the subject of almost unparalleled censorship by Radio 1, moral outrage by 6 Music, and plain old slagging-off from some areas of the music press. The reason? The band's first record in half a decade extols the virtues of Rohypnol, the so-called date-rape drug.

So what exactly did you expect from the band who last time around were accused of promoting arson ("Firestarter"), violence against women ("Smack My Bitch Up") and even Nazi ideology (because the sleeve notes to the last album, The Fat of the Land, appropriated one of Hermann Goering's speeches)? And the band whose songwriter/producer, Liam Howlett, recorded a soundtrack to a porn movie featuring zero-gravity ejaculation as its USP?

The Prodigy court controversy like schoolchildren who smoke behind the bike-sheds just to look hard in front of the cool kids, according to some quarters of the media. In the case of Liam Howlett, Keith Flint and Maxim, the cool kids are the punk-rock old guard of Johnny Rotten et al. And, apparently, "Baby's Got a Temper" is merely the latest in a long line of media-baiting manoeuvres.

"How very risqué and rebellious. Or, more likely, how very shrewd and calculating," wrote Sarah Cohen, broadcast assistant at the BBC's 6 Music, before she had even heard the track. That is typical of the knee-jerk reaction to Prodigy releases – indignant outrage tempered by mocking cynicism. To grasp this seemingly naive and, some would say, socially ignorant aspect of the Prodigy is to understand the attitude that lies at the very heart of what they do. Like so many others from their generation, they're apolitical; they believe in nothing beyond the immediate and simply don't consider the consequences of their actions. It's a nihilistic ideology that has led to the same generation embracing extreme sports, excessive drug use and so on. A generation for whom the rush, the buzz, is all.

Earlier in the year I was invited by Liam Howlett to hear "Baby's Got a Temper" receiving its finishing-touches in Rollover Studios, west London. The first thing that struck me was how powerful the song was. A psychotic music box, thundering beats, a distorted, funk-fuelled bassline, chugging guitars, siren-esque feedback, all manner of wayward electronic noises and Keith Flint's snarling vocal. And then there was the chorus. A leering, punch-drunk rebellion of a chorus, declaring: "We love Rohypnol, she got Rohypnol, we take Rohypnol, just forget it all."

"Baby's Got a Temper" represented only the second track that Liam had completed in his five-year absence. The other one was a (still-unreleased) collaboration with Massive Attack's 3D, called "No Souvenirs". Drawing heavily on psychedelia, the track found him in less confrontational but equally stunning territory. "Like the Beach Boys on acid", is how Liam described it.

Not that the Prodigy have been lazy since their last record terrorised the airwaves. They've toured endlessly and released solo albums (Liam with his Dirtchamber mix set; Maxim with Hell's Kitchen), while Keith has learnt guitar, formed a band of his own and developed the seeds of a solo career. Indeed, "Baby's Got a Temper" was originally written and demo-ed by Keith for his solo project.

Back in the studio, with the new track nearly complete, past glories seemed miles from Liam's mind. Wandering nervously from speaker to speaker, he was obsessed by the finer nuances of the mix, occasionally pressing buttons on the mixing-desk or asking the engineer, Ollie J, to fine-tune the programming. His bleached Mohican-blade hairstyle was bedraggled, his camouflage cords and white "Ping Pong Bitches" T-shirt crumpled, his eyes bleary. Recording the single had, it seemed, taken over Liam's life.

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"To be honest, it never occurred to me that people would be bothered about Keith's words," he explained when I broached the inevitable criticism. "I just loved the lyric when Keith showed it to me. I thought it was totally sick [great], and I just said, 'I'm gonna do something with that.' The thing is, I don't know why anyone would be offended by it."

It is true that, despite the band's huge mainstream appeal, they are informed by an increasingly rarefied community, one that is unlikely to be offended by Keith's declarations. The song is simply saying, "People take drugs, and so do we." Not so much shocking as a matter of fact and arguably a more sophisticated perspective than being controversial for the sake of it.

"I've always hated bands who do things just for effect," he continues. "People should know that we're not like that. It's more important to me that it sounds right. If it rocks... you know? I just really want it on Radio 1 so it shows everything else up!"

Two months later, though, Liam's hopes for daytime airplay on the self-styled nation's favourite station added an ironic twist to the Prodigy tale, which reveals certain inconsistencies in the BBC's codes of practice regarding censorship.

Having been offered a radio-friendly version of the track, with offending lyrics obscured by a vocal effect, Radio 1 advertised what it claimed was the world exclusive of "Baby's Got a Temper" on Jo Whiley's show. Then, at the eleventh hour, the Prodigy withdrew the radio edit and insisted that the song was played in its original form. Rather than remove the track from its programming, thereby in effect banning it – although the BBC has in the past claimed that it doesn't ban; it simply chooses not to play – Radio 1 decided to edit the track itself. The offending word was masked by an instrumental sample from another part of the tack. Keith's words were now reduced to: "We love... she got... we take..." and so on, leaving a space for the listener to insert the drug of their choice. And chemical karaoke was duly born.

Yet, on the same programme, Missy Elliott could be heard doing her thing "for my Ecstasy people", while, in recent weeks, R&B and hip-hop stars from Nelly to Eminem have had songs that clearly celebrate the joys of E played by the same station.

In these days of post-acid-house cool, Radio 1, indeed much of the Beeb, seems to have taken an "anything goes if it talks to the youth" stance. Artists no longer need to obscure their references to class-As; they can be more blatant. Just as long as they're talking about E, of course. Rohypnol, on the other hand, an over-the-counter tranquilliser, is something the nation's youth needs protecting from. Or, at least, the date-rape connotations of the drug.

"Keith doesn't sing about date rape anywhere in the song," protested Liam, back in the studio. "It's not about that at all. It's about him. It's about him using a drug to calm himself down when he gets too wired."

It wasn't the BBC's cruel cut that upset Liam the most. He was more angered by the amount of compression that the editing process had put on the track, in effect squashing all of the highs and lows – the nuances he had laboured so long and meticulously over – into one single mass.

And that reaction answers 6 Music's accusations that the Prodigy are trying to shock people to sell records. Howlett and the rest of his band simply don't need to worry about such things. Their last album, the bruising, full-throttle electronic rock'n'roll fury of The Fat of the Land, went to No 1 in 23 countries in the first week of release. Its UK sales that week were greater than the total sales of all the other records in the Top 100. It outsold the No 2 record, Radiohead's OK Computer, by eight to one. The Prodigy have known what it's like to be bigger than Oasis and the Spice Girls.

With two more brilliantly belligerent tracks – "Nuclear" and "Trigger" – nearing completion, a half-finished album and a European festival tour scheduled for this summer, the Prodigy, like their fairground policemen, will be having the last laugh.

'Baby's Got a Temper' (XL Recordings) and Martin James's biography 'Prodigy' (Sanctuary Publishing, £12.99) are out on Monday

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