No one, it can be argued, did more than The Prodigy to carry the lurid and ecstasy-inflected spirit of 1980s acid house into the heart of the 1990s mainstream.
The onstage persona of frontman Keith Flint served to etch the delirium of the moment onto the collective psyche of a generation, as the dark antidote to the mannered respectability of Cool Britannia.
Flint, who died aged 49, wrote and performed vocals on the 1996 UK No 1 hit singles “Firestarter” and “Breathe”.
Born in east London in 1969, Flint soon moved to Essex, where a sometimes uneasy childhood saw him expelled from school at the age of 15.
In 1989, Flint’s love of acid house led him to The Barn in Braintree, where he would meet DJ and future bandmate Liam Howlett. Impressed by Howlett’s music, Flint offered his services as a dancer, and with the addition of Flint’s dancer friend Leeroy Thornhill and vocalists Maxim Reality and Sharky, The Prodigy was formed.
The Prodigy achieved near-instant success. Their first single “Charly” reached No 3 in the UK singles chart, while its sampling of a children’s public information film series launched a brief fad for nostalgia-tinged novelty rave tracks. The Prodigy themselves had already moved on, as further hits from their first album Experience displayed their refusal to be limited by the passing fashions of the rave scene.
On Mercury-nominated 1994 follow-up Music For the Jilted Generation, Howlett began to add harder-edged rock and industrial influences to The Prodigy’s sound, yielding further hits and the first of seven consecutive UK chart-topping albums.
Having loudly opposed the home secretary Michael Howard’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which sought to outlaw outdoor raves centred around “repetitive beats”, The Prodigy’s next step would find them revelling in the moral panic. While Flint’s role in the group’s early success had largely been to provide a visual focus for Howlett’s electronic compositions, that would change in 1996, with the release of “Firestarter”.
Flint’s first contribution on record – and first co-write – found him exulting in the supposed menace to society presented by his contemporaries, with a punk rock snarl and more than a hint of gleeful mockery. The visual aspect remained crucial, with Flint’s previously long hair now cropped and styled into two fluorescent spikes, giving him an appearance that was half devil and half clown.
Some television channels refused to show the accompanying music video, filmed in the abandoned Aldwych Tube station, before the 9pm watershed, guaranteeing Flint a degree of tabloid notoriety.
The song itself, marrying Flint’s hyperbolic sneer to a Breeders sample and heavily treated guitar riffs, widened the group’s appeal still further beyond its base of dance music fans. Both “Firestarter” and its follow-up, “Breathe” – again featuring Flint on vocals – topped the UK singles chart, as The Prodigy’s third album, The Fat of the Land, marked the peak of their global success.
Over the next few years, as Liam Howlett worked on a follow-up, Flint busied himself with side projects. His own group – also called Flint – released one single before a planned album was scrapped, and co-wrote “Baby’s Got a Temper”, which would serve as The Prodigy’s next release. However, by the time Howlett had completed The Prodigy’s fourth album, “Baby’s Got a Temper” had been struck from the track-listing and disowned.
Reduced sales for Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned ultimately made it The Prodigy’s last studio album for their UK and US labels. However, their popularity persisted, as this and each of their subsequent self-released albums continued to top the UK charts without fail. In 2009, “Omen”, once again featuring Flint on vocals, returned them to the top 5 of the UK singles chart, while well-reviewed 2015 album The Day is My Enemy marked Flint’s greatest involvement yet in the songwriting process.
Outside of music, Flint pursued a passion for motorcycling, launching Team Traction Control, which won two Isle of Man TT races in 2015 and competed in the British Superbike Championship. Between 2014 and 2017, Flint also renovated and ran a pub a few miles from his home in North End, Essex.
Flint is survived by his wife Mayumi Kai, the Japanese DJ. Tributes have been paid from within the rave scene and far beyond – from Orbital to Duran Duran, from Foo Fighters to Brian May and James Blunt. Liam Howlett described Flint as “a true pioneer, innovator and legend”. Kelly Llorenna of 1990s dance act N-Trance wrote on Facebook: “I have seen them [The Prodigy] over 25 times all over the UK and Europe since the band started. He was original, unique, a pioneer. There is no one like him. An intense amazing performer not just a singer. Keith we salute you.”
Keith Flint, singer and musician, born 17 September 1969, died 4 March 2019
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