A look back at the big beat punks' pivotal third album 25 years on
Some time in the 90s UK counterculture began dreaming of distant, desert island scenes. Ignoring the obvious fact that escaping the grey British skies can be quite nice regardless of your tastes in music or fashion, it probably had something to do with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which cracked down on rave culture and allowed police to shut down music events “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
Perhaps under the influence of the ever-growing popularity of backpacking and the Banana Pancake Trail, these ravers dreamed of escaping these new restraints of their homeland to free and far away paradises. On the page, and later on the screen, Alex Garland set his heady utopia of The Beach in the seclusion of Thailand. Kevin and Perry only made it as far as Ibiza.
In 1997, The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett threw his own piece of iconography into the mix, deciding at the last minute to switch the artwork of his upcoming third album The Fat Of The Land from a branded leg of donor meat to a zooming image of a black and orange crab on a sandy beach.
With its glowing, over-saturated colouring and the crab’s enlarged claw ‘giving it all that’, The Prodigy’s punk identity and warbling, psychedelic aesthetic they had established at the beginning of the decade with debut Experience and later Music For The Jilted Generation was clear.
But The Fat Of The Land was to take The Prodigy to another level, as its lead single ‘Firestarter’ promised from the off. ‘Ban This Sick Fire Record’, was the Mail On Sunday‘s response to this searing and feverish track that saw the group brandish live vocals for the first time, but as their first UK No.1 single its popularity was immense. As a dancer, Keith Flint had always summoned a chaotic energy to The Prodigy’s performances, but until The Fat of the Land it seemed his talent had not been fulfilled.
Flint’s snarly, visceral bite came through on record, but ‘Firestarter’s nightmarish video cemented The Prodigy’s visual presence into the history books. But their punk aesthetic was more than just a look; sonically The Fat Of The Land hit harder than ever as the big beats got bigger while the acid and techno made more room for rock passages.
Tracks such as ‘Breathe’, ‘Fuel My Fire’ and the Skunk Anansie-sampled ‘Serial Thrilla’ sounded just as at home in nightclubs as they did at rock festivals; it’s no coincidence 1997 was the year The Prodigy first headlined Glastonbury. And yet ‘Diesel Power’ and ‘Mindfields’ and ‘Funky Sh*t’ all nodded to their longstanding love of hip-hop – all the while pulling in the industrial and rave sounds they had helped pioneer.
The album’s opening track ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ was understandably not without controversy, though Howlett has always maintained it was misinterpreted. Those who broadcasted it resorted to playing it late at night or without the vocal track, though many avoided it at all. The Beastie Boys even asked the band not play it before their performance at Reading festival in 1998, something vocalist Maxim addressed directly on stage: They didn’t want us to play this f***ing tune. But the way things go, I do what the f**k I want”.
The track has been immortalised in cultural history not just for its controversy but for its introduction into a record that immediately left an unshifting legacy in the worlds of both rock and electronic music. But though this fluid crossover has often branded The Prodigy as ‘dance rock’, The Fat Of The Land proved there was a chaotic and mind-melting odyssey to be had in-between.
The Prodigy head on a UK tour from 14-23 July, including three nights at London’s O2 Academy Brixton. Limited tickets are available here.