Front left speaker is a new series of stories told from the front left speaker of a memorable night out. To kick off the series I (Mischa Mathys) remember the legacy of Keith Flint in an unlikely context . It’s 2003 at a rock festival…
In a muddy field somewhere in the east midlands UK, I’m standing up to my ankle in a brown sludge I hope is composed of only mud. In front of me, a hundred odd people have somehow managed to pull the tarp they were standing over their head, repurposing the floor as a makeshift uber-umbrella against the incessant UK summer downpour. Ah summer in England… This isn’t a rave, nor is it even an electronic music festival. This is the Download festival, 2003, the inauguration of the Download festival in fact and no, it is not some music sharing nerd-a-thon… this is a no thrills, no fuss rock festival when guitar music was still dominating the charts and popular.
The moshing hordes pushing against the fence are currently shoving their way through some millennial, nu-metal band’s greatest-, and only hit, before the band retreats from the stage and into permanent obscurity. The crowd subsides into a faint din below the drip-drip-drip of the water hitting the tarp, as a wave of bodies, dressed in black scurry across the stage making room for the next act. Two drum kits are rolled on the stage and then suddenly, without much warning Keith Flint emerges, prowling the stage from one end to the other with a joker’s snarl smeared across his inanimate face. There’s an intensity in the silence as the rest of the band take their position behind Keith before they break into a thunderous clattering of guitars and percussion.
The short, stocky Englishman has aged little from the arsonist that invaded our television screens in the mid-nineties as the Firestarter, and his presence is as formidable as ever, especially in this context. The iconic inverted mohawk might have grown out into a Rotten-like razor trim, but dressed in a leather kilt and a pristine white vest, strutting across the stage like a caged badger that don’t give a fuck, he exudes every inch of the rebel that ignited that fire all those years ago. But this isn’t Prodigy, hell there isn’t even a synthesiser on stage. This is Keith Flint fronting his brief but explosive foray into a fully fledged punk frontman as Flint during a brief hiatus from Prodigy.
Everybody of my generation, the jilted generation if you will, has a Keith Flint and Prodigy story, and most of them go something a little more like this: ”they introduced me to electronic music”; “they were the first electronic band I saw live”; “Keith Flint and Prodigy changed my life”. This rhetoric runs perpendicular to my own biography too, but seeing Keith Flint fronting his own band, really puts into perspective the awe-inspiring presence of the artist and the man that would expose rave music and culture to whole generation of impressionable youths and bring it to the forefront of popular culture. It was Keith Flint’s eccentricities that finally gave dance music the one thing it had always lacked in the sea of introverts… a rock star… a personality for young malleable minds to idolise and imitate, although few of us were ever brave enough to shave a 10cm parting over our skull.
Electronic music’s popularity to-day is in large part due to Keith Flint and Prodigy’s impact. Their borderline blasphemous treatments of House, Techno, and Acid replete with
wailing guitars and screeching vocals, took electronic music out of the hands of humdrum DJ culture and the subterranean liars of club culture and put it front and centre… stage to be exact. Acts like Orbital, The Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin had already come into their own as live acts, but Liam Howlett’s dancers-turned-frontmen in the form of Maxim and Keith Flint had suddenly presented the world with a fully fledged rave group, a group that had something visual and tactile to offer machine made music, a group that could jump around on stage and incite a passive crowd, and in Keith Flint a poster-image of a group that could addorn a pubescent fan’s wall.
In South Africa we didn’t get Prodigy on the airwaves until the Fat of the Land (and radio was pretty much the only source of new music for us at that time), but I’d already been an obsessive fan since “Music for the Jilted Generation, when my UK cousins had procured a copy and brought it back to South Africa. By the time Fat of the Land came out I had already worn out the tape my cousins had graciously copied for me; familiarised myself with their entire back-catalogue through tapes borrowed from friends and a copy of the Prodigy experience; and had manhandled the breathe cd single so much the cardboard sleeve had completely disintegrated.
Fat of the Land though turned a mere fanboy into an obsessive. We had just gotten MTV (well, my grandmother got MTV) and any opportunity I would get I would spend late nights waiting for the Firestarter video to air after the watershed. I had drawn the cartoon image of Keith Flint (that one from the fat of the land innersleeve) on my school bookcase, impregnating the image of Flint on there forever, his ghostly figure haunting my high school career, much to the dismay of my teachers, who had wasted no time in giving me detention for soiling my bookcase, but deterred me little from my eternal musical pursuits.
And here Keith Flint is in the flesh, on a demure stage in the middle of the day shouting into a microphone like his confronting his nemesis. The music doesn’t break any molds and it is very much of its time and place, but Keith’s presence is magnetic. The tonal vitriol spewing forth in staccato angry bursts from Keith’s lips is emboldened by raucous guitars and two drummers beating their kits into glorious drum n bass compliance. Strands of Prodigy are in there somewhere, but Keith commands every part of this solo project. Prodigy collaborators Jim Davies and drummer Kieron Pepper flank Keith on guitars and drums, strengthening that connection to Flint’s claim to fame, but putting Keith Flint in his rightful place as the dominating frontman he imbues.
Much like Keith Flint, I had taken a hiatus from electronic club music, and my listening habits is had been consumed by guitar wielding bands like Queens of the Stone age and the Mars Volta for the years leading up to this concert. It would not be the first or the last time that I would switch sides like this, but if there was ever one group that would ultimately bridge the gap between guitar music and electronic music and continue to win over fans from either side, it was the Prodigy. At 15 when I had delusional dreams of becoming a musician and forming a band with a school friend, Prodigy’s Breathe would play in the practise sessions as some source of inspiration; Davies razor-like guitar work on that track to this day stirring something corrupt in me alongside that metallic percussive sample.
And even though like most people of my generation I would outgrow my immature adolescent musical tastes, whenever a new Prodigy record would come out I would at least give it a listen and at times, with tracks like “Girls” and “Take me to the hospital” a glimmer of that teenage rebellion would shine through and re-ignite that fire that started my appreciation for electronic music.
Flint’s show is explosive and brief, and Keith barely gets a sweat going before they evacuate the stage as suddenly as they pounced on it. I’ve never seen Prodigy live; by the time I eventually could, I didn’t want to taint the impression they left by seeing some over-blown stage production. But seeing Flint at Download in 2003 had forever burned an impression of Keith Flint into mind, a musical persona and a presence that was born to be a frontman. Keith Flint was an icon and possibly the last of his kind. “We’ve basically lost another amazing frontman,” Download creator Andy Copping told Kerrang after Keith Flint’s untimely passing in 2019 . “I mean, you almost forget that with The Prodigy it has always been about their sound, but Keith orchestrated everything, and he was the focal point of the band. When most people think of The Prodigy they think of Keith.”
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