When you think of the Prodigy, you almost certainly think of Keith Flint, who has died, aged 49. Flint was the Prodigy’s iconic frontman, a fierce figure with rings in his nose, studs in his tongue and purple horns for a hairdo.
And yet Flint barely even appears on the majority of Prodigy recordings. He was one of those odd characters in pop culture, essentially a kind of mascot whose individuality and charisma came to embody the spirit of the band and arguably made him far more famous than the actual music makers.
Like Chas Smash in Madness and Bez in Happy Mondays, Flint started as a dancer and only slowly developed a more fundamental role in the band. In the Prodigy’s case, their techno music was effectively created solo by producer-songwriter Liam Howlett.
But, frankly, most record buyers would have a problem picking out Howlett in a police line-up. He was joined on stages at raves by Flint and two other dancers, the dreadlocked Keith Palmer (who went by the name Maxim Reality) and geeky giant Leeroy Thornhill (who left the group in 2000).
Although Flint became a member of the Prodigy in 1990, he did not even appear on a recording for the first six years of their existence. But when he did, everything changed.
Going against the increasingly cheesy upbeat spirit of rave culture, it was Flint’s bravura punk attack that gave Howlett’s increasingly abrasive electronica a fresh and original identity. They created a kind of post-rave dance rock that audaciously challenged the banalities of acid house, and laid foundations for a new style of EDM to come.
Flint’s tuneless rasping and ranting vocal fired up their big breakthrough hits Firestarter and Breathe in 1996. They went to number one in America when Britpop giants Oasis were struggling to be heard across the Atlantic. And they have remained a major attraction ever since.
Six out of seven Prodigy albums have gone straight to number one in the UK, most recently No Tourists in 2018. After their Firestarter breakthrough, Flint would continue to contribute vocals to Prodigy albums, and developed even more of a frontman role onstage alongside Maxim.
The way the Prodigy combined DJ culture with spectacular hi-tech staging provided a template for how dance music has crossed into arenas. Live shows were where Flint really became their star attraction. He would roll onstage in a Perspex Atlas-sphere and indulge in more costume changes than a model at a catwalk show.
An inveterate stage-diver, Flint was famed for throwing himself into audiences with dangerous abandon. When he lost his trousers at one concert, lighting technicians bounced their lasers off his bare buttocks. “Best light show since Jean Michel-Jarre,” Flint boasted.
The essential synergy between the Prodigy’s music and presentation was summed up by Flint’s fellow MC, Maxim: “Liam is soaking up energies from watching us perform which plays a part in the music he makes. There would be no Prodigy if there wasn’t a performance and obviously no performance if there wasn’t a Prodigy. It goes hand in hand.”
In a way, Flint can be seen as an ultimate pop fantasy figure. Most fans start out as children jumping around to their favourite tunes, physically expressing the music, perhaps imagining themselves on stage with their idols. That became Flint’s actual role. So what if he couldn’t sing and couldn’t play? Keith Flint was a star.