Thursday 8 April 2021

The PRODIGY: Music For The Jilted Generation


(#506: 16 July 1994, 1 week)


Track listing: Intro/Break & Enter/Their Law/Full Throttle/Voodoo People/Speedway (Theme From Fastlane)/The Heat (The Energy)/Poison/No Good (Start The Dance)/One Love (Edit)/The Narcotic Suite – (i) 3 Kilos; (ii) Skylined; (iii) Claustrophic Sting


We have been here before, except we haven’t. On the left, dark towers of John Martin fire, urbanity, police, spite; in the centre, a rope bridge as old as, or older than, humanity, and on the right, light fields, gambolling vans and sound systems, beneficent crowds, a hippie giving the other side the V-sign.


All very 1970 Edgar Broughton Band, and all very wrongheaded, is Les Edwards’ illustration for the second Prodigy album, since the fulcrum of far-Right thinking, from Hitler through Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to the unidentified but secure oppressors in charge during the second half of Threads, relies on a fiery hatred of cities and the urge towards returning to the pastoral, the agricultural, the hagiographising of a fictitious mythical past and the denial of a future – for these systems’ countless victims, the denial was painful and swift. The illustration should really have been the other way around.


Not that Liam Howlett, who for the purposes of the album essentially was The Prodigy – only one other band member, Maxim Reality, pops up, and that is only on “Poison” – need be mistaken for a political fellow. In fact he has been at pains to avoid that happening. Music For The Jilted Generation was framed as an extended protest against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (hence “Fuck them, and their law!”) – the brief, uncredited liner note baldly states: “HOW CAN THE GOVERNMENT STOP YOUNG PEOPLE HAVING A GOOD TIME (sic). FIGHT THIS BOLLOCKS” – but Howlett has subsequently gone on record describing the album title as “stupid”; it was the suggestion of a friend, other mooted but rejected titles being Music For The Cool Young Juvenile and Music For Joyriders.


If we interpret “jilted” as synonymous with “betrayed,” then the record may be referring to the betrayal of hardcore capitalism. What, after all, could be more faithful to the Thatcherite creed of free enterprise than illegal – i.e. untaxed – raves, cheerily bypassing outmoded laws, creating something from nothing with absolutely no help from any outside system and making a packet?


But the creed proved fallacious. It turned out that some forms of untrammelled capitalism were good and others bad. The role of capitalism was firmly to placate and ease the lifestyles of the mimsy, timid majority of newspaper readers who had spent their lives scrubbing up, placidly obeying (and never questioning) the rules, and were content to be twelfth-best (to the global spivs who actually and ironically were running things). They did not wish to be presented with a phenomenon which they had never been conditioned or persuaded to understand. You Bastards Aren’t Tory Enough! might be a workable alternate title for the record.


To add to this baffling bouillabaisse, Howlett refused permission for “Their Law” to be used in a documentary about road protestors, commenting that he liked motorways because they got him to London more quickly. He has steadfastly denied that The Prodigy have ever been a political band, even though their existence is in itself a political act.


(I understand Howlett’s dilemma, though. Recently I’ve been watching some ludicrously grandiose promotional videos for the doomed, besuited Mayor of London candidate Brian Rose, a San Diego shyster and, if unchecked, potentially a very dangerous man. He really doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning, and nobody with a soupçon of sense would vote for him – he cannot pronounce “Lambeth” properly, for a start - but I have to admit to being attracted by the big and specifically very West London gestures; there he is, hands stretched out like his antecedent Hughie Green, standing up and being counted on peak-time television in January 1977, in front of gigantic, moving billboards on the east side of the Holland Park Roundabout, or gesturing somewhat smugly at similar billboards on the Cromwell Road section of the M4, stretching out towards Talgarth and ultimately Heathrow. It was that brand of unapologetic bigness which in part inspired me to move to London in the first place. This was not the local parish. You didn’t have to mind your “p”s and “q”s. You could be your real self. It was the eighties and you agree with me so stop pretending you don’t.)


But, as Eric Dolphy once sort of said, once the notes are in the air, they’re everybody’s. And The Prodigy are no exception; they are precisely what you make of them. What I make of them is that they are the best and most frightening British rock band since the Sex Pistols and simultaneously the funniest British rock band since the Bonzos (I’ll get back to the Vivian Stanshall/Keith Flint parallels later on in this tale) – though I note Simon Reynolds' astute summation of them as the new Sweet. What the much-missed veteran entertainer Des O’Connor made of them was that their first album, The Prodigy Experience, was his favourite album by anybody – he was inclined to give it a spin in his dressing room to pump him up before he went out on stage (good old Des; once regarded as the least cool inhabitant of the top twenty charts of the late sixties, his two favourite singles were “Louie Louie” and “Firestarter” and on Twitter he followed Jeremy Corbyn and Thundercat).


Of course, asinine music press popinjays ridiculed and derided Experience at the time of its release. It is far from a perfect album, largely because most of its hits are present only in remixed form – as with those previous Essex arty wideboys Procol Harum, who declined to include “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” or “Homburg” on their first album because, as Gary Brooker reasonably pointed out at the time, the band’s fans had already paid for those songs once – but it is great ,gleeful, collapsible trash, and you can ask little more from a pop album than that. In any case, the situation was resolved by the Expanded two-CD revised edition which appeared in 2001 and included single mixes, non-album B-sides and other stray tracks. That edition could pass adequately as the greatest of pop albums (although it was eventually superseded by entry #705). In addition, despite the ridiculous early nineties pageboy haircut, the younger Howlett seen on the album’s rear cover bears an alarming but logical resemblance to Alan Freeman.


Jilted Generation is a fecund fuckwhip of an album, and I speak as someone who had not listened to it for some time until yesterday evening – on the original cassette which was once glued into my Walkman (and, as with most of my cassettes, still plays perfectly). After the brief “Intro” – modified dialogue from The Lawnmower Man for copyright reasons (presumably the reason why Dan Charnas, now the Pulitzer Fellowship-winning Professor Dan Charnas, is thanked on the sleeve “for his invaluable assistance on the cinematic samples”) – we launch with scant pause for breath into the extraordinary “Break & Enter.”


Extraordinary because it still scares the bejesus out of me, as much as it did when I listened to it while roaming around the unpeopled streets of Pimlico early in the morning, in part walking to work. Much of what was then still called jungle worked in the same pieced-together-with-blunt-knives minimalist/maximalist sense. The drums are Etch-A-Sketch trembly. The bass is subatomic and therefore galactic. There was no uplifting reassurance, no motivational positivity – just an emphatic DOWNturn, rubbing one’s entitled nose in guttered groin. If the Tachbrook housing estate had a soundtrack it wouldn’t quite be The Prodigy – the euphoric ominosity of the Drum & Bass Selection 1 compilation on Breakdown Records would be more apt – but it certainly wouldn’t have been out of place.


There is no forgiveness existing within the merciless fibres of “Break & Enter.” You walk around the town and half the time expect someone to come up behind you and break your neck while you’re listening to the track. Its tinkly glockenspiel stabs you with icepicks rather than comforting you to slumber. An isolated female voice reiterates the plea “Bring it down to Earth” as though Major Tom were still attempting to come down – but this is sampled from “Casanova” by Baby D, who later in 1994 would keep the comeback single by the Stone Roses at number two behind a remix of the two-year-old “Let Me Be Your Fantasy” (Baby D’s singer was Dee-Galdes Fearon, the wife of Phil Fearon of Kandidate and Galaxy fame, and so that triumph can happily be read as the revenge of Britfunk). A limbless electric piano hovers into eventual view, like the sludge disclosing the remains of Get Carter. At eight minutes and twenty-four seconds, it is the longest track on the album, and its discrete distress could pervade forever.


“Their Law” predictably rocks more foursquarely, since it involves, in their only Then Play Long appearance, the great Pop Will Eat Itself. While everybody else was pretending to like The Stone Roses – which they weren’t, because I bought the only available copy of the LP in central London on the day of its release, priced rather steeply at £6.99 - This Is the Day...This Is the Hour...This Is This!, PWEI’s second album (which I bought on Walkman-friendly cassette, which I still own, on the same day), was infinitely more imaginative, entertaining and explosive (perhaps The Prodigy are the greatest and funniest British rock band since PWEI; who’s going to call that?). But “Their Law”’s dynamics, potential Essex Man spivness notwithstanding, are fierce and righteous.


“Full Throttle,” beginning with reversed Star Wars dialogue, sees an early appearance of Paula Yates’ “Hey!” sample (over a decade after the Art of Noise used it, but these influences do percolate down the generations) blended with a celestial nursery keyboard trying very hard not to play Joan Armatrading’s “Me, Myself, I” (how important is Thomas Dolby?) over a gulping swallow of a rhythm. “Voodoo People” cleverly manipulates the riff from Nirvana’s “Very Ape” and blends it with guttural flute and lively guitar from one Lance Reckless. “Speedway” keeps up the pressure – how ecstatically does this music all cumulate! – like a hyped-up “Autobahn.” The beats are by this point almost ahuman, the propelling compulsion unceaseable. This music has not aged.


Despite what the cassette track listing tells us, the first side actually closes with “The Heat (The Energy)” – commencing with a slow and patient sunrise (a rare chink of light on an album which is otherwise entirely set in the dark) before beats and accents are methodically added and a giant stirs to life. Side two gives us the hits – “Poison” setting the stage for Big Beat, the immaculate “No Good (Start The Dance),” perhaps the fastest song ever to make number four in the pop charts (think about that – number FOUR! – in a world currently being sunk under the pressure of wellermen), a list which does appear to be of another and very distant age. “One Love,” even in edited form, sends the Enigma template into sped-up orchestral hyperdrive.


After euphoria must come the comedown, hence the extended “Narcotic Suite.” In part one, Phil Bent, Jazz Warriors flautist, blows over a revamped Bernard “Pretty” Purdie sample (“Good Livin’ [Good Lovin’],” factoid fans) – have we suddenly entered a time loop and resurfaced in 1975 (and Nubya Garcia, Joe Armon-Jones etc. MUST have been listening) - or perhaps simply been beamed across the Atlantic towards the sunnier environs of this record's 1994 mirror, Ill Communication by The Beastie Boys? Presently, however, the second and third sections build up momentum again, like a skonking great nightmare suddenly rearing up its head to come and consume you loudly – and then the whole, glorious thing ends.


I recently took delivery of two volumes of compilations – London Pirate Radio Adverts 1984-1993 – which are exactly what they say they are, forty minutes per volume of advertisements reminding us of the blissful illegality of their times, yet still genuflecting with purpose towards the assumed shrine of capitalism. Mostly these are for DJ/club nights, few if any of which were located in the centre of London – outbacks (well, they were then) like Hackney, Stoke Newington, Peckham, East Dulwich, the Lea Valley. There are a couple of ads for dating services and some for shops (including one for a kebab shop, spoken in perfect Greek). Fling a couple of hundred quid at the raving wall and see how many punters stick. Classic tunes you’ve probably never heard of are cited. They didn’t give a toss about Madchester or New Punk or New Glam or Grebo or Britpop – these might all be on another planet as far as those audiences, those listeners, were concerned. I do not know whether we will ever get that tactile fantasy back. But this was the world in which The Prodigy, from Romford, made their fullest sense. A world which, again, attracted people like me towards London, thrusting towards something resembling a future. Music For The FUCK-YOU Generation. That’s more like it. 1970 what? Edgar who?