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When You Were Young aims to reclaim the music of our misremembered youths from the scratched mix-CDs underneath our car seats. Each edition will cover music the writer loved as a teenager before moving on to “cooler” music, whatever that means. This edition covers The Prodigy.
It is 1994 and I'm thirteen years old. As part of the UK's idiosyncratic boarding school system, it is time for me to start public school, which despite the name represents the affiliation of private, fee paying schools that process children from thirteen to eighteen. I'm not really worried about the boarding bit; I have in fact been doing that since I was seven years old, but the increase in size to the new school is a bit daunting. I will be one of 512 at this school (a number I am well aware is still fairly tiny) up from a mere 104 at my last. Divided down into 'houses' which are in turn paired up a male and female duos, the whole arrangement must come across as wholly peculiar to the outside world but it is all I know in educational terms.
The one immediate and lasting benefit of the increase in numbers is in music. There are enough people to support interest in a variety of genres and scenes, and as we are contained within a single place, we-- whether we like it or not-- get to experience it all. At the time I start school, Kurt Cobain has been dead for a few months and in the wake of this, Nirvana can still arguably lay claim to being the biggest band in the world. Supported by the rest of the grunge pantheon, it is unquestionably a big deal. Similarly, the category that will shortly be identified as Britpop is an increasingly commonly heard sound.
These however are not my sounds. My portable cassette player (and in those junior years portable players were all we were allowed) lives on a diet of electronic and dance music. I've always loved electronic music, all the way back to listening to my parent's copies of Oxygene and a copy of Kraftwerk's Man Machine my father had been encouraged to buy on recommendation and largely ignored until I found it again. As a thirteen year old, music is escapism, and there's something about electronic music that I find aids this escapism.
Fundamentally, I put this down to me being an almost entirely angst free teenager. I'm the product of a stable upbringing, I was privileged to enjoy a private education and while I was always the pudgy kid with crazy hair (I'm still two of these three things to be fair), I had little in my lot to be unhappy with. Ironically, as an adult with a child, mortgage and the various pains of being a functioning member of society, I have far more introspection and self doubt than I ever did as a teenager. EDM was the perfect foil for my mindset; music to have a good time to.
1994 was a good time for it too. Acts like The Shamen and The KLF brought dance music to a wider audience and supported by Utah Saints, Electroset, Opus III and dozens of others, it had become a broad church in its own right spanning from the rave scene to a point where it started to morph into something else. And right at that morph point was one of the most significant albums of the year; Music for the Jilted Generation by The Prodigy.
The Prodigy weren't new at that point. A flexible group of performers anchored around Liam Howlett, they already had one album under their belt in the form of The Prodigy Experience but this was firmly within the dance genre- a sound not too dissimilar to a number of other acts. Jilted Generation was something else, a huge sound that brought elements of rock, hip hop and dub into an album that was dance music but dance music that fans of those other genres could relate to. Tracks like Poison, with its loping 105bpm rhythm, were the sounds of a stadium rather than a warehouse while Their Law is the perfect feed for the adolescent fantasy of smashing 'the system' in the long held tradition of kids who've had a fortune lavished on their education rejecting the tenets of Capitalism. If a group of us couldn't decide what we were going to listen to, Jilted Generation could be relied upon to please more people than it didn't.
In time, other acts would join this crossover movement. Leftfield, Apollo 440, Faithless and the Chemical Brothers all hit the ground running and their work was added to my regular listening while existing acts like Orbital and Underworld adapted elements of this sound to their own. The Prodigy however went quiet. Poison was the last single from Jilted Generation and after that, there was nothing for a year. Behind the scenes however, The Prodigy were taking the concepts they'd established and started running with them. Keith Flint, formally employed as a stage dancer for the group came to the front of the act and guest instrumentalists and vocalists were used to broaden the sound. 1996 saw two singles- Firestarter and Breathe and we waited with baited breath for the album that partnered them.
The Fat of the Land appealed to a wider spectrum of my friends and year mates that any other album released in the time I was in school. Across ten tracks and just under an hour, it genuinely contained something for everyone. What is impressive and indeed faintly contradictory about that is that despite hopping tempos and genres, it sounded tight, cohesive and unbelievably exciting. By that stage, I was no longer in dorms of six and instead shared a room with a single year mate. I had accrued the funds working a holiday job in an industrial laundry to buy my first proper system and we played it to death.
What's interesting listening back to The Fat of the Land is that it manages to sound entirely of its time and outside time simultaneously. The two big singles are anchored in the nineties- tied to the events they were frequently used to portray- but the heavy, crunching beats of Diesel Power and Mindfields- direct evolutions of Poison don't really feel any of their nineteen years. In the middle of it sits Narayan fronted by Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker- a nine minute swooping epic of a track that sounds like almost nothing the Prodigy have done before or since but yet somehow sits in The Fat of the Land as naturally as anything else. Then, just when you think you've got it worked out, it closes with Fuel my Fire, a track that is pure unapologetic punk.
And for a time, it made The Prodigy one of the biggest bands in the world and an untouchable live act. Blending as they did elements of club, warehouse and stadium, their audiences were crazed mixes who came together in the same way that the albums did. I got to experience it at the Reading Festival in 1998 but the seminal example of what they were about is the MTV concert in Moscow in 1997. By the end of that, if Keith and Maxim had invited the audience to storm the Kremlin, they'd have probably done it.
As well as working beautifully as an album that was all things to all people The Fat of the Land also served as a fantastic jumping off point to explore the genres it borrowed from. My own musical horizons were broadening by this point and it was a short jump to UNKLE, Massive Attack, Nine Inch Nails and onwards into the 21st century. Choose your favourite track on it- and it could be any of them and there's five great albums that use that sound waiting to be listened to.
For The Prodigy themselves, the catch with The Fat of the Land was that having created the sound of a moment that was in itself several different sounds, following it up would prove to be almost impossible. Barring a Howlett mix album- the crude but fascinating Dirtchamber Sessions it would be seven years before another album appeared in the form of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, which lacking as it does any input from three of the four people that made The Fat of the Land is a very different sound. Happily, last year's The Day is my Enemy brought more than a little of the magic of The Fat of the Land back after a mere nineteen years away and apparently more work is in the pipeline.
In some ways though, it doesn't matter. The Fat of the Land is an album that grants the Prodigy a degree of immortality as the sound of mine and many other's teenage years. These days, I listen to music across genres and periods the teenage me would have considered truly bizarre but I'll never be without it.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.