The best pop stars are cartoons – instantly recognisable, bright, bold and primary-coloured, and in their simplicity far larger and more thrilling than life. They’re walking logos, characters so distilled and potent that an illustrator can conjure them up with a few pencil-strokes; a comedian can do them with a wig, a couple of mannerisms, and a splash of eyeliner; and a little kid can recreate them as their outrageous party piece to delight their aunties and uncles. A theorist of the Camille Paglia school would consider these lurid pop culture figures to be part of our contemporary pantheon, the trickster gods and mischievous spirits who access the collective unconscious and lead us away from the monochrome quotidian. The truly great pop figures absorb and express a moment like nothing else can. They take us away.
Keith Flint of The Prodigy, who took his own life in Essex on Monday, was just such a brilliant cartoon. Known for his incendiary, grandparent-horrifying turn in the “Firestarter” video in 1996 and subsequently for a festival presence somewhere between a court jester and a mob orator, Keith was rave on legs. A capering monster of the id – part Johnny Rotten, part Smike, part Vyvyan from The Young Ones, and part Mr Toad – he incarnated the most absurd and electrifying aspects of the dance music experience which overturned our social order and our ideas of ourselves in the 1980s and 1990s.
Prior to The Prodigy’s ascent in the mid-90s, the people behind this most hedonistic of musics could be a paradoxically anonymous-looking bunch. Bald men pressed buttons and twiddled knobs while peacocking clubbers and gurning ravers were the true stars of the scene. By giving rave a face as extreme as The Prodigy’s sonics for “Firestarter” – and by throwing in hitherto anathematised elements of rock, punk and glam, too – Keith became the totem of a movement that cut across classes and genders. Never a singer, he instead barked genius nonsense (“I’m the fear addicted, danger illustrated”) over a string of Prodigy hits from “Breathe” to “Omen”, earning a notoriety no conventional leather-lunged dance diva ever could. When The Face magazine covered The Prodigy, it was Keith and not the complete band that they put on the cover.
And Keith was in some respects the reason The Prodigy existed at all. A disruptive, dyslexic working-class child whose parents split when he was young, he was expelled from school and drifted around Essex and east London as a teenager, ending up working as a roofer. If raving gave direction to a directionless life, Keith would inadvertently give direction to The Prodigy. After meeting fellow Braintree resident Liam Howlett at a rave in 1989, Keith demanded a mix tape from the young DJ. Howlett included some of his own tracks on a cassette with the name of his current synthesiser, “the Prodigy”, scribbled on it. The tape inspired Keith Flint and his friend Leeroy Thornhill to work out dance routines so that Howlett could perform club PAs of his material; thus The Prodigy were born.
After the novelty hit “Charly”, which sampled a notorious public information film for children, The Prodigy quickly revealed their hardcore side, not least on the 1994 album Music for the Jilted Generation, which connected to the alternative culture of free parties and anti-capitalism. They were to evolve into probably the most globally successful of the rave-era bands, selling an estimated 30 million records around the world.
Though he seldom wrote music except on The Prodigy’s later records – such as last year’s exemplary No Tourists – Keith’s instincts were a huge part of making the band the global concern it became. He imagined himself a rock star, just without the tedious business of learning to play a guitar. It was his out-there, Alice-Cooper-goes-Dennis-the-Menace persona that won over the Kerrang! magazine hard rock audience, and he would constantly coax Howlett to take the music harder, louder, more rock. The Prodigy could headline unabashed rock festivals like Download to such rapturous reception because of Keith. The rockers recognised in the raver something of themselves; the desire to go ever-higher and ever-harder.
Howlett never undervalued his non-singing, non-playing star. “As far as I am concerned Keith is the best performer in Europe,” Liam Howlett told me in 1997, when their album The Fat Of The Land had put The Prodigy at number one in America, their commercial zenith. “Since day one, you could always see that he would be a star. He always had this glowing personality.”
And he did. The twisted firestarter was privately the most personable and friendly of individuals. Imagine away the whatever-coloured hair, the gonzo eyeliner and the tattoos and you could be talking to a standard-issue quick-witted geezer from anywhere in Essex’s London diaspora. He was funny, warm and silly. And Keith remembered you. The first time I met him, in 1994, was on the Caribbean island of St Lucia. The Prodigy were shooting a video for “Voodoo People”, one of a salvo of singles that were to convince the studiously unimpressible music press that there was more to this band than comedy records featuring talking cats. Unused to the diet and climate, your correspondent picked up a local bug and spent much of the trip on the lavatory. When I met Keith again to interview him three years later, he greeted me with the cheery words “How’s your arse?”
It is distressing to imagine this indefatigable avatar of ’avin it descending to a place of self-erasure. It just does not seem right. How does someone so uncontrollably alive want to cease to be? Perhaps it was the downtime that his position within The Prodigy entailed. Keith did not appear on The Prodigy’s lacklustre 2004 album Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned and developed both depression and a prescription drug problem in the mid-Noughties. The band would not reconvene for another five years. In the time between records and tours Keith ran a pub, raced motorbikes, and cycled. Perhaps none of these things were enough. Perhaps nothing could be for a raver who climbed up onstage and never got back down again.
Andrew Harrison is a former editor of Mixmag, Q and Select
This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash