The Prodigy's Liam Howlett On Music For The Jilted Generation

20th anniversary Spotlight special...

F*ck them, and their law, indeed. What was then could be no more. Stasis meant death, and after riding rave into the mainstream, going top-five with debut 1991 single ‘Charly’, The Prodigy knew it. Change was needed. Quickly. Time to tear up the rulebooks.

“We were in America, supporting (debut album of 1992) ‘Experience’, and we found ourselves at a bit of a crossroads,” remembers the band’s key creative core, songwriter Liam Howlett. “It was a really important time for us. To be honest, I’d reached the point where I wasn’t feeling rave anymore. We thought about whether or not to break the band up – we wondered if ‘Experience’ was all that we could do.

“I remember hearing Rage Against The Machine while in America, and feeling that, suddenly, music was opening up that little bit wider for me. It came down to me to push the music, once we’d got home. As soon as we did get back, I think the first thing I wrote was ‘Voodoo People’, or ‘Their Law’.

“I was feeling free – free of the rave BPMs, and feeling slightly rebellious against it. Rave had turned into something that we didn’t like. I remember standing on stage in Scotland, at a rave, and it just felt silly. I was like: ‘What the f*ck am I doing here? I’m not into this. It’s now so far from what it was.’ That made me want to do something different.”

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‘Their Law’ (live in 2010)

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And so the foundations for ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ were laid. Alongside MC Maxim Reality, dancer-turned-vocalist Keith Flint and then-member Leeroy Thornhill, Howlett was about to realise not only the greatest record of his band’s continuing catalogue, but perhaps the most important dance album of the 1990s. ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ came out through XL Recordings in early July 1994, and raced to the number one spot on the UK chart. The Essex-based act had come of age and no mistake – and what’s more, they’d created something unexpectedly timeless in the process.

“‘…Jilted’ is the fans’ favourite, I think,” says Howlett, speaking to Clash from his studio, where work is underway on what will be The Prodigy’s sixth album proper, a follow-up to 2009’s generally well-received ‘Invaders Must Die’ (review). “It’s certainly the one that English fans like the most. People here always talk about our early stuff – and it all leads on, everything leads on. It influenced people, just as we were influenced by Shut Up And Dance, people like that, early on in the London breakbeat scene. But you’ve got to remember, ‘…Jilted’ didn’t just come out of nowhere.”

It certainly didn’t. Prior to the album’s release, The Prodigy’s new direction, a measured step away from straightforward rave dynamics, was showcased across a series of tracks and singles. ‘One Love’ was first out, in September of 1993, just a few months after the final ‘Experience’ single, ‘Wind It Up (Rewound)’, had arrived in stores. ‘One Love’ began as a white label, with Howlett keen to test his audience: with The Prodigy’s name, and reputation, removed from the equation, could this music find its mark?

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‘One Love’

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“I think it went to number one in the Mixmag white labels chart or whatever,” remembers the producer. “We had some fun with that. It proved that we weren’t all about the name, and any backlash against us was people being f*cking snobs.” Those who’d decided that The Prodigy was not for them were put in the minority when ‘One Love’ was followed by ‘No Good (Start The Dance)’, which went top-five in May 1994. Bearing breakbeat hallmarks amid its bouncy jungle rhythms, the track served as a valuable bridge between then and now.

Says Howlett: “It felt like we were carrying our old fans through to the next phase. We didn’t just drop ‘…Jilted’ and they didn’t know what the f*ck was going on – there was definitely that link through, with ‘No Good’. And then every tune we released was hitting back at aspects of the dance scene. ‘No Good’ was kind of my shot at the shit Euro stuff that was around at that time – it was my way of saying, ‘This is how we do it.’”

‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ opens, after a cinematic intro, with ‘Break & Enter’, all thundering bass and shattering percussion, set against suitably hyperactive melodies. But it was what came next that properly shook The Prodigy’s trademark sound up. ‘Their Law’, recorded with Pop Will Eat Itself, was something else, something new.

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‘No Good (Start The Dance)’

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Knowing that Howlett had been inspired by rock sounds from the States, one can today connect those dots and come up with why ‘Their Law’ grinds like it does. Here’s a dance band, with massive great guitar riffs all over their track. Here’s a studio project, whose only live presence (previously) was in the rave scene, getting grimy and taking things back to the clubs. And by doing so, it opened the door for other dance acts to ‘go live’ in some style – this is, no doubt, the beginning of stadium dance, of acts like The Prodigy not just playing famous mainstream festivals, but headlining them.

“I hate that idea of us becoming this big dance band,” says Howlett, “but you’re right. ‘…Jilted’ took us to Glastonbury – we played the NME stage on that record.” This summer, The Prodigy top the bill at several festivals across the world, including the rock-dominated Sonisphere in the UK (“we fit more comfortably within a mixed bill”), Bilbao BBK Live in Spain, and Sziget in Hungary. “Today, that’s what we’re about, these big shows.”

Back to 1994. The next single from ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ – which rightly earned itself a Mercury Prize nomination, losing out to M People’s ‘Elegant Slumming’ (still, even now, what?) – was ‘Voodoo People’, another of the songs Howlett set about writing first. It blends a jungle vibe with a sampled riff from Nirvana’s ‘Very Ape’, again exhibiting the band’s increased rock influence.

The single is notable for altering the history of another great British dance act, The Chemical Brothers. Their B-side-featured remix was submitted under the duo’s original Dust Brothers moniker, but when ‘Voodoo People’ got its US release through Mute, the stateside Dust Brothers, producers behind classics like Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’, decided they weren’t having that. So, their name was changed, and those block-rockin’ beats would always come with a chemical taste, rather than any dusty residue. And then came ‘Poison’, a song the band still wheels out for its live shows 20 years on from its writing.

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‘Poison’

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‘Poison’ brings Maxim to the fore. “Jungle was happening,” recalls Howlett, “so we put out ‘Poison’, which was really different. It really slowed things down. We were really happy with it – it stuck out as something we’d really never done before. I remember there being all this shit in the dance world at the time, all this stuff from Europe. Euro techno, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t recall specific records, but there seemed to be this rise. So we rebelled against that to try to set ourselves apart. It was, like, the rave scene had gone, so we wanted to prove to people that we were our own thing.”

Part of redeveloping The Prodigy’s identity meant the foursome going on tour – properly on tour, like a proper band would. “We went back into the clubs,” says Howlett. “I remember the gigs going from small ones to much bigger venues. When we started, we were playing these big rave parties to like 20,000 people. But just before ‘…Jilted’ we went back to playing universities and colleges. We got on that circuit to try to break it like a band. So we didn’t have the parties anymore – we basically started again. And that was part of the process of ‘…Jilted’ building so strongly.

“DJs were beginning to play our music alongside the rock stuff of the time, and we got a big student following from plugging around universities and colleges. It all seemed to gel together. It was a very transitional period for us.”

‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ began as ‘Experience’ hadn’t – as an album from the outset, rather then simply a collection of tracks. “It almost fell into a bit of a concept album,” Howlett tells us, “though I’m glad I didn’t go too far down that road with it.” He played around with the set’s sequencing, shuffling his pack before eventually having his hand forced by the limitations of the CD format. “It’s a really f*cking long record, but even as it is, it’s after a couple of edits, to fit onto a CD. I listened to Zane Lowe play the whole album on Radio 1 a few years back, as part of his Masterpieces series, and it just went on forever. I was driving from Essex to London, and I couldn’t believe it. Every track is like six minutes. I can’t write tracks that last six minutes anymore!”

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‘Voodoo People’ (live in 2008)

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With 20 years of hindsight in hand – “I didn’t know it was 20 years until you just said it… frightening” – Howlett can reflect on the album with a rather more objective perspective than he could at the time of its release. “I feel pretty good about it. It doesn’t feel too dated. It feels good, y’know? The first album feels of its time, and locked into the rave era. I think ‘…Jilted’ reached that bit further.

“It all seems to gel together pretty well. I think ‘One Love’, we could have binned that. We released that track because there was a backlash, as there always is, where people were saying that we’d sold out, or whatever. Of course, then there was this whole ‘fight the party’ thing, which we got roped into, this fight the party bill (The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994). It’s funny, because the inside cover art, that was just a coincidence. Nobody knows that. But people read into it that it was connected to that protest, that was going on. But it’s not connected at all. It was just what we wanted on the cover.

“So, I would have shortened it, given the chance. I might still do an edit, but who cares? I listened back to it, and that’s the only thing – it’s too long! (It’s 78 minutes, so yeah, maybe.) But I guess that stems from the rave thing – I let bars go on for too long, when they could have been edited. But the cover is alright, the sleeve is alright. People don’t give a f*ck about covers anymore, but in those days… To be honest, ‘…Jilted’ isn’t one of my favourite sleeves, but people seem to like it. Everything you see is the effort of the band to get things right.”

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‘Break And Enter’ (live at Glastonbury Festival, 1995)

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As striking as the ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’’s art and design is, alongside its musical contents, the iconic aesthetic of The Prodigy would be confirmed two years after the album’s release, when March 1996’s ‘Firestarter’ took Keith, and the band he was now ostensibly fronting, into a whole new stratosphere of public recognition. The group’s first number-one single, its success was driven by a most striking video.

“We’ve always hated doing music videos,” says Howlett. “What it is, I guess we’re all in control of the music, but when you’re doing a video, you’re not. Back in those days they cost a lot more than they do now; whereas today you can do good things for a lot less money. You can make a great video today for f*ck all. Back then, there were tens of thousands of pounds being thrown around, and then you’d see the video and I’d turn around and go, ‘Nah, bin it.’ They’d remind me how I pay half of it, but it had to be right.

“We binned the original ‘Firestarter’ video, and that’s why what came out was black and white. There were a few others, too. That video’s success is all Keith’s fault – he bought that (stars and stripes) jumper. The original video is out there somewhere. XL has probably got it somewhere.”

In a vault, perhaps, beside the too-long mixes of ‘…Jilted Generation’ and who knows what else. The Prodigy have been around long enough to have generated a catalogue that reaches deep and wide, extending tendrils into all manner of stylistic crannies and, usually, pulling out solid-gold tracks to call their own. And while Howlett’s been at this since 1990, his enthusiasm for the music business – or, at least, for the creative side of it – hasn’t dimmed in the slightest.

“It is still exciting. The business has changed, true. People just need to dig a bit deeper, is all.”

Through the soot and the dirt, the mud and the blood. All the way to 1994, and work your way back up.

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Words: Mike Diver

Find The Prodigy online here

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