It’s one of the most enduring images of 1990s pop culture, if not of the 1990s full stop: Keith Flint, in an abandoned London Underground tunnel, kohl-eyed stare fixed on the camera, dancing like a seizure, wearing a stars and stripes jumper, hair styled into two horns: “I’m the firestarter, twisted firestarter…”
This was menace. This was danger. This was rave music channeling the spirit – and the look – of punk. And in Flint, here was a techno Sid Vicious, a cyberpunk icon, a bogeyman for the Britpop years.
NME was there that day in March 1996, witnessing the birth of an icon. Writer Johnny Cigarettes observed how The Prodigy were “push[ing] the most blatantly charismatic quarter of the band into the spotlight,” noting that Keith’s “public profile is surely set to go ballistic in about two weeks.” He was not wrong.
Reports today, on news of Keith Flint’s death, have tended to describe him as The Prodigy’s singer. Really, he wasn’t quite that: he was something less, and something much, much more. He was their figurehead.
Flint hooked up with producer Liam Howlett on the rave scene. Both were regulars at The Barn in Braintree, Essex; a then-hippy-looking Flint was impressed by Howlett’s DJing and production and volunteered his services – along with those of his friend, Leeroy Thornhill – as dancers.
Just as early chart hits like ‘Charly’ led serious clubbers to write The Prodigy off as a novelty “toytown techno” act, Keith’s role in proceedings could too easily be reduced to that of a ‘Bez’, after the Happy Mondays vibes man.
But Keith saw value in what he did – dancer was a role he had invented for himself, and one he took pride in. As he told NME in 1994: “You could pay your 20 notes to see me sit behind a drumkit, right, Leeroy on guitar, and I could play along with no enthusiasm. People would still call me a musician. But instead, I’m out there havin’ it, screaming, ‘Come on you c*nts! Let’s fackin’ GO!’ What do you want? Entertainment, energy, some slammin’ sounds, something to look at, a lot going on, a real close vibe with the audience, or three musicians standing still?”
“Well, if that makes me Bez, then I’m proud to be a Bez.”
When NME spoke to Flint on the Firestarter set, he was under no pretences about being a ‘singer’. “We had no idea how it was gonna sound,” Keith said. “Because the only singing Liam’s ever heard from us is me and Leeroy singing U2 songs on the way home. We always harmonise on ‘One’, and instead of lighters, we light up our mobile phones and wave ‘em in the air.”
“It was so ridiculous because English isn’t my strong point, by any stretch of the imagination. So I ended up singing it in this weird accent, ‘Oi’m a muckspreaderrrrr, twisted muckspreaderrrrr.’ But it ended up sounding quite… menacing.”
Keith’s dancing, his way with an anecdote and his boundless energy made him a firm favourite among fans of the group long before the public at large took note. He was often happy to clown around – one NME writer witnessed him dropping his trousers and photocopying his arse in a Japanese print shop; for our Christmas 1995 issue, he and a writer went to Lakeside shopping centre to discuss all things festive, whereupon Keith revealed that he’d be spending Christmas Day playing ‘Naked Twister’. “You have to lather yourself up with baby lotion or something first and make sure you can slip into all the relevant positions,” he explained. “Clothed Twister just doesn’t have the same appeal.”
But for Flint and for The Prodigy, the effect of ‘Firestarter’, its Flint-fronted follow-up ‘Breathe’ and the attendant 1997 album ‘The Fat Of The Land’, each of which hit Number One, put The Prodigy up with the biggest acts of the Britpop era. Keith was to become public property, even tabloid fodder – a relationship with TV’s Gail Porter saw the couple branded “beauty and the beast”.
Keith’s hyperactive, devil-like persona was always counterbalanced by the fact that, really, he seemed like a sweetheart. Pre-mass fame, he told NME: “I get so many old dears coming up to me going, ‘Nice one, love yer hair, are you collecting for charity then?’ They love it, they know life’s too short so you might as well live it.”
But the ‘Mad Keef’ persona was, undoubtedly, rooted in reality. Flint was always an adrenaline junkie, always attracted to a fast life. A lifelong lover of motorbikes, he had, by 1995, had no less than 13 accidents. “The buzz of crashing is unreal,” he once told NME. “Everything goes slow motion. One of my best buzzes ever was going under a car.”
Raving had given him a similar buzz: he once said his first experience of drugs, at The Barn, left him feeling “like I want to do this forever,” but by The Prodigy’s imperial phase he was settling into a role as the wildest country gent in Essex, where he lived with half a dozen gun dogs and had a motocross course in his garden. “It’s every kid’s dream, innit?” he told NME. “That’s me, I’ve always been into things that move, I like movement… I’ve got a lot of energy and that energy works against me if it’s not channeled into something that’s semi-aggressive and exciting.”
And that is, arguably, what helped The Prodigy to where they are now, or were, until this weekend: a festival-headlining, arena-rocking, touring monolith. Though Liam Howlett is undoubtedly the brains, Flint – and fellow vocalist Maxim – gave audiences a show, helping to bring The Prodigy not just to mainstream fans, but to a niche audience among lovers of heavy metal, too: – they headlined Download Festival alongside Metallica and Black Sabbath in 2012, two years after they’d staged their own one-day electronic music festival, Warrior’s Dance, at Milton Keynes Bowl.
Outside of the group, Flint was a man with many passions, most of which he turned into business concerns. He had his own motorbike racing team, Team Traction Control, he kept horses, and he even had his own pub in Pleshey, Essex, where he was a familiar face to the locals. He worked on several musical projects of his own over the years but never quite found the right vehicle, be they the bands Flint and Clever Brains Fryin’ or isolated projects, like ‘War’, his 2012 collaborative single with Caspa.
The Prodigy remained a massive live draw right up to Keith’s death, thanks in no small part to his and Maxim’s fierce onstage chemistry and ferocious performances. Following recent shows in Australia and New Zealand, they were to tour America this month. They were also in a creative purple patch – their 2018 album, ‘No Tourists’, was awarded a full five stars by NME. It contained Flint’s vocals on ‘We Live Forever’, ‘Champions of London’, and ‘Give Me A Signal’.
Fans of the band will be reeling about how this seemingly happy-go-lucky man ended up taking his own life. They, doubtless, will share the feelings of Liam Howlett, who today described himself as “angry, confused and heartbroken” over the death of his friend.
In an era of big musical personalities, but working in a genre famed for its lack of them, Flint gave the rave scene a recognisable face and voice.
He’ll be remembered as that scary bloke in the tunnel, sure, but there was more to him than that.
“I’m not out to be scary, that’s the thing,” he once told NME. There’s just something a little bit twisted about me…” A frequent theme in his interviews was a love of performance. “That is what I was born to do,” Keith told NME in 2002. “I know that sounds a bit shit, but that is what I was here to do. It’s where my head’s happiest, it gives me the ultimate direction. I’m very lucky, I’m not one of these people that’s 30 years of age thinking, ‘Why am I here? Why am I married? Why am I in this environment with this here and that there and getting in me Mondeo to sell fucking computers?’ …I know why I’m here. I know what I do. I’m happy with my life and that gives me that. It’s my therapy.”
For help and advice on mental health:
- ‘Am I depressed?‘ – Help and advice on mental health and what to do next
- Help Musicians UK – Around the clock mental health support and advice for musicians
- Music Support Org – Help and support for musicians struggling with alcoholism, addiction, or mental health issues
- YOUNG MINDS – The voice for young people’s health and wellbeing
- CALM – The Campaign Against Living Miserably for young men
- Time To Change – Let’s end mental health discrimination
- The Samaritans – Confidential support 24 hours a day