Inside the album that launched a violent rave-punk siege on the mainstream…
Where were you the first time you heard The Prodigy's 1997 classic 'The Fat Of The Land'? Such is its pulverising anger and thundering beats, it's one of those albums that on first listen stops you dead in your tracks, lodging vividly in your memory. With the dance provocateurs on the cover of NME once more this week, here's the story of its creation. 18 years on, it still packs a punch...
The Prodigy’s 1994 second album, ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’, was thought of to be a response to the crackdown on the rave scene by the Conservative government of the time, which issued the Criminal Justice Bill the same year. Producer/leader Liam Howlett later said he thought the album’s title was “stupid”.
Its follow-up ‘The Fat Of The Land’ can be seen as an attempt by Howlett to distance The Prodigy from the politics of rave and attempt more of a universal ‘band’ album. Dancer Keith Flint made his vocal debut on the controversial lead single ‘Firestarter’, which gave the group their first Number One in the UK and, helped by the video, ensured they became a sensation in the States.
Third single ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, released five months after the album, was even more contentious than ‘Firestarter’, but it didn’t stop people buying the album, despite protests. It has now sold more than 10m copies worldwide.
Originally, the cover was going to be a doner kebab being roasted on a stick and branded with the name of the album. XL designer Alex Jenkins shot the image, then Howlett changed his mind at the last moment, forcing Jenkins to source the dancing crab photo, which he faxed to Howlett to approve. The claw was increased in size, making it look like the crab is sticking two fingers up to the world.
Keith Flint had a makeover for ‘Fat Of The Land’, shaving his long hair into dyed devil horns and creating his cartoon-like punk rock psychopath image in the process. Whether by design or not, he instantly became the Prodigy’s focal point, which undoubtedly helped the group cross over.
‘Fat Of The Land’ was influenced by hip-hop more than the previous two Prodigy albums, but it also makes one considerable nod to indie: ‘Firestarter’ samples The Breeders’ ‘S.O.S.’, resulting in Kim Deal getting a writing credit on the song.
The video for ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ portrayed a night of excess and violence perpetrated, in a twist, by a woman. It was twice debated on TV by the likes of art critic Brian Sewell and novelists Martin Amis and Will Self, the latter calling it “a bizarre mix of disgust and arousal”.
Second single, ‘Breathe’, was used by Dutch darts player Michael van Gerwen as his walk-on music up until 2012. He now uses ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes.
Many artists have covered ‘Firestarter’ including KISS co-founder/bassist Gene Simmons, who included a version on his 2004 second solo album, the appropriately titled ‘Asshole’.
The band said the repeated couplet “Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up” in ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, sampled from the Ultramagnetic MCs’ ‘Give The Drummer Some’, concerned “doing anything intensely”. Accusations of misogyny resulted in the BBC banning the song, and the Beastie Boys asking them not to play it at the 1998 Reading Festival.
Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith, a hero of Howlett’s, wrote all the lyrics for ‘Diesel Power’ and reportedly got paid $40,000 for his work on the album, including lines like “Yo, I used to check out lyrics and pump the format."
Flint owns a pub in Essex with an open fire. He recently said that every time he lights it and someone quotes a lyric from 'Firestarter', they have to donate a pound to charity.
The success of ‘Fat Of The Land’ put pressure on The Prodigy, who became a huge live draw in its aftermath. Dancer Leeroy Thornhill’s marriage to broadcaster Sara Cox broke down and he left the band, after which Howlett decided he needed a break too.
From 1999 to 2002, The Prodigy were on hiatus, returning with a poor single, ‘Baby’s Got A Temper’ and, in 2004, ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’, an album that didn’t sell as well as ‘Fat Of The Land’, but one that Howlett still ranks among his best work.
NME's review on release: “As righteous as Rage Against The Machine, as disturbed as Marilyn Manson and as rabid as Discharge, ‘Fat…’ will have all manner of people scrambling to declare it as the first block rockin’ post-Oasis amyl-techno-punk album. Which is precisely what it is.” (Paul Moody, June 28, 1997)
What we say now: Music fans are now genre-blind, making it hard to remember how revolutionary ‘Fat Of The Land’ was – ending up in the record collections of both rockers and ravers. The album’s colossal sales also change the fortunes of XL, a label that would go on to sign Dizzee, White Stripes, MIA and Vampire Weekend, becoming the most significant UK indie of the 2000s.
In their own words: “We’re a dance band with a rock attitude. That’s what sets us apart. We absorb hip-hop and dance beats, and rock attitude, plus the same energy and hard impact. That’s The Prodigy sound.” Liam Howlett, NME, 1996.