It starts with a riff: not a distorted guitar but a contorted squeal from a twisted fairground. It’s a riff nonetheless, the instantly sticky sign of an unstoppable hit single. Firestarter was one of the biggest pop-cultural events of 1996 and by the end of the year the Prodigy were one of the world’s biggest bands. The Essex four-piece’s first No 1 was a flashpoint of teen angst, TV infamy, moral panic and tabloid outrage, carried aloft by big-beat pyrotechnics and a lethal barrage of lyrical vitriol. “Ban This Sick Fire Record,” squawked the Mail on Sunday – but it was much too late.
The Prodigy were already a dominant force in pop. All but one of their singles since 1991 had made the Top 15, including 1991’s Charly, the cartoon-sampling hit that famously “killed rave”, according to clubbers’ bible Mixmag. Liam Howlett, the band’s musical engine, was bored with cranking out rave hits to a formula and started experimenting with elements of hip-hop and rock on their second album, Music for the Jilted Generation. Now the Prodigy were ready to reintroduce themselves as stadium-sized heroes with The Fat of the Land, taking dance music deep into the moshpit while promoting dancer-cum-hypeman Keith Flint to songwriter and vocalist. As an opening salvo, Firestarter was flamboyant, surreal, terrifying – and, like all the best pop songs, totally novel.
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