The Prodigy's The Fat Of The Land at 25: the electronic punk record that put a bomb under heavy music

The Prodigy 1997
(Image credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The world's longest-running weekly music show, Top Of The Pops was never exactly a hotbed of subversion. The TV show's most iconic moments - from David Bowie performing Starman in July 1972 through to Nirvana's November 25, 1991 desecration of Smells Like Teen Spirit - gained infamy precisely because they were such a jolt to the senses on a programme regarded as a national institution.

Which might help explain why being confronted by the sight of a twitching, lairy man with a strip of hair shaved from the centre of his head stomping up and down an abandoned London Underground tunnel waggling his pierced tongue down the camera lens caused such outrage when the British public settled down for tea in front of Auntie Beeb's flagship music show on March 28, 1996. 

A record number of complaints followed, and as the song began a three-week residency at the top of the national singles chart, the tabloid press and a number of English MPs expressed alarm at what potential messages this self-professed 'Twisted Firestarter' might be imparting to the nation's youth. As a teaser of what was to come with The Prodigy's third album, it could hardly have been more impactful.

A veteran of the underground rave scene whose healthy distrust of authority and love of punk rock and hardcore hip-hop infused The Prodigy's second album, 1994's Music For The Jilted Generation, Liam Howlett remembers the creation of Firestarter with dancer-turned-vocalist Keith Flint as "a special moment."

"I remember driving back to Essex from London after recording Keith’s vocals and we played that shit over and over again," he recalled in 2018. "We knew it would change things. But we didn’t know it would change to the extent where Keith couldn’t walk down the street or walk into a pub without someone going, ‘Oi! It’s the Firestarter!’ But it gave us more strength to know who we are, and who we didn’t want to be. It gave us something to rebel against again.”

Nowadays, when we tune in to music, carefully manicured algorithms offer up songs which fit our natural rhythms and sit comfortably and seamlessly alongside our tried-and-trusted favourites for a smooth, linear, non-challenging listening experience. When it arrived on June 30, 1997 via XL Recordings, The Fat Of The Land was, in contrast, pure smash and grab. The aural equivalent of a bank heist, it found Liam Howlett pocketing a clutch of influences from the worlds of dance, rock and hip-hop and, aided by a supporting cast of like-minded mavericks, uniting them to create a fierce, confrontational sound that's since been ripped off countless times, but never repeated. 

A tour through the album's three singles gives a flavour of its appeal. Each song is thunderously heavy in its own way but all of them bark with the creators' twisted sense of humour. Breathe followed Firestarter to the top of the UK charts in November 1996. This time, Howlett paired Flint on vocals with MC Maxim Reality, whose snaking body paint and fish-eyed contact lenses also gave him the appearance of an entity beamed down from another planet to remind us all how music can transport you to a different place. Backed by Howlett's ominous keyboard strokes, DJ Shadow-esque drum patterns and squeaking samples that repeated like a glitch in the matrix, Breathe freaked out fewer people than its predecessor, while delighting many more. The Prodigy's momentum was building.

The album's third and final single, Smack My Bitch Up, arrived one year later, seemingly intent on pouring petrol on the blaze that Firestarter first kindled. This time, the song and its controversial, Jonas Åkerlund-directed video – which followed a party girl on a gleefully hedonistic night out, shot from the protagonist's point of view – were banned from many TV and radio outlets, with the band eventually forced to declare that the track's title and lyrical refrain were absolutely not advocating violence against women. For by the time it emerged, The Prodigy were no longer an underground dance crew, but bonafide global superstars, with a platform to match, after The Fat Of The Land topped charts in the UK, US, Australia, Germany and a host of other European nations. 

Such was the mainstream success of its three singles, that it's easy to forget that The Fat Of The Land is more than just a presentation case for Firestarter, Breathe and Smack My Bitch Up. From the futuristic hip-hop of Diesel Power and the Beastie Boys-sampling Funky Shit to the hypnotic Climbatize and the blistering, album-closing, cover of L7's Fuel My Fire, there is power and passion in every beat.

Fuel My Fire is a fitting conclusion for The Fat Of The Land. L7 vocalist Donita Sparks' lyrics seem to articulate the frustrations Howlett has voiced in interviews down the years: despite the epochal impact that his music has had on the British music scene in particular, The Prodigy often remain tolerated rather than recognised as one-offs, leaving them as at-best misunderstood and at-worst dismissed, possibly because they never even flirted with being part of the establishment.

While Oasis cosied up to New Labour only a couple of years after The Prodigy's Their Law had expressed its contempt for the Criminal Justice Act, Howlett refused be sucked into the machine: "None of the success ever went to our heads," he insisted. "We weren’t interested in being rock stars, we were totally grounded. We always felt like any of us could have jumped out of the crowd on to the stage. That punk rock thing, without us ever thinking about it being punk rock. We just wanted to keep it real. It’s important for us to stay on a knife edge."

The Prodigy's next 'proper' studio album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, wouldn’t arrive for another seven years: ripping up the blueprint once more, it relegated the estranged Flint and Maxim to appearances on remixed bonus tracks. The approach was somewhat forced upon Howlett - he and Flint in particular were barely communicating - but it showed once again that The Prodigy were nobody's puppets.

Not that Howlett wanted to disown what came before, for on The Fat Of The Land, the convergence of their creative powers and radical energy did more than start mosh pits at rave gigs: it showed that true originality and subversive thinking can't be suppressed. Anyone looking for music that makes them feel like they belong, could do worse than listen to this still incendiary blast of outsider art.

A long-time contributor to Kerrang! and feature writer for Noisey, Fightland and more, punk rock lifer Alistair Lawrence wrote the acclaimed Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World in 2012. Hopefully Ridley Scott will forgive him for accidentally blanking him in one of the studio’s hallways, should they ever meet again.