March 22, 2006
When the Prodigy became the only group in 1997’s press-fueled electronica wave to even sort of blow up in America, it was because they were musically and culturally closer to White Zombie than they were to Daft Punk: ridiculously theatrical but thoroughly meaningless lyrics, a live show centered around freaky/deranged frontmen even more than pretty lights, tracks that built into visceral climax-punches instead of blissful monotony. When they became the first group I fell in love with in high-school after the mall-punk thing got played out, the robotic lockstep was part of the appeal, but so were the straight-goofy evil-clown frontmen and the frantic violence of the tracks. That supercharged intensity is what made Music for the Jilted Generation my favorite-ever dance album: the sound of bottles breaking as percussion, evil-paranoid synth riffs piling up, no space between the beats. It’s harrowing. The Fat of the Land went a bit far with all its stabs at rock-crossover appeal (and L7 cover, the guy from Kula Shaker guesting), but if they hadn’t taken seven years to drop a follow-up, they might still be stars in America. Rap-metal might’ve never happened. The set they played at a DC radio-station fest nine years ago remains one of the greatest arena-rock moments I’ve experienced: Howlett hidden behind huge banks of mysterious gadgets, Keith Flint crawling around on the floor snarling, Maxim Reality yelling: “There are fifty thousand people here, and you can’t make more noise than me?”
Certainly, the crowd at last night’s Nokia Theatre show looked more like the parking lot of my high school at lunchtime in 1997 than like a New York dance club in 2006: Manic Panic, tall vinyl boots, JNCOs, fishnets worn on arms, urban camo. When he heard that the Prodigy wouldn’t be coming on until ten, the guy sitting next to me suggested that they replace the opening-act DJ playing lukewarm progressive house with a TV: “They could show The Matrix!” All evidence showed that most of the crowd would’ve been absolutely down with that. The funny thing is that it would’ve been fine with me, too; few things are more tedious than wandering around the Nokia Theatre, forbidden to leave and come back, dodging asshole security guards and wondering whether it would be a good idea to drop $7.95 on a shrink-wrapped smoked turkey and brie sandwich (answer: no). After a while, the house guy was replaced with another DJ, who started out playing Metallica’s “Blackened” uninterrupted, which was nice, and then went into a set of witless big-beat, which was not. After all these years, the Prodigy should realize that they don’t make dance music, at least not as far as their audience is concerned. They’re a rock band, and they need rock openers.
All was forgiven, though, when the group actually took the stage, atmospheric synth-noises blaring, the bassline to (I think) “One Love” kicking in, lights flashing everywhere, crowd going apeshit. The audience was utterly suburban, of course, and that was great, since suburban kids still go hard at live shows. The hairstyles have slightly changed, but Maxim Reality and Keith Flint still make for perfect cartoon-menacing hypemen. Reality rocked a weird military waistcoat, gold fronts, and a ridiculous silver painted-on R. Kelly Mardi Gras mask. He still karate-kicks the air when the beat kicks in, and he still spouts absolute nonsense over the tracks. During a song that I guess had a Dead Kennedys sample: “Dead Kennedys! Fucking Dead Kennedys!” Introducing “Breathe”: “When times get hot, you have to inhale! You have to exhale!” It’s true! Keith Flint, who made the inexplicable decision to hang a Confederate-flag bandana out of his back pocket, said nothing when he wasn’t mewling his lyrics, instead bouncing up and down and doing the Triple H water-spit and charging into the crowd, jumping up on the railing right in front of me during “Smack My Bitch Up” and shakily striking poses while security guards held him up. This stuff makes for great spectacle, just as it did eight years ago. In fact, the only differences between their old live show and their current one are a few weak-ass new songs and a couple of thoroughly needless musicians. Back in the day, a guitarist would only emerge from the wings during “Voodoo People” and “Their Law,” the only songs with actual guitars. These days, their guitarist comes out and strikes poses for the entire show, even though you can almost never actually hear him. Worse, there’s a drummer now, and he apparently feels that the one thing missing from the group’s arena-rave bangers are drum fills; he is wrong. Still, for all its inane theatrics, the Prodigy’s live show makes for a dizzily fun adrenaline-blast, and I hope the growing 90s-nostalgia market keeps them coming back. If Rob Zombie still has a career, there’s no reason that Liam Howlett shouldn’t.