Keith Flint dies at 49: Larger-than-life frontman was arguably The Prodigy's most instantly identifiable element

Karan Pradhan

Mar 05, 2019 10:47:22 IST

A little over a decade ago, Zak Biddu, founder and managing director of music agency UKNY Music, was in India to lay the foundation for what would be British act The Prodigy's first (and thus far, only) foray into Indian territory — a tour aptly titled 'Invasion'.

"I returned to England," Zak told me in October 2010, "And was walking through London when I decided to text Keith Flint (vocalist/dancer, The Prodigy) and ask him if he wanted to go to India... My phone returned to my pocket and in around 10 seconds, Keith replies saying, 'YES YES YES!!'." Whether through his energetic live performances or the relatively shorn-of-emotion format medium of SMS, Flint was never one to live lower than top volume.

On Monday afternoon, news began trickling in that Flint had breathed his last at the age of 49. The Guardian reported that the Prodigy vocalist was found dead at his Essex home and that "[t]he death is not being treated as suspicious". The three-piece from Braintree in Essex (completed by fellow frontman Keith 'Maxim' Palmer and writer/producer/sampler/composer/etc Liam Howlett) was in the process of preparing for a US tour in May.

Note: The police official quoted by The Guardian stated that the death was 'not being treated as suspicious', while Howlett's Instagram post above claims Flint killed himself. This article will not focus on his death — considering, most importantly, that it would be to do the frontman a disservice as also the fact that I do not claim to know what happened — and will instead look at the memories he created for fans like me during his life. Shortly after the Instagram post, the band tweeted:

"Pioneer, innovator and legend".  You can't say much fairer than that.

Pioneer

Born on 17 September, 1969 in East London, Flint's life with The Prodigy began in 1990, as a founding member (alongside Howlett) and dancer Leeroy Thornhill (1990 to 2000), as a dancer. While Howlett's job was to throw together the tracks and perform them musically, Flint (and Thornhill) were tasked with whipping crowds into a frenzy with their moves. Fellow dancer Sharky (from 1990 t0 1991) and MC Maxim entered the fray shortly after.

The band would go on to put out the critically acclaimed Experience and Music for the Jilted Generation over the next four years. And all the while, Flint was sharpening his moves as a dancer — appearing as he did to be a mix between the Tasmanian Devil and a child who had ingested far too much sugar for his own. At certain shows, the diminutive frontman would roll onto stage in a zorbing ball and roll around throughout the show. But for those who thought colourful ol' Flint had played his best cards, he had a brand new trick to drop on unsuspecting audiences in 1996. Most ironically, the new trick would arrive in black and white.

Whether born out of a desire to do a lot more on stage or some genius behind the scenes, Firestarter would be one of four (Breathe, Serial Thrilla and Fuel My Fire being the others) tracks off The Fat of the Land on which Flint snarled, swore and spat out lyrics. The metamorphosis was complete and a band that had until then put out a few (admittedly, below average) music videos that for the most part depicted the band performing and dancing in a variety of locales through extremely colourful and dodgy filters had put out a stripped-down black and white video shot in an underground train tunnel.

But the sheer ferocity of Flint's iconic performance breathed more into that brief clip than R, G and their good pal B ever could. And in doing so, changed the public perception of what electronic music can look like and gave parents across the land a face to fear and from which to shield their impressionable little children. And if the protagonist's confession of pyromania wasn't enough, the lyrics "I'm the bitch you hated, filth infatuated..." forced the point through with all the subtlety of a sharp kick in the oompah loompahs. This was no ordinary electronic music act. And this was no ordinary dancer.

In 2002 came the news that the year's twin Reading and Leeds Festivals in the UK — that traditionally feature the identical lineups on different days of the three-day weekend — would see something of an aberration. While Day One at Leeds would see G'n'R headline the main stage with The Prodigy (known then simply as Prodigy) and The Offspring preceding it on the bill, the third day at Reading would only be treated to The Offspring and The Prodigy. As something of a consolation prize, festival-goers making their way to the Reading arena would get to see Raging Speedhorn way down the bill on that day.

Whether as a result of providence, good fortune or something completely unrelated, I found myself at the front towards the left-hand side of the stage at the completion of The Offspring's set at Reading. What came next was some of the loudest music I've ever heard live (that the hearing in my right ear is much worse than that in my left is your doing, Prodigy) with the blur of a man clad in red and black apparently having some sort of psychological breakdown mere feet away from me. There was something visceral, tribal and brutal in his movements that left a lasting impression on me and not once do I regret Axl Rose's compulsions that allowed The Prodigy, and Flint in particular, to walk away with the crowd securely in the back pocket of red and black trousers.

Innovator

Breathe was the second single from The Fat of the Land and its video — a bigger production than Firestarter — featured the band locked in a room, from what I could tell, confronting their demons and those of their fellow comrades. While most segments featured individual band members in the limelight with the others lurking around in the background, the onscreen dynamic, however, seemed to have evolved from The Prodigy's last video offering. Scenes that featured Flint and Maxim duelling, albeit with a wall between them, seemed to be mirroring the onstage dynamic between the two frontmen (as opposed to one frontman and a dancer).

Live performances would be fuelled by this good cop-bad guy attack. If Maxim was stalking the stage with all the elegance, athleticism and grace of a gazelle coupled with the danger of a panther, Flint was the gnashing, gurning and foul-mouthed pit bull (Note: If pit bulls could speak, I guarantee they would deal largely in all manner of expletives). Both would take turns to menace the audiences thronging their respective sides of the stage, before swapping across quickly, only to make an even speedier return to their own yards.

And as it would turn out, at 2011's Eristoff Invasion show in Bengaluru, I would once again find myself standing a few feet away from Flint. Gone were the red jacket and the black-and-red trousers, as the frontman opted for a more stripped down ensemble — white vest, suspenders and a dark pair of jeans held up by the spiky belt of yore, in a move that mirrored the band's own outlook post-Invaders Must Die. Long gone were the zorbing balls and elaborate stage setups. "We don’t do those things anymore. They were more gimmicks and enhanced our show in our earlier days. We’ve realised now that it’s more about the rawness of the show that matters and that those shows are the best ones," said Maxim in the months leading up to the India tour.

The magic would now lie in raw energy and spontaneity.

And as Howlett told me a week ahead of the band's India debut, "We think we know what we’re doing. We think we know what tracks we’re playing, but we want to be spontaneous with it all. That’s the thing about the band. None of it is choreographed or planned. In the middle of our gig, we might suddenly decide that we want to play another song and then do that instead. That’s the way we like to work and that’s the way it’s always been."

With the exception of a massive array of moving lights, The Prodigy's stage setup has since been threadbare. Besides, who needed props when you had one of the world's fiercest tag-teams creating all the drama on stage? When they weren't sparring verbally with each other, Maxim and Flint would be shadow-boxing (and kicking) — sometimes by themselves, sometimes with one another. And despite the presumably spontaneous mayhem unfolding in front of Howlett sitting serenely at the back surrounded by all sorts of music-making machines, there always seemed to be a great sense of purpose about each bit of action.

Not least of which was Flint, with maniacal blazing eyes and a massive grin across his face, generously extending an outstretched middle finger or two at his audience... repeatedly. "I'm clapping and cheering him and he's flipping me off," lamented, amid a hailstorm of cuss-words, a friend who attended the Bengaluru show. That's just Flint, I guess.

Legend

The 10th edition of the Download Festival (in 2012) would see Metallica and Black Sabbath headline the second and third days of what is arguably Britain's premier rock festival. The pick for first day headliner seemed a bit of a controversial choice, if the message boards were anything to go by. It seemed to be lost on those opposing The Prodigy's presence at the top of the bill that the band had actually performed at the 2009 and 2006 editions as well. But those appearances were on the second stage and smaller Snickers Stage respectively. Headlining the main stage would be a whole different kettle of fish.

Unsurprisingly and needless to say, the band's intensity won over the crowd and set a very high standard for bands over the next two days to follow. And at the heart of it all, of course, was Flint. Download promoter Andy Copping was quoted by Kerrang! as saying, "...Keith orchestrated everything, and he was the focal point of the band. When most people think of The Prodigy they think of Keith. If you go back to when that Firestarter video first came out, and when we all first saw it, the character that Keith plays in that, I think elevated The Prodigy from what they were to this iconic and original band."

Flint leaves behind the legacy of a man who arrived on the rave scene, saw it, took from it what he liked, threw out what he didn't and along with his cohorts, ended up changing the face of electronic music forever. Tributes have been pouring in ever since Monday afternoon and it's safe to assume they'll continue to do so for some time yet.

Updated Date: Mar 07, 2019 10:42:22 IST

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