Keith Flint, 1969-2019: Rest in Punk

The face of the Prodigy is dead at the age of 49

Keith Flint

In the fall of 1995, as music director of my college radio station, I attended the CMJ Music Marathon college radio festival in New York City. I’m sure I went to numerous panel discussions (and I remember being at David Bowie’s keynote), but only specifically recall one: it was about electronic/dance music music and “where do we go from here,” essentially. Moby was one of the panelists, along with some industry folks. And this then-25-year-old from a tiny station, town, college in the rural midwest suggested that the music would never get bigger without more media coverage. I suggested that I might never have heard of Moby — certainly not prior to getting into college radio — without reading about him in the pages of Rolling Stone, and that that kind of exposure was the key. Sure, people on the coasts could easily find out about electronic artists, but not those of us stuck in landlocked flyover country.

Flash forward less than 24 months, to the summer of 1997: the Prodigy’s Keith Flint made the cover of Rolling Stone (the famed “Hot Issue,” no less) right around the week that their third album, The Fat of the Land, entered the Billboard 200 album chart at #1. The video for the album’s first single, “Firestarter,” had already been all over MTV, and follow-up “Breathe” was in MTV’s top 15 the same week the album launched atop the chart. Both prominently featured vocals by Flint, his first ever with the Prodigy, having previously “just” been a dancer onstage with Liam Howlett’s techno/rave group. With The Fat of the Land, however, they became something else entirely: not only world-straddling colossuses, but breakbeat-wielding punk rockers. Sure, Flint had his reverse mohawk, but that wasn’t the only reason the BBC’s Top of the Pops reportedly received more complaints than at any time in their history after the “Firestarter” video was aired: Flint, newly pushed to the front of the group, scared people.

The Prodigy on the cover of Melody Maker, April 1 1995

Between his heavily kohled eyes and numerous piercings, his Billy Idol sneer and reverse mohawk, Flint came off as a cross between Pennywise the clown and Johnny Rotten in his Sex Pistols prime. It wasn’t just his looks, either; it was his attitude. Keith Flint was pure punk, and he was bringing it to the mainstream, into living rooms around the world. It wouldn’t have meant a thing were it not for Howlett’s aggressive breakbeats to back him up, but conversely, said beats needed someone like Flint to push them over the top. “I’m the troublestarter/Punkin’ instigator” were the first words Flint said to the world — and the world went crazy.

That same summer, not only did they triumphantly headline Glastonbury, but the Prodigy also headlined the American Lollapalooza tour. I saw one of the shows (here’s the setlist from the date prior to the one I saw), and they, of course, killed. The rock-inclined audience — most of whom seemed to be there to see KoRn and Tool — wasn’t sure what to think initially, but were won over by Howlett’s slam-bang beats and Flint’s irrepressible stage presence. And I can’t emphasize enough: he was punk as fuck. He really didn’t seem to care what you, or anyone, thought. He did his thing and did it superlatively. Onstage, at least, he was not only great, he knew he was great.

Keith Flint on the cover of The Face, July 1996

After a several-year break (don’t call it a break-up) with Howlett, Flint returned to the Prodigy fold in full effect for 2009’s Invaders Must Die, and continued co-writing and singing tracks on all of their albums since. On their seventh studio album and first in three years, 2018’s No Tourists, the band sound(ed) just as intense and fiery as they had for most of the past 26 years, since their debut Experience was released in 1992. And it was their seventh consecutive #1 studio album in their native UK (including 2005’s Their Law comp). I’d argue No Tourists their best and most vital-sounding record since The Fat of the Land, in fact. What the world needs now, at this fucked-up moment, is more that sounds like the Prodigy. If we’re gonna go down, let’s go down swinging — and the Prodigy, especially with Keith Flint in front of ‘em, were the perfect soundtrack for troubled times.

Flint took his own life over the weekend at the age of 49. If you are in the US and considering suicide or just need to talk with someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, you can contact Samaritans at 116 123.  

 

Thomas Inskeep

Rock and Roll Globe contributor Thomas Inskeep is a pop critic with three different music blogs, and a former contributor to Stylus, Seattle Weekly, and SPIN. He lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow him on Twitter @Thomasinskeep1.

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