July 31, 2017 | by Jeffrey Thiessen
Prodigy’s 1997’s The Fat of the Land was the chief representative of a small but hard-hitting nirvana of electronic music raiding the mainstream, when everything sort of tipped and all alternative acts that weren’t nailed down… well, they probably slid and fell into collaborations with any one of those big beat electro-acts pummeling speakers around the late ’90s. If you don’t believe me, just check out the Spawn soundtrack, where this movement hits automaton, perverse levels on every single track. Speaking of that, how the hell did an electronica outfit like Sneaker Pimps manage to pull off a halfway decent tune with the sequencer-heavy Marilyn Manson?
But seriously, what a strange decade. After scorch-earthing all the ‘80s hair bands, the early ‘90s grunge scene wilted into itself halfway through the decade, and all of a sudden this computer music started invading and killing without mercy. Its arrival wasn’t inchoate either; when it hit our airwaves, it felt like they were itching to assault us for years. Without any warning, all of a sudden the brilliant Chemical Brothers single “Setting Sun” smacked us in the face. The Crystal Method weren’t far behind with their hedonistic Vegas album (and the “Trip Like I Do” collaboration with Filter on that damn Spawn soundtrack). But when The Prodigy arrived with The Fat of the Land (all of these came out in 1997, indisputably the crowning year for big beat), it sort of had the feeling of a returning champion showing up to casually claim his throne.
To be fair, The Prodigy had been around for a while before FOTL came out. Three years prior, in 1994, they released Music for the Jilted Generation, which many (read: most) Prodigy fans view as a stronger album. But no matter — by this point the wolves were circling, and in a rabid bidding war, Madonna’s Maverick Label claimed the golden goose for their next release. I’m not sure which I found more pathetic: the preemptive worship of an electro-act with a leering Johnny Rotten wannabe as their frontman (but more on that in a bit), or the archetypal releases by Madonna and U2 over the next two years trying haplessly to latch onto this new trend that seemed to give the green light that yes, electronic music was now cool. Still, The Fat of the Land (and to a larger extent, Vegas and Dig Your Own Hole), sounded fucking great loud, so I didn’t rag on 'em too much, although I would always insist on listening to the Spawn soundtrack over U2’s Pop. Still would, given the choice. Kind of a no-brainer.
Without fear of contradiction, it can be argued that The Fat of the Land has aged the most poorly out of the three seminal big beat albums mentioned here. It also was inferior at the time of release, but it's not terribly difficult to discern why The Prodigy was the flagship act of those weird times. Yes, Liam Howlett will never write anything close to as good as Chemical Brothers’ "Where Do I Begin." But it didn’t really matter. He understood The Prodigy were rock stars, and The Crystal Method, while probably sounding amazing at a rave, were just two nameless Americans who could walk down any major street without being asked to share a joint. Hell, I even knew the name of the dancer in the group, who did exactly jack shit musically.
This is important. The Prodigy wasn’t actually a band — everybody knew it was Howlett, and whoever else he invited on the track. But he understood what those other acts didn’t, perhaps couldn’t: be louder than your contemporaries and when your stuff sucks, make sure people at least think you’re a goddamn rock ‘n’ roll band. Chemical Brothers sure as fuck aren’t. All of a sudden, you’re drowning out those big beats of “Setting Sun,” which should make no sense since they got a Gallagher brother for vocals on that single, and it was one of the strongest tunes of that decade. It simply didn’t matter. The Prodigy were wildly brilliant in regard to bridging that gap between dorky knob twiddlers and rock ‘n’ rollers/firestarters. Why play EDC when you can headline Glastonbury? If nothing else, this made the transition for us easier. Shifting from Soundgarden to The Prodigy was certainly a stretch, but with drugs, huge speaker systems, and proper band optics, the leap wasn't impossible.
The Fat of the Land wasn’t quite The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle level of insouciance. But it wasn’t far off from something like Ocean’s 12. In hindsight, it’s not overly difficult to note that, while they weren’t laughing at us, they definitely weren’t laughing with us. That isn’t to say the music was lame or easy to mock. “Smack My Bitch Up” is a positively insane opener, actually managing to do the near impossible by reigning in a fairly lunatic Kook Keith verse and making this berserker track one of their best. “Breathe” follows. Although it’s a fantastic, driving single that somehow managed to tap into the frayed pulse of the entire numbed-out youth audience desperate to latch onto anything that resembles the twitched out hedonism they felt was owed to them, it’s really pretty formulaic, if you can get past Keith Flint’s faux-maniacal ramblings (it’s not difficult). It actually follows the age old verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus routine pretty faithfully. There likely was some sort of rubric wordlessly understood by the band, but when those beats flew out of some huge home or car speakers, this was ontological rock ‘n’ roll, and the jilted generation was willing to pay absolute top dollar to bask in the unholy alliance.
20 years later I’m listening to The Fat of the Land's “Narayan" right now. I do like this one. It’s a little overlong, but there is a genuine arc to it, and unlike some of the horrific electro-rap tunes on this album (“Fuel My Fire,” “Serial Thrilla,” “Diesel Power,” all equally embarrassing) this one doesn’t feel like I’m standing in front of a tennis ball machine, getting relentlessly pelted. It moves around, doesn’t stay in one place, and perhaps gives us a glimpse of where Howlett may have went if The Fat of the Land didn’t sell 10 million copies.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that this is a hoodwink of an album. It’s certainly not good, and I can’t really hear much beyond the singles that make this a worthwhile listen in 2017. But it’s fascinating to examine within the bigger picture of 1997. The Fat of the Land certainly wouldn’t be the first act to (smartly) take note of a movement and accelerate it far past all of its pure forms into a headbangin’, cash-happy stratosphere. It is worth noting though, that while this served The Prodigy well as that decade drew to a close, ultimately it ensured they were on the outside looking in as the post-Napster era began. By the time they put out their much anticipated follow-up in 2004, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, everything had already fallen apart, momentum-wise.
Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned was okay. But so was The Fat of the Land. Unfortunately for AO,NO, it was released in a fragmented, unforgiving climate of an industry where optics and hype amounted to almost nothing tangible. In 1997, that was the last gasp, the death rattle of a fully functional perspicuity march from MTV to the audience’s bank account. We should appreciate that on proper, post-globalization levels.
Howlett took the band name, and turned it into a brand. The Prodigy existed, ostensibly, from 1997-1998. The Fat of the Land was mostly shit. But it hit our stores just around the time that corporations started to figure out product didn’t really matter all that much. What did matter was brand admiration and recognition. The Prodigy fit neatly within that movement. The product was serviceable. It did the job adequately. But more than anything, Howlett understood how to make his mark within the scene of kids unable to separate their collective musical taste from perceptive speaker obliteration. He knew it didn’t matter if he put a band onstage that blatantly taunted the crowds numbering in the 10s of thousands, openly existing as nothing more than rock band eye candy. All that mattered was that he put on the show and sounded good while doing it. And who knows: maybe we were in on it the whole time and didn’t have the heart to tell him. Maybe he didn’t have the heart to tell us. Maybe there was never any heart at all, and we’re just really only left with the Spawn soundtrack. I’m okay with that.
Listen to The Fat of the Land in its entirety