Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Keith Flint

Keith Flint has died at the age of 49.

I first encountered Flint the same way most Americans did: through Prodigy's hit song "Firestarter". The video and song are striking, and Flint dominates the track and visual language. He doesn't look like a typical rock star -- he's too bald, his dance moves are too naive and instinctual. His "singing" isn't going to win any awards with the rockers or the hip-hop crews. But he still makes an impression.



In the mid-90s, I was living in Los Angeles, aspiring and striving as a professional musician. A few years prior, in 1991, Nirvana and grunge had laid waste to the dominant hair metal scene, and seemingly overnight redefined what was cool (and thus, what everyone wanted to copy and/or sign).

But grunge was from the Pacific Northwest, and no L.A. bands could come up with a sufficiently authentic and credible version of grunge quickly. The resulting rock void in L.A. was filled with funk-metal. Every act wanted to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Nirvana, or both (the band that did that best was called "Rage Against The Machine", and this same drive led to Korn, Limp Bizkit, and other contenders). It felt like rock was fumbling around, increasingly looking to refined versions of the past.

Even groups that clearly weren't grunge (like the sublime Failure) got lumped in with the flannel brigade because, well, they're a rock band that isn't funking around and has buzzy, grinding guitars.

I was living in a small house in Sherman Oaks, near the famous Galleria mall. It was not the happiest time in my life. Even though I was only in my late 20s, I felt obsolete and out of touch. I didn't understand or like most of the music my friends were listening to. I didn't like much of the music I was trying to make, either. I was fumbling my way through the rubble of one relationship and into the minefields of others.

Aside from "Nevermind", the other record from the early 90s that most affected me was Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works 85-92". It felt both retro and futuristic, and the anonymous blankness of the artwork and music added to the mystique.



A new electronic movement had started in music, from a variety of places, enabled by continuing evolution in music technology. And by the mid-90s, "electronica" was considered the Next Big Thing.

"Wipeout 2097" cover by Designers Republic
The then-new PlayStation had a game called Wipeout 2097. This was a futuristic racing game that managed to become a 90s touchstone. The cover was created by the legendary Designers Republic. And the game had an exciting music soundtrack featuring The Future Sound of London, Fluke ("Atom Bomb"!), Photek, Underworld...and "Firestarter", by The Prodigy.

"Firestarter" felt more like punk than Green Day or most of the other re-punk bands of the 90s. Flint's charisma and vibe helped make The Prodigy seem like rock stars, not another faceless electronic artist. I am sure that is part of why Madonna's record label wanted to sign them.

And so The Prodigy and Keith Flint had their moment, and for a bit there, they were not just the Next Big Thing, but an actual Big Thing. They had solid album sales initially (and scaled for the time, which was a nosedive for the music business), and a decent amount of buzz and press.

They were so big I got hired to create a sound-alike of one of their songs for a low budget TV show (and, parenthetically, got fired for "sounding too much like The Prodigy").

It was one of those moments where you could feel the wave rising. Here comes the future, and everything is going to change. Rock, already stumbling around like it had been hit by a car, was about to die, and something else would replace it. The millennium was drawing to a close. We could all transform into something new, join the still-new internet, embrace tomorrow.

U2 could see it coming, and proudly or desperately talked up all the new electronic artists they were into and influenced by as they crafted their brilliant but underrated "Pop" (which would be the last great album they'd make).

Hell, even Bush -- who had cloned Nirvana's blueprint of a smash success first album followed by a less-successful Steve Albini-produced second, turned to "electronica" as an influence for their third "The Science Of Things" rather than continuing to follow the inevitable dead end Nirvana and rock seemed to offer.

But the wave receded. And then the electronica moment passed by. Prodigy didn't recoup, their album sales disappointing despite tons of press both positive and negative (the video for "Smack My Bitch Up" aimed for "controversial" and ended up being considered merely exploitative and in poor taste). Big act after big act whiffed their album numbers. Even the much-loved Daft Punk's sales disappointed, and as always, public attention moved on to other things.

Flint and The Prodigy kept making records of varying quality, but most people stopped caring. The electronica revolution fizzled, and hip-hop and pop resumed their chart dominance. Flint ended up owning a pub, and occasionally working there. Supposedly he fined people a dollar every time he tended the hearth and someone made some kind of "Firestarter" crack. And then he gave the money to charity.

I am 49 years old, the same age as Keith Flint. My back hurts. Many days have struggles, physical and mental. I think about my own past. Everything seemed easier, better. I was better looking, faster. The world was all possibilities and upside. Everything was going to change, and for the better.

Flint had a troubled childhood, and a challenging life before The Prodigy's sudden success. Having dreams not pan out, and then having life go on can be challenging.

It must have been difficult to look back at work he did 20 years ago, and be constantly reminded of that "almost", and have the younger, less-broken version of himself be the thing he was constantly compared to. I don't know enough about his life to know if he ever found peace or happiness, or if the pain that helped create his musical persona continued to run through the tunnels of his heart and mind until he could take no more.

I see the news. I watch the "Firestarter" video again. I think back on those Los Angeles days in the 90s, when all the world seemed ripe for the burning, and we ran through the tunnels at night, shouting, dancing, leaping, laughing, and singing for the sheer love of life.

Thank you for the music, Mr. Flint.