In 1986 some lads from Essex were out ‘decorating’ the local railway arches in graffiti. One of them signed his tag, Fame, and stood back to admire his work. Fame, who was known to his friends as Liam Howlett, went on to create music of equal admiration.
Liam was into hip-hop and soon took up DJing under the name DJ Fame and became a member of a band Cut To Kill who put out one album in 1988. Soon after, Liam grew tired of the hip-hop scene and left. It was at a rave in 1989 that he met Keith Flint and Leeroy Thornhill. The following year they joined forces, recruited a rapper, Maxim Reality (born Keith Palmer) and called themselves The Prodigy, a name chosen by Liam in honour of his Moog Prodigy keyboard.
Their first single was a four-track 12-inch EP containing the tracks What Evil Lurks, We Gonna Rock, Android and Everybody In The Place, but it attracted few buyers. The next single, Charly, a slang name for cocaine, raced up to number three in the chart. It contained a sample from a Seventies public information film called Say No To Strangers, which was voiced by Kenny Everett. Over the next five years they registered Top 10 hits with Everybody In The Place, Out Of Space, One Love and No Good (Start The Dance). In 1992 their debut album, Experience, reached number 12 and the follow-up, Music For The Jilted Generation, went all the way.
Liam Howlett explained in a 2008 Q magazine interview, I’d already started The Fat Of The Land and I’d done the first track, an instrumental called Firestarter. Keith comes in and goes, ‘If I’m ever going to do any lyrics, I’m going to do it on this tune.’Flint, in the same interview added, “I remember Liam on the phone to (label boss) Richard Russell, He said, ‘Do you think these words describe Keith: Twisted? Self Inflicted? Yes, very much so.’ The lyrics were about being onstage: this is what I am. Some of it is a bit deeper than it seems.”
The original Firestarter video was directed by the same team who worked on the Diesel jeans television ad that Keith and Liam loved, but as Liam said, “It just didn’t represent us as people and it had to go.” For the new version Keith followed in the footsteps of the Sex Pistols and had turned to the punk look. It was shot in a tube tunnel at the disused Aldwych station and showed Keith dressed in an American flag T-shirt with a mohican and looking very menacing. ““It may be in black and white and shot in a cheap location but it ended up being the most expensive video we ever did,” revealed Liam.
The week it aired on Top Of The Pops, the tabloids reared their heads in an attempt to ban the record because it frightened young children and they said it encouraged young people to become arsonists. Firestarter, which was inspired by The Foo Fighters’ Weenie Beenie, a track on their debut album, Foo Fighters, lifted the guitar riff from The Breeders’ album track, S.O.S. and borrowed the hey hey hey refrain from The Art Of Noise’s Close (To The Edit). Both samples cost them dearly as they hadn’t sought permission.
The band were pleased with the finished article which brought together a darting breakbeat, a whining guitar riff, and a keyboard sound resembling a siren. All this added to Keith’s ‘I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter’ growls gave the song a haunting, yet memorable sound. It’s clearly stood the test of time because earlier this month The NME placed it at number 52 on its list 150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years’
Not too many have covered the track, Weird Al Yankovic (of course!), Jimmy Eat World to name a couple but the best one has to be the OAP group, British band The simmers known for being entirely composed of aged pensioners, who covered it for their debut album, Lust For Life. The video parodied Flint’s hairstyle and Captain America costume used in the original clip.
In another Q magazine interview in 2009, Keith Flint was asked what he considered to be their best lyric. He replied, “That’s one of the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. I’d better say one of mine. Having barely written anything at school, and then writing the nine lines of Firestarter in Liam’s room… I was taking the piss. Causing a stir, f**king people off! I believe that naiveté served me well.”