Earlier this week, the legendary Prodigy frontman Keith Flint was found dead at his Essex home. The rave icon was renowned throughout the world, but his particular importance to the New East often goes unappreciated. Here, writers from Serbia, Poland, and Russia reflect on Flint’s role in shaping the post-socialist culture of the wild 90s.
Although Keith Flint was born and died in Essex, I don’t think he will be mourned anywhere as much as in Serbia. News of his premature death on March 4 triggered a mass outpouring of grief in the country. It made the front page of daily papers and Belgrade’s BBC bureau published the testimonies of legends from the local dance scene as a tribute to the deceased icon.
I suppose this is standard procedure for all celebrity deaths, but for a particular subsection of Serbian youth — namely the ravers who came of age during the Yugoslav wars — Flint could accurately be described as a national treasure. In December 1995, The Prodigy etched themselves into Belgrade’s urban folklore when they performed at the Hala Pionir basketball stadium — just six days before the war in Bosnia finally ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement.
Those who attended the concert had spent the best years of their lives under embargo as the country of their birth was torn apart before them. Youthful rites of passage took place against a backdrop of rationing, hyperinflation, and violence. Young men would go out and party all night to avoid being rounded up by the army and shipped off to the front. These circumstances made Serbia a natural fit for The Prodigy’s music; the group’s dark and aggressive sound was the ideal soundtrack for a nation caught in the throes of a societal breakdown. “Their energy and rebellion directly reflected the state that we were in at the time,” says Tijana T, a DJ from Belgrade. “They were furious outsiders and punks, who, through their own authenticity, became pop stars. I suppose that we wanted something like that as well, to prove that we weren’t total rejects.”
The Prodigy came to Belgrade at a time when no other band would, offering the city’s youth a window on the world
Beyond the daily material hardships that international sanctions inflict upon a nation, Serbia’s pariah status during the 90s was a blow to the populace’s sense of self. Unlike the countries of the Warsaw Pact, Yugoslavia was never sealed off behind the Iron Curtain: it was a prosperous, open, and progressive nation firmly integrated into the international community. Yugoslav youth were free to travel and were well-exposed to Western pop culture. That all drastically changed during the war — as the rest of Eastern Europe regained its freedom, Serbia was thrown into isolation. Serbs born in the 70s realised that they would be first generation to be worse off than their parents, culturally as well as financially. The Prodigy came to Belgrade at a time when no other band would, offering the city’s youth a window on the world. In a Facebook post mourning Flint’s passing, Goran Paunović, a local DJ, journalist, and broadcaster wrote: “they arrived in December 1995, jumping over blocked borders, aware of the fact that the kids of Vračar, Čair or Detelinara weren’t responsible for the country’s wrongdoings. And I thank them for that act, which is unbelievable from today’s perspective.”
Those who packed into Hala Pionir on December 8 that year got to feel, if ever so briefly, that they were no different to kids in London or Paris. Famously, The Prodigy even performed their hit single “Breathe” for the very first time in front of a public audience that night. The group gifted their audience a kind of validation that was far more profound than a regular pop concert. “The people of Serbia never forgot what they did for us back in ‘95,”, says Tijana. “It’s totally crazy, but it’s true: The Prodigy are the biggest band in Serbia of all time.” Keith Flint might be gone, but he’ll be forever immortalised in the hearts of Serbia’s jilted generation.
There can be little doubt that The Prodigy were the most influential pop band in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and the biggest western import since Depeche Mode and 80s Soviet Depechemania. Why? I think the group shared a “no bullshit” attitude, and obviously, a complete insanity that resonated with the region. And that was chiefly thanks to the incomparable, devilish, splendid Keith Flint, who, for 12-year-old me in 1995, simply was the band. The Prodigy were massive all over the world, but in the post-socialist East they hit a special nerve: as reality was falling apart before our very eyes, here was a band which embodied rage at the state of things.
In post-communist Poland, they appealed particularly to working-class kids. Then-raver and now local politician Hanna Gill Piatek recalls the “Freedom Parade” raves in 90s Łódź: “Back when every crack in the pavement was white with amphetamines, Prodigy ruled. I remember how “Firestarter” suddenly detonated in one of the back streets, and me and my friends simply flew into the air in our threepenny pseudo-rave silver jackets, with vacuum cleaners strapped to our backs to look like aliens, our white gloves and hair recklessly drawn with “elegant” orange fluorine. In moments like this, nothing — not the deepest neoliberal bullshit we were being thrown into, not the darkness of defunct factory floors smelling of piss — could reach us.”
The Prodigy were populist and omnipresent. They were on the TV, they were on the radio. All we had then were unbelievably tacky music programmes (which everybody, of course, now remembers with great fondness). And there, “Firestarter”, “Breathe”, and “Smack My Bitch Up” reigned supreme! Polish telly played the latter without censorship, and God knows what they were thinking. The goth-psychedelic set design of those videos, and the absolutely exhilarating growls and screams of Keith Flint, his crazy outfits, smoky makeup, and movements were our first encounter with punk and Cool Britannia — except The Prodigy had so much more in common with the way we led our lives than the likes of Oasis.
“It was like Dada in its primal, original shape. They were organic to the landscape of early post-communism”
Their influence extended beyond the decorative use of home appliances, too. Kostek Usenko, a half-Russian, half Polish musician from revivalist synth-popers Super Girl & Romantic Boys, remembers making his first musical steps in 90s Łódź. Back then, the old punks were incredibly into techno music — and The Prodigy. “I loved the animals present everywhere in their aesthetic. All those ostriches, ants, crabs, worms, foxes – all equally important to Liam Howlett’s sound! I loved the childlike sensitivity, the energy of 12-year-old boys, all those mutated pianos and epileptic beats,” says Kostek. “Their surreal imagery filled our first mushroom trips on Warsaw tower block estates. To me, it was like Dada in its primal, original shape. They were organic to the landscape of early post-communism. The Prodigy were the most unpretentious from that rave scene. They kept me alive when my mum was dying from cancer for three years. I danced till I dropped. They helped you leave the house in the winter at 6am to catch the bus to work.”
Keith and The Prodigy somehow made us feel less ashamed of being poor and culturally “backward” in the 1990s, because we could identify with them. Through them I discovered the likes of David Bowie and the Sex Pistols. Yet no one else had the raw power and frenetic energy they did. They soundtracked our first cringeworthy school parties and make out sessions. The authentic sadness felt after Flint’s demise is obviously a sign of nostalgia for the ways in which our lives were much simpler back then — and also, for many, much harsher than under socialism. The unapologetic sonic class war perpetrated by The Prodigy was, for a politically pacified Polish society, a way to shout all that out.
Image: Possan under a CC licence
The Fat of the Land blasts from car windows, while the full Prodigy discography is played in offices, gyms, and public spaces, and people gather together near the British Embassy in Moscow and on St Petersburg’s Palace Square. Keith Flint’s suicide sent music fans into mourning around the world, but it’s hard to recall any foreign musician’s death provoking such a strong reaction in Russia — one felt vividly, not only online but out on the streets. At the same time, it’s hardly surprising, given the importance of The Prodigy for the country: a mutual love affair that lasted for more than 20 years.
100,000 people, or 250,000, or something in between: it’s impossible to verify just how many came to Red Square on September 27, 1997, when The Prodigy performed during Ballantine’s Urban High snowboard contest. But the number was surely massive. The Fat of the Land, The Prodigy’s third LP and the fastest-selling British dance album of all time, had been released less than three months previously. Thanks to a growing media presence — the 2x2 TV channel, radio station 106.8, and later MTV Russia, which started broadcasting in 1998 with a recording of this gig — but also to the power of word of mouth, an army of Prodigy fans were there to see their cult heroes. And if “army” seems a bit strong, it’s more than appropriate in this case: one only need look at how people reacted at that legendary concert, or watch one of the fan videos made many years later. The result was one of the most iconic gigs in Russian pop history.
The Prodigy had first played in Russia in 1995, and hadn’t exactly been keen to return — largely thanks to a four-hour wait at customs. Luckily, they changed their minds. In recent years, the group even embarked on Russia-only tours, playing in Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Kazan, Voronezh, and many other cities, as well as releasing a video for “Nasty” that was recorded during a Moscow performance.
The more parents who had grown up in the Soviet Union were afraid of Flint’s influence on their children, the cooler he became
Generation P, the title of a cult novel by Viktor Pelevin, would be a neat way of referring to Russia’s Prodigy fanatics. Why did the band resonate so much here? For one, they were the most noticeable and relevant ambassadors of both rave and punk culture at that time, with Liam Howlett’s energising production, Maxim’s intriguing lyrics, and, of course, Keith Flint.
It was Flint’s transition from long-haired hippie dancer to the frightening, pierced, devil-horned, glaring firestarter that drew Russians to The Prodigy. The more parents who had grown up in the now-vanished Soviet Union were afraid of his influence on their children, the cooler he became. Russian youths had missed out on the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Second Summer of Love; the new, post-Soviet generation made up for that with The Prodigy. In time, the immediacy of the thrill became its own form of nostalgia — and people kept on coming to their concerts every time The Prodigy played in Russia. But the audience truly remained devoted to the band, slam-dancing during new songs as energetically as during their 90s hits.
Keith Flint’s death broke the hearts of the Generation P army. Among the gigs cancelled in the wake of the tragedy was a performance at Moscow’s Park Live festival. But Russia’s love for The Prodigy will surely never go away.