Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… March 4, 2019: Keith Flint, Prodigy Frontman and Twisted Firestarter, Dies

'He took this role of the firestarter and turned it into this tangible persona that meant something to audiences, generation after generation after generation.'

keith flint the prodigy
Source: Fred Duval/MEGA

Keith Flint was one of the most charismatic frontmen in the history of music.

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Keith Flint was one of those once-in-a-generation pop stars who not only fronted a band, but came to represent the physical embodiment of the music they created. The Prodigy’s ground-breaking fusion of frenetic dance rhythms, hard rock sensibilities and dark, infectious, at times terrifying energy, was all crystallized in Flint’s image, stage presence and never-less-than-100-percent performances.

On March 4, 2019, police were called to his home in Essex, where he was found dead. An inquest later confirmed that he had died as a result of hanging, and later that day bandmate Liam Howlett confirmed that Flint had taken his own life. He was just 49 years old.

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keith flint
Source: mega

Keith Flint was the personification of the Prodigy's frenetic blend of dance and punk.

Flint was brought up in London and Essex, and after being expelled from school aged 15 found work as a roofer, while also throwing himself into the burgeoning acid house scene of the late 1980s (his earlier musical tastes had been rooted in punk, particularly Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Jam). Both influences would combine to unique effect in his later output.

The Prodigy were effectively formed after Flint met DJ and musician Liam Howlett at a local rave club – according to legend, Flint told Howlett that if he played his own records, he and friend Leeroy Thornhill would dance to them onstage. The trio were joined by MC Maxim Reality, and in February 1991 released their debut EP, What Evil Lurks.

Just six months later their first single proper, “Charly”, smashed into the charts, eventually peaking at No. 3 – its hyperactive fusion of techno, acid house and furious drums also included a sample from a government public information campaign from the ‘70s. The repeated child’s refrain, “Charly says you should always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere” was at once both witty and somehow deeply ominous – a trick that would come to define the Prodigy itself.

The Prodigy’s innovatively punk take on dance music saw their first two albums, Experience and Music for the Jilted Generation peak respectively at No. 12 and No. 1 in the U.K. charts, but it was third LP, The Fat of the Land, that made Flint a genuine star.

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For lead single, “Firestarter”, Flint stepped up to vocals – and his snarled, Johnny Rotten-esque delivery (“I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator / I’m the fear addicted, a danger illustrated… I’m the b*tch you hated, filth infatuated / I’m the pain you tasted, fell intoxicated / I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter”), combined with his black-rimmed eyes, devil-horned hair and maniacal dance moves, was not only a sensation when shown on Top of the Pops, but promptly saw the video banned by the BBC, after the corporation deemed him too frightening for young audiences.

Despite the ban, “Firestarter” gave the Prodigy their first No. 1 (where it remained for three weeks), followed by their next single, “Breathe”, which also topped the charts. Typically, the video for “Breathe” was, if anything, even more terrifying than that of “Firestarter”… with Flint’s screamed refrain “Come play my game” simultaneously rousing and deeply chilling.

The impact of the Prodigy – and especially of Flint’s unique persona – cannot be overstated. The band went on to sell 25 million records worldwide and racked up seven consecutive No. 1 albums, and despite controversies including their 1997 single “Smack My B*tch Up” – a song either about domestic violence or heroin, depending on who you believe – Flint himself remained a uniquely commanding stage presence.

Gary Numan called Flint “one of the most dynamic, exciting and iconic frontmen I’ve ever seen. A powerhouse of energy and attitude on stage,” and DJ Annie Nightingale described the band as “The Who of the 90s onwards. Exciting and dangerous to watch. The sound of rave, of the huge surge of the acid house generation breaking out. None of it could have happened without a unique frontman in Keith Flint. He drew drama out of the music, scarily, entertainingly. A master of stagecraft.”

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keith flint maxim reality
Source: MAR/Capital Pictures / MEGA

Flint with Maxim Reality - 'exciting and dangerous to watch'.

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For those who knew him, however, the “filth infatuated” firestarter’s aggressive Prodigy persona was at odds with his personality away from the stage. When not performing he ran a pub near his Essex home, and many fellow musicians paid testament to his “gentle” personality.

“You think people are gonna be more mad, more like the person they were on stage, but he was gentle, sweet, encouraging,” Kasabian guitarist Serge Pizzorno told the Guardian, and in the same piece, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons of the Chemical Brothers related how they bumped into Flint at a festival in Australia:

“They had just played a massive headline show and absolutely rocked it. We were running around and larking about, and there was Keith in his toweling robe, eating cornflakes outside his dressing room. For some reason, it’s an image that has stuck with us. I think it made us realize that maybe this is how you navigate it: you can be the firestarter to the most extreme extent on stage, but you must also be the cornflakes and toweling robe guy.”

Even those outside the rock and dance world had fond memories of Flint. Posting on Twitter, pop star James Blunt, who at the time was considered just about the most uncool man in showbiz, recalled meeting him at a Q Awards ceremony:

“At the Q Awards years ago, when Noel Gallagher was saying he was leaving Ibiza because I’d moved there, and Damon Albarn refused to be in the same picture as me and Paul Weller was saying he’d rather eat his own sh*t than work with me,” he wrote, “Keith Flint came over, gave me a hug, and said how thrilled he was for my success.”

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Flint’s funeral was held on March 29, 2019 – it included a procession stretching over a mile and a half. The man who Top of the Pops had deemed too frightening for children to watch had become something of a national treasure, and his tragic death a source of national mourning.

Speaking to the BBC, 6 Music DJ Matt Everitt summed up the contradiction – and the considerable charm – contained in the dual persona of Keith Flint, as he recalled watching the Prodigy perform at Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival in 1998.

“During some songs, he’d come off stage and he came to stand next to me,” he said. “I was like, ‘alright, how are you?’… ‘Oh, very well [he replied], you enjoying the show, yeah?’

“So I’d just seen this wild, crazy-eyed, demonic-haired individual whipping this huge audience into a frenzy, and then we have a very polite chat. Then he goes, ‘hang on a minute, I’ll be back in a bit,’ and he runs on again and leaps on to the stage like a dervish.

“It’s amazing. He took this role of the firestarter and turned it into this tangible persona that meant something to audiences, generation after generation after generation.”

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