The Prodigy's Fat of the Land

22:28, Dec 06 2012

Last week I was sent a copy of the 15th anniversary edition of The Prodigy album, The Fat of the Land. Easy to dismiss, right? Just call out the ubiquity (at the time) of Breathe and Firestarter, start an argument over the misogyny that informs Smack My Bitch Up and be done with. After all, this is dance music - so not actually "real" music; it's all just samples of other/actual music and it takes no talent to steal, right?

Actually, you'll have to look elsewhere for that - this is the internet so it won't be hard to find someone incredulous even at the thought of celebrating an album by The Prodigy.

When The Fat of the Land was released I was a (bit of a) fan of The Prodigy.

I owned Music for the Jilted Generation - on vinyl (I still have it). And The Fat of the Land was a hugely anticipated album, not just because I had the Jilted Generation. Singles Breathe and Firestarter were everywhere for months before the album was released - they built the hype. I remember, also, seeing The Prodigy at The Big Day Out at the start of the year before the album was released.

But I never owned The Fat of the Land - I didn't need to. You see I was working in music retail at the time. Now, for anyone under 30 still reading, "Music Retail" is something that used to happen, back in the days when blogs were published in long-hand. And they were called either diaries or graffiti. Depending on how you looked at it, of course.

My first music store job was working for Tandys - night time/weekend staff, a part-timer, in between contemplating attending lectures at university.


CDs were the main attraction but we still stocked cassette tapes too, certain key new releases. And vinyl too - again, key releases. Tapes were on the way out but people didn't quite know it them. Vinyl was on the way back. Again, people didn't quite know it then.

One of the very big new releases of the time was the second Wu-Tang album; I was new to retail so I had to catch up with the Big Releases - albums that would be the subject of front-window displays; record company reps would turn up with an armful of posters and bribes of various kinds. Now, for anyone under 40 still reading, "Record Company Reps" were paid to go on the road and help sell the product into stores. Their job was killed off many years ago - the internet, of course, was blamed. But the person who used to be the boss of the record company rep still has the same power if not more. And takes the same wage, an increase rather than a decrease if anything, a new car every other year and less responsibility given there are fewer people working in the companies overall - but I'm no maths expert so I don't quite know how that works.

Anyway, bigger than the return of the Wu-Tang Clan was the return of The Prodigy. It was so big that we didn't just put on extra staff, didn't just do a midnight opening, we hosted a launch party.

That's right. Our store hired an entire bar - we played the album and people who had pre-ordered the album ($2 deposit) guaranteed themselves a copy of the album and a poster. Some even paid to pre-order the cassette tape. No, really.

There was a bar tab for staff and we were allowed to drink so long as a few of us didn't get too messy - that way we'd be on deck to hand out posters and collect the remaining $28 for CD or $17.99 for tape.

I never owned The Fat of the Land. It was played at work - in the shop. I didn't need to buy it. The Firestarter, Breath and Smack My Bitch Up videos were paraded on MTV every day. It was inescapable. One of my flatmates bought the Firestarter on CD-single (it always bugged me that people would use the term "Cassingle" as a catch-all; this quite clearly, obviously, referred to the cassette format). He (my flatmate) used to talk about his Firestarter cassingle. That he would then play in a CD player. But then, he was a special case. He had ordered the MegaMemory tapes to improve his mind. He had done two (or maybe three?) of the tapes at that point in time. He couldn't quite remember how many of the tapes he'd worked through on his way to building the perfect memory. When I told him that it might be somewhat crucial to keep track of the tapes he called me gay for writing poetry.

I wrote my poetry - always ghastly, but hey, I was prolific (!) and then I wandered off to my shifts at the music store. In between times I occasionally thought about going to a class up the hill or popped down the hill for one too many beers (as I said, I'm not a maths guy; never was).

This was the world I lived in 15 years ago when The Fat of the Land was king.

It was everywhere. And it was irrelevant whether you liked it or not, you absorbed it. Tracks would appear on TV and radio - your friend's flatmate, the one who never listened to music, suddenly had a new favourite band. There were keen scenesters that loved it too.

People still called it techno - and after the success of The Prodigy various big beat and drum'n'bass acts permeated the mainstream.

Fifteen years on I am on to my second home. I've not had flatmates in over a decade. I now have a son. I've written a book (that one's for you, Dr Zoidberg). Record companies barely even send out CDs anymore - you might get a download code. Sometimes they just tell you to go buy it yourself if you like it - but they'll still dine out on the reviews from time to time. They collect them up and pass them on to their bosses up the chain. And take credit for them. Even though they might as well be selling shoes, essentially. It's all just product - and it's all just about numbers (they are probably maths guys - and girls).

When The Fat of the Land was released I hadn't (really) written a single music review (past a point you can't really count the student magazines). Yesterday I wrote my 1400th blog-post. I started writing Blog on the Tracks five years ago; at that point I'd been writing music reviews for Wellington's Dominion Post newspaper for half a decade.

Across the last decade I've not really thought about The Prodigy - really. I occasionally play Music for the Jilted Generation - and though I went back to Experience I never really cared to go forward anywhere beyond Fat of the Land. Liam Howlett is clever - I enjoyed one of his mix CDs and I appreciate the talent that is involved with building these tracks from, if you like, scratch. But I just never really thought (much) about The Prodigy.

Now I have a one-year-old son and he quite likes Diesel Power (great use of Kool Keith) and he likes Narayan and Climbatize also. But tomorrow he could well be shaking his legs and grinning to Serial Thrilla or Mindfields instead. Or he'll be happy with anything else.

The 15th Anniversary Edition of The Fat of the Land arrives with a bonus EP, The Added Fat. Here you will hear remixes that have been designed to help sell this music to a new (younger) generation. So there are dubstep drubbings and wub-wub-wubbings but nothing on the bonus disc is needed.

I found the first disc - the original album - a pleasant surprise. I didn't cringe. I enjoyed the big singles and all of the album tracks. Enough time has passed, maybe. Or it was good music then and now, perhaps. I'm not sure what the answer is - maybe it's somewhere in the middle. Back when "cassingles" were still around this felt so vital. Now that vinyl is back (again), someone might want to buy this purely for the nostalgia.

I'll always prefer the mood of Jilted Generation but Fat of the Land has some bangers - but mostly I just laughed, thinking back to a time when I worked in a store and an album was big enough that just one store could have a party to celebrate an album launch. We would be one of many around the country. There would be hundreds of people - excited to find out what the album was like. Nowadays it's more a case that someone who does go into a store to buy an album ends up telling the person behind the counter what it is and what it sounds like and that they are buying it due to the present-day nostalgia for collecting; for holding on to the tangible. (Once again, or indeed for the first time).

Times have changed, huh?

I'm glad to finally have a copy of The Fat of the Land. It comes with a lot of baggage. The baggage I attach to it. But it's a remarkably slick, sharp, clean, clear record. It feels like a long time ago. And it feels like only yesterday. I'll probably never listen to the bonus tracks again but I'm now - 15 years on - a fan of an album I never owned at the time.

Do you remember The Prodigy from the late 1990s? Were you a fan? Or were you never a fan? Did you attend the Wellington launch party that my store threw for the album release? Or something similar in another city? Will you be checking out the 15th anniversary release? And what anniversary edition/s do you have in your collection to mark certain signposts, certain times in your life when an album meant more than just the music that was (im)printed on it?

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