It's 20 years old today
In the summer of 1997, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ (perhaps the first album to induce widespread moral panic in the UK) was almost exactly as old as ‘The Fat Of The Land’ (perhaps the last) is today. Those intervening twenty years, however, during which Frankie Goes To Hollywood, acid house and riot grrrl had irked middle England, had somewhat dulled the spectacle of pop controversy so that by the time the Prodigy reincarnated themselves as a post-rave Pistols, shock pop had acquired a sort of numb familiarity. Two decades on from the original punk menace, from Nazi flirtations and “ban this sick filth” tabloid outrage, everyone knew their role: musicians presented the taboo, the press were simultaneously appalled and fascinated, and the general public cavorted in either disgust or glee, according to taste.
That’s not to say the controversy that greeted ‘The Fat Of The Land’ was any less vivid at the time. Indeed, starting with a nakedly aggressive comeback single, progressing through an invocation of Joseph Goebbels and peaking with the release of ‘Smack My Bitch Up’’s baiting video, the Prodigy played their part for two years with Oscar-winning zeal, and the supporting cast of press and public duly followed. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to revisit the band’s imperial phase today without observing a pantomime where once lay the Sex Pistols’ high drama: while some of Keith Flint’s remarkable Johnny Rotten impressions on ‘The Fat Of The Land’ still stand up, the album at the centre of their domination has none of the same scorched-earth, year-zero feel. Instead, at twenty years distance, ‘The Fat Of The Land’ presents a very Britpopped version of hysteria, full of gesture and homage, and rather lacking in original substance.
And, just as with more conventional Britpop, when that template works, it’s irresistible. Even now, with all novelty subsided, it’s hard to deny the glistening claustrophobia of both ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’, leering twin pieces of chaos and snarl that remain heart-quickeningly antagonistic. ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, too, is a masterpiece of sampling, all pogoing elasticity and bludgeoning sub-bass, only ruined by a fairly indefensible vocal hook: Liam Howlett’s protestations about what “smack my bitch up” actually meant in the context of the Ultramagnetic MCs’ original are somewhat moot once he knowingly deleted said context.