Breathing The Pressure Since 1996

It was 14 years ago now that I heard a song that changed my life. I was 13, and had recently started listening to Ugly Phil’s Top 40 while doing my Year 7 homework. I’d never been big on pop music but pop was still half-decent then, and besides, I hadn’t really developed a taste in music yet – but subconsciously, I think, felt like I ought to start doing so. So I listened to the daily Top 40 on my little shitpot stereo, until early one evening, an unusual song came on; an ominous, hypnotic bassline interspersed with metallic clashing and eventually breaking out into sneering vocals. I still remember the moment it stopped, because it was actually at that moment, when it wrapped up and Ugly Phil or whoever started blabbing again, that I realized it’d really engaged some part of my brain even as I was doing my maths exercises. It wasn’t that I’d jumped up and started dancing around the room the moment it came on, but I knew as soon as I’d had my first listen that something about it had stood out and grabbed me. Yes, I’d just heard Breathe for the first time, and within weeks I’d begun a lifelong obsession: I was a Prodigy fan.

A week or two after my first encounter with Breathe, I got my first glimpse of the band behind it: an in-your-face frontman with menacing dual mohawks; a black guy with gold teeth, cats’ eyes and tiger-stripe tatts; and a skinny dude with peroxide-blonde hair, utterly silent and stand-offish in contrast to the former pair’s manic posturing. The video clip, with its gritty haunted-house imagery, fascinated me as much as the song itself, and before long, whenever it came on during Video Hits, my mum would call me over in Polish with “Mateusz, your freaks are on telly!”

It’s funny but it’s been years since I last listened to Breathe – probably because I burned myself out on it so completely during those initial years of Prodigy fandom. But I can honestly say that I’ve listened to Prodigy in some form pretty much every day since that evening in late ’96. After converting my friends at the time, one of them promptly bought the newly-released Breathe single, which I recorded onto cassette and listened to nightly – to the point where I could recite Maxim’s MCing of Their Law and Poison from beginning to end. I got Music for the Jilted Generation for my 14th birthday – still my favourite album of all time – and slowly acquired every possible CD, MP3 and video of the band since then.

I guess the reason I’m writing this is because Prodigy music has been one of the oldest and most consistent elements of my life to date. It’s virtually the only thing that directly and without interruption, ties my present self all the way back to the 13-year-old kid I used to be. It’s pumped me up before hundreds of awesome nights out, spruced up a thousand long car rides, and their performance at Big Day Out 2009 – the first time I got to see them live, after so many years – remains one of the most memorable nights I’ve ever had.

Above all though, I’m proud of The Prodigy themselves. Even though everyone knew Breathe and Smack My Bitch Up back in the day, they were never that popular a band. They hit the charts globally when Fat of the Land was released – the album containing those two tracks, plus my beloved Firestarter – but imploded soon after, and it wasn’t for years afterwards (something like a decade in fact) that they regrouped in earnest and set about conquering that peak again. I still remember talking to a girl at work one night during this hiatus, and mentioning that my favourite band was Prodigy… to which she replied “Oh yeah, I remember them”. It hit home how little anyone knew or cared about them even by 2003, but now… wow.

In a couple of hours I’m going to the cinemas in Chadstone to see a movie – a fucking MOVIE, released worldwide – of their Milton Keynes concert, the headline act in a day-long music festival hosted by the band themselves. How many bands can claim to have their own feature-length movie? While The Prodigy are not major celebrities in Australia, in their home country of the UK they rule the electronic music scene, supported by a fanbase that’s not just huge – the Chemical Brothers concert I went to recently was just as big as Prodigy’s – but fanatical. As they’ve acknowledged themselves, that’s the unmistakable difference: people virtually never “like” or “don’t mind” The Prodigy; they love it – and how could you not? Liam Howlett is, in my mind, not just one of the most talented musicians of our generation but also a genuinely humble and cool dude, as are cohorts Keith and Maxim. To you guys, big respect from one of your old skool fans – and can’t wait to experience it all again tonight!

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TWTWB: The Soundtrack It Should’ve Had

One of the things that interests me most about cinema is the use of music to enhance the atmosphere or energy of certain scenes.  Of course some films work fine without musical backing – like The Magician, a favourite of mine also based and produced in Australia – but I felt Tomorrow, When The War Began should’ve had a diverse and epic soundtrack, powerfully reminiscent of the book’s period, setting and youthful spirit. A few memorable ‘music sequences’ is something that could’ve made the movie a much more stirring and evocative experience, even with all of the acting and directing flaws intact, and its absence is one of the reasons it fell flat for me. Of course the film did feature some music but with the absence of Homer’s ‘theme song’ (when he’s first presented in that over-the-top cop shop skit), it was either very generic rock – an obvious attempt to inject some ‘teen cool’ into the movie – or a repetitive synthetic beat, designed to build suspense, which would’ve been perfect for a techno thriller like Inception but sounded too industrial against footage of rural Australian houses, making me far too conscious of it.

Of course it’s one thing to merely criticize and another to put forward solutions, so here’s the soundtrack for TWTBT as I imagine it. I’d suggest just listening to rather than watching the links provided, so that you can appreciate the music on its own terms and picture it in the intended context.

Opening credits – Smashing Pumpkins – 1979

Singing along in the 4WD on the way to Hell – Bloc Party – One Month Off

Hiking through Australian landscape into Hell – Icehouse – Great Southern Land

Discovering the clearing in Hell – Dan Gibson – Kookaburra

Wirrawee Showgrounds/preparations for Show Day – Connie Francis – Everybody Somebody’s Fool

Discovery of Wirrawee’s fate – Synaesthesia – Surface System

Occupied Wirrawee by night/approaching the Showgrounds – Aphex Twin – Spots

Romantic rapport with Lee – Sophie B. Hawkins – As I Lay Me Down

Preparing to blow up the bridge – Aes Dana – Onset Data

Return to Hell + credits – Enigma – Return To Innocence

Dr Zupan’s Sonic Remedy

I’m not a fan of DJ mix albums. To be honest, y’know, you hear the whole track and just at the end you get a 20-second or a 10-second mix that kind of cheats the public out of what a mix album in my head should be about…

I can’t find – especially these days – dance records that really inspire me, and I always go back to like old records that kind of pull out certain vibes from the late eighties with the hip-hop stuff. I felt like… going out on a limb, to show that the record wasn’t a total dance record, you know?

I don’t have to sort of try and be a dance DJ, you know, you’ve got the Chemicals and Fatboy Slim doing that stuff. So I felt that, what I’m about, what music I do actually like, you know, is really old school hip-hop, punk and the breaks. The type of people that will buy this record will be the people that want to know what goes on inside my head when I’m in the studio writing the music, and so that’s basically the whole idea behind it, you know.

– Liam Howlett, The Prodigy

This pretty much sets the stage for my blog entry today. About a month ago I started mixing shit together in Ableton Live, and as I taught myself more tricks and started having real fun splicing, mashing & rearranging my favourite tracks, I decided to have a crack at producing a proper mixtape. More than just a compilation of beats & pieces, the end product is kinda like my personal expression of Mr Howlett’s philosophy: that a real mix should do more than just smooth the gap between songs; it should be an innovative tapestry for the ears that gives listeners an entirely new perspective on the music involved and make the songs sound fresh, hard & funky all over again. The file’s located over at my new profile on DJ Passion – check it out!

DURATION

39 minutes

TRACKS

Michael Jackson – Ghost
Rob Dougan – Clubbed To Death [Kurayamino Mix]
Dust Brothers – Space Monkeys
Chemical Brothers – Song To The Siren
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band (Reprise)
Hardnoise – Untitled [Instrumental]
Erther – ErthForce
Propellerheads – SpyBreak! [Long Version]
KLF – What Time Is Love
Kraftwerk – Home Computer
Equinox – Electronic Dreams
KMFDM – Professional Killer
Pro-Tech – Re-Thread
Paul Oakenfold – Speed
Paul van Dyk – New York
Raul Cremona – Total Infection [Tribal Again Mix]
UMC Communications – Rebel State
Prodigy – Funky Shit
Prodigy – Shadow
Chemical Brothers – Hot Acid Rhythm 1
Solar Fields – The Sight Is White
Chemical Brothers – Hey Boy, Hey Girl
Rammstein – Stripped [Charlie Clouser’s Heavy Mental Mix]

SAMPLES (BEATS/BREAKS/VOCALS/AMBIENCE)

Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Fight Club
Prodigy – Jericho [Genaside II Mix]
24 Hour Party People
Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels
Prodigy – Everybody In The Place [155 & Rising]
Puff, Puff, Pass
Random porn
Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn
Frank Klepacki – Hell March
Future Sound of London – Egypt
Arrakis – The Spice
Intermix – Sonic Ritual
The Matrix
Dream Frequency – Take Me [Prodigy Mix]
KMFDM – Ready To Blow
8 Mile
Mortal Kombat II
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Prodigy – Phoenix
Batman
Dust Brothers – Fight Club Theme
Norman Bass – Go Back
Prodigy – Full Throttle
Alien (Arcade Game)
Prodigy – Warrior’s Dance

Thus Spake Liam

That kind of Ibiza music, that shit that Pete Tong plays, I hate that shit. I sound like my dad, but it’s fucking music by numbers. The lack of imagination does my brain in. Like, if I’m in a petrol station and the dude pulls in with his fucking shades and his nice shirt and his car stereo playing his Ibiza music, it just fucking irritates me. They’re so fucking annoying. It’s so stale, something needs to poke out. It would be cool to have bands that are like, electronic bands with leather jackets on, but with no guitars, no drum-kits, just raw electronics. If there’s any fucking kids out there, I’m up for producing you, because I’m into the idea of creating an army against the DJs.

– Liam Howlett, Prodigy

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2004/aug/20/popandrock.prodigy

I love that little tirade. In case it’s not already crystal, Liam’s gripe isn’t with electronic music, which he’s been producing himself for some 20 odd years now, but with DJs who pump out the same old shit and continue to reinforce the stereotype that techno/trance music is just repetitive rubbish by numbers. I love techno/trance more than anyone I know, yet I totally support Liam’s view. It only took a look at the Sensation White crowd last New Year’s to see what he’s talking about – hordes of dickheads that look like Justin Bieber, decked out in trendy suits and Oakleys, $100 bills and pills in their pockets, there to be seen and get off their heads rather than appreciate quality banging electronica. As for Pete Tong, he’s a shining example of someone who couldn’t produce a fucking call-waiting jingle yet earns shitloads playing other’s people’s music. David Guetta is probably the most famous example of someone whose celebrity far exceeds the quality of his output – I put up with his flaccid crap for 45 minutes before Prodigy took the stage at this year’s Future Music Festival, and couldn’t fathom why his set wasn’t relegated to Sunday nights at some poxy bar in a South Yarra side-street. The first time I listened to some of Liam’s own mixes from a London radio show, I was amazed – he’d go from the Chemical Brothers to The Beatles to Grandmaster Flash and it’d seam together beautifully, making each track seem fresh and funky again like the first time you heard it. As opposed to the same old drumkick, whiney female vocals and washy synths, played in an endless loop of sonic fairy floss for 4+ hours. I’ve always been a fan of electronica but it’s really starting to lose its impact and lustre, has been for quite some time, and the current ‘electro’ fad is pretty much the musical equivalent of brain damage.

Basically what Liam’s saying is, electronic music needs to reclaim some integrity and remember its underground roots. Superstar DJs, mass-advertised raves in sport stadiums, the fashion industry shallowness of what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ – tribal house last year, dubstep this year – is ridiculous. Even the way Liam plays his music; he doesn’t just stand there in front of a fucking record spinning round & round, but actually plays the music direct from his synthesizers and keyboards. That’s what a music performance is. That’s how it started with Tangerine Dream and Orbital and all those great acts from the 80s and early 90s, now largely replaced by a bunch of uninspired, over-rated turntable monkeys who not only don’t produce anything original, but don’t even play anything original.

Recycled Melody

I’ve finally come across an electro song I like – Deadmau5 – Clockwork [Cosmic Gate Remix]

The interesting thing about this song is, while most remixes are only one degree away from the original, this one is no less than five.

The ‘original’ song was Deadmau5 – Clockwork, released in 2008. But this is actually an electro remake of a mid-90s trance song, The Clockwork Theme, by Cygnus X.

The Clockwork Theme itself is a trance remix of the theme from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange.

The Clockwork Orange theme, in turn, is an electronic rendition by Walter Carlos of Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, a sombre orchestral composition dating back to the late 17th century.

All the way from Olde Worlde England to 21st-century Germany… quite a journey for one song, and a testament to the timelessness of a powerful melody.