Charly turned 30! The short story
On 12 August 1991 the legendary ‘Charly’ was released through XL Recordings on vinyl, CD and cassette tapes: on this day The Prodigy story began for real. Some of you reading this are younger than the title track — it’s really hard to believe, but this august the tune had turned 30. ‘Charly’ merges a juvenile voice sample and cartoon cat meowing with ‘Mentasm’-esque rave synths to raw and disorientating effect.
The track was written and produced by Liam Howlett, the man behind The Prodigy, together with Chaz Stevens as an additional producer. According to the man himself, the tune was already done in October ’90 when he started giving his first demo tapes to the record companies. Even before the official release, ‘Charly’ was well known by the fans because the band played it on their gigs quite often. But first things first…
In 1973 the incomprehensible pronouncements from a ginger cat named Charley warned children against strangers, matches, water safety, and other everyday perils. Created by Richard Taylor Cartoons, the quirky ‘Charley Says’ animated series with the warning growls ‘voiced’ by the late Kenny Everett, delivered often-stark messages in a darkly comic way.
While discussing The Prodigy’s debut single, Liam disagreed with drug connotations: “Cocaine was nothing to do with our scene so I never even thought about it. Everyone was just on an ecstasy buzz so no one thought of coke at the time. Although the E’s were probably full of coke anyway!”
Anyway, the garbled meows of the ginger cat from the episode called ‘Mummy Should Know’ was later sampled by Liam Howlett in The Prodigy’s ‘Charly’ and the track became the band’s main signature tune for a few years.
Interestingly, Liam’s sampled meow does not mean “Charley says always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere” — both samples are taken from different clips. The child interprets the sampled meow as “He says I’d better tell mummy where I’m going”.
Had the cat brought Howlett any copyright problems? Well, practically none. Interviewed by Music Technology in 1992, Liam recalled: “At the time of the release there were people saying ‘you can’t do that, they’ll sue you’, but we turned it around by saying it was a message to kids not to go off with strangers. I think the guy whose voice it was phoned Virgin and tried to get some money for it but they said ‘No way’ and he said ‘Fair enough, I like the record anyway’. That was the guy who spoke the words for the advert, and that was the end of it”.
In general, the title track and its versions contain quite a weird samples cocktail, which was so typical for an enthusiastic 20-year old Howlett: the track knocked together the heads of Rhythm is Rhythm, Meat Beat Manifesto, James Brown, T La Rock, DJ Mink & Blue Eyes, Bobby Byrd, Ser & Duff, the list goes on… Only Liam could mix such a random artists in such a unique prodigious style!
“I probably was still off my head but I just thought it would be mad to do a track out of that for people who remembered that advert. I also thought it would mess with peoples heads a little bit. You know this voice from your childhood giving you good advice in the middle of fucking rave!”
Howlett sums up: “I finished the tune and basically played it at Telepathy that night and then went in and played it to XL. They were like ‘Yeah, that’s the next fucking single!’… So I went back home and did the rest”
As soon as the record label heard it they were blown away. Right after the release, the band presented their first music video directed by Russel Curtis. It is a typical old rave video: a sequence of fast-moving, colorful shots of the band at their live events, mixed with the original ‘Charley Says’ excerpts. By the way, you can see a few shots with Sharky dancing on the stage with the lads in the middle of the video — she was still with the band at some of the gigs pictured here. The rest is history.
But the track received generally mixed reviews from critics, despite its popularity. Exactly one year after the single was released, in August 1992 Mixmag ran one of its most controversial covers questioning ‘Did Charly kill rave?’. Perhaps worst of all was the photo of Liam with a gun pulled to his head and the dishonesty with which it was taken (but let’s leave it on the conscience of the photographer) — the photo which indirectly insinuated that The Prodigy endorsed the article’s views.
The article was written by Mixmag’s now former assistant editor Dom Phillips, and The Prodigy went ballistic when they read this piece. They heated phone calls were made to the Mixmag office, but the temporary damage was already done. The magazine toughly accused the band in light of the abundance of copycat kiddy-sample rave tracks which also sampled children’s programming, including “Sesame’s Treet” by Smart E’s and “A Trip To Trumpton” by Urban Hype. Luckily, 10 years later the conflict was completely settled when in their January 2002 issue, Mixmag apologized about the ill-fated article and after that, they had a large number of The Prodigy related articles and some great interviews with the band. Glad that got smoothed over!
Despite the critics, on 1 October 1992, ‘Charly’ had sold over 200,000 copies in the UK which in turn enabled it a Silver BPI certification.
Liam reacted: “I was quite surprised really. It wasn’t meant to be a novelty record, it was meant to be an underground record because it was such a mad idea. But people started buying it not because they were into the rave scene but because they remembered the TV series” (interview for Music Technology)
The fabulous ‘Charly’ album cover was originally created by Julie McKendry (also known as Jay McKendry Jenkins or simply JMCJ).
Born in North Antrim in 1962, educated in England achieving a first class honours degree in Fashion and Textile design at Liverpool Polytechnic in 1984 JMCJ has since had an exciting career in the arts and design, working on a wide variety of projects — including designing and making images for top music bands. She has decorated venues throughout the country with large artworks. Also producing design which became promotion images for the music industry. Clients include: The Prodigy, Moby, XL Recordings, PWL Recordings, Carlton Television, Park Lane Hilton, Face Party and many more.
It all started with Jay being a good friend of the band, working with The Prodigy on their first white-with-green concert costumes (exactly the ones that were captured in the debut video). One day Liam saw a drawing of a dragon that McKendry had made and asked her to draw a cat in a similar style. The original work was done in mixed media, it was easy to create and took really little time — just about a week or so. Jay made this drawing in her home studio Braintree (Essex), and, as she herself recalls, while working she listened to tapes with mixes of her friends, Essex DJs. The dimensions of the original drawing are approximately 20×20 inches (50×50 centimeters).
Years later Jay posted some other random sketches of the cat on her Instagram. Give her a follow: instagram.com/jmcjartist
The final sleeve was processed by The Unknown Partnership headed by Steve Gribbin aka Jaffa. The color drawing was digitalized to create a three-color image of black, white and silver, which was eventually used for the single artwork. According to unconfirmed information, the device with which the final cut was made is called Video Grapher: appeared in 1985, it was the first technology to take screenshots from a movie camera during filming. That’s how the long journey began!
Additional thanks to: Jay McKendry Jenkins
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