FAT25 · 8th track: Firestarter · Story
We continue our track-by-track story of ‘The Fat Of The Land’ with a massive article about the inception of ‘Firestarter’. We’ll share a fascinating story about the making of the track, a detailed analysis of all its versions, rare details behind several live jams and of course an exclusive re-chamber from our team! But first things first…
Shot by Martyn Goodacre | martyngoodacre.com
Part of this post is based upon the quotes from Martin James’ ‘We Eat Rhythm’, you may still catch it through his Bandcamp. Image on the cover by JHGFX, buy the print here.
In late 1993 and early 1994, Liam Howlett became more and more obsessed with guitar-based stuff like Rage Against The Machine, The Breeders and Nirvana, and this fact is directly reflected in his work. ‘Jilted’ became way heavier than all of the previous ravey tunes, and as it turned out later, that was only the beginning. The Prodigy started getting deeper and deeper into guitars, and at the same time they did not forget the trademark Howlett electronic stuff. ‘Firestarter’ was reportedly inspired by Foo Fighters’ ‘Weenie Beenie’.
The track featured a repeated ‘Hey, hey, hey’ refrain lifted from ‘Close to the Edit’ by Art of Noise, a track that Liam had to pay heavily for, even though it had been easily available as a studio sample since 1988. Another key element was a huge guitar sample lifted from The Breeders’ track ‘SOS’. Kim Deal from The Breeders reportedly hadn’t been asked about ‘Firestarter’ and wasn’t best pleased.
When guitars and vocal samples were added to the huge, looping breakbeat and sneering, siren-esque keyboard refrain, the collective sound was breathtaking. With the addition of Keith’s cyberpunk growls however, ‘Firestarter’ turned into one of those instantly memorable tracks that haunts your subconscious from daybreak to sundown. ‘Firestarter’ was a natural step on from ‘Voodoo People’ and ‘Poison’ and changed the band’s direction dramatically. Just a little over a year after the ‘Jilted’ was released, the ‘Firestarter’ instrumental was created in late ‘1995, and it was the first track that Liam finished for ‘The Fat Of The Land’.
THE RECORDING PROCESS
It is generally accepted that ‘Firestarter’ premiered on October 28, 1995 at Ilford Island, London. It was a fully spiritual experience for Keef: feeling himself totally naked standing in front of the crowd and premiering the song he sang by himself. Little did the band know that it would soon send their lives into orbit. Not that Keith cared, he still had to get over his first ever job in charge of the microphone.
Keith Flint: That first time I sang onstage, well… I did a parachute jump a couple of weeks beforehand and the whole scenario of building up to it was petrifying. Singing live for the first time though was even worse,’ admitted the self confessed adrenaline junky Keith. ‘It was like, fucking ‘ell. I’ve been out there, done my thing, people didn’t chuck shit at me so I know it’s going down all right but now I’ve got to open my mouth. I know the track sounds good and I don’t want to let anyone down with shitty vocals. I was completely terrified. The whole gig didn’t seem natural. Normally when I’m onstage there’s nothing in my head and this night there was this voice going ‘Firestarter, Firestarter’ over and over again. Here’s me, I’ve been smoking weed for days I’m thinking “shit my memory’s going to give out, the worst shit’s going to happen”. It’s like being in the school play and it coming to your bit and you freeze. I tell you what that whole gig was worse than that parachute jump.
Liam Howlett: I’ll never forget the reaction when we first dropped this live, people were like… mouths open. When it finished there was a moment of absolute silence, then the whole crowd just went off it. Keith was really nervous about doing it. Up until then all he’d had to worry about was dancing onstage, but now he had to remember the lyrics as well. Suddenly he had to use a different part of his brain!
The first ever pro-shot of ‘Firestarter’ was captured in the T Festival documentary (December 9th, 1995), held in Skopje, Macedonia. Curiously enough, this is also the first time when The Prodigy’s unreleased track We Came Here pro-shot debuted on TV — you can hear it right from the first seconds of the movie. Maxim’s freestyle is purely brilliant here! The band played this tune for a few years as a finishing one on their gigs with the ‘thank you’ rapping to their audience. Right after it, the movie captures the ‘Firestarter’ rehearsal.
‘We Came Here’ and ‘Firestarter’ were registered in the music license databases at the same time.
Then, around March 1996, or perhaps a little earlier, right before the release of the ‘Firestarter’ single, the track got a full-fledged recognizable live intro, which later became the legendary one for a big amount of fans. It used the sample from the 1979 Hong-Kong movie called Jade Claw aka Crystal Fist directed by Shan Hua: Liam pitched down the phrase ‘It’s my own secret technique’ and looped some punch hits from the fight scene. So simple and so catchy at the same time!
The album ‘The Fat Of The Land’ mix of ‘Firestarter’ also contains its own original introduction! Officially titled Firedrill this intro is a separate demo track that is mistakenly considered as part of ‘Narayan’ by many people. For more details, read our special investigation…
After that, if we move chronologically back to 2004, one may recall that the Firestarter version underwent major changes — for the first time since 1997 Liam gave it a new arrangement. Keith was just sick of performing the track in its original form and told Liam he won’t do it anymore.
Neko: So what about the old material? Are you going to update it in any way? You said somewhere that you were never going to play ‘Firestarter’ in its original form again …
LH: This is not ready yet, I know you will probably go to a few gigs so you will probably hear the transition to a new ‘Firestarter’. It will be something maybe bootleg style. Keith basically said he didn’t want to do it in its original form any more, so definitely by the UK tour I will be chopping the older tunes around, you know. For the first few gigs we really just want the new stuff from the new album sounding right, so we felt like, we can still change the older sound after,– if it works ‘Firestarter’ will be done by the UK tour.
Aside from the new beats for the verse, Liam also used Rage Against The Machine’s ‘In My Eyes’ idea for the chorus. This new version premiered in Birmingham on December 2, 2004.
Liam Howlett, 28/11/2004: ‘Firestarter’ remix will be played first time in Birmingham. It’s ‘Firestarter’ but it’s twisted up more and kicks harder!
Liam Howlett, 05/12/2004: We played ‘Firestarter’ remix in Birmingham but it wasn’t right so I did some emergency reprogramming for Brixton and it rocked. It’s a hard track to make any better in my mind so I changed some of the chord structures in the chorus. It really felt like the best we’ve been as a band on stage since 5 years ago.
This version was also perfomed at Radio 1 Maida Vale Session, which took place on 14 July 2005. For a long time, the recording was only available from FM broadcasting, but later the band posted the soundboard recording on their MySpace page.
Then in 2006 Liam finally transformed ‘Firestarter’ one more time. He changed the structure again, cause the gig audience was confused by the pre-chorus transition and didn’t understand quite well where to join the chorus.
In addition to the live versions, let’s talk about the official remixes of the legendary tune. Up until 2012, there were only two official remixes of ‘Firestarter’: the first one by Empirion ended up on the ‘96 single, and the second one was created by Jim Thias. His version was actually a bootleg-edit of the Empirion mix released under the official license. The track has been heavily re-structured, and a straight 4/4 drumbeat has been added at the beginning and the very end to make it easier for DJs to mix it together in their sets. Also some synths and cuts were mixed over top.
In 2012 XL Recordings released ‘Added Fat’ to celebrate ‘The Fat Of The Land’ 15th anniversary, and Alvin Risk contributed his remix for this EP. Getting in on the act after the fact, is American experimental noise
You all also do remember Andy C’s remix of ‘Firestarter’ which came out just a few months ago as a promo for 25th anniversary of ‘The Fat Of The Land’, and even this one got a some details to tell. Andy C first premiered this tune right after Keith’s passing in March 2019 and actually started to play it in his DJ sets as a tribute 3 years before release. Keef’s vocal for this remix was actually re-recorded, you may clearly hear that acapella majorly differs from the one that came out in 1996… It looks like the remix was made for some kind of special release like Breathe ft. RZA, but was shelved for 3 years after Keith’s death.
We’ll post the large story about the ‘Firestarter’ single, its design and the details behind the music video shoot a bit later, stay tuned!
Headmasters: SIXSHOT, SPLIT
Additional thanks to: Martin James, JHGFX (grenade artwork)