The man who did do what you don’t dare do

A darkened tunnel inadequately lights up. An alarming riff rings in the beginning of the madness. In a siding off the tunnel stand two men: one is stock-still, waiting, watching; the other, his body is swaying as he stares unflinchingly at the camera, his boldly patterned top — a deconstructed and reshaped American flag — at odds with the double Mohican hairstyle and eyes blackened with make-up.

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Keith Flint and Liam Howlett in the video for The Prodigy’s Firestarter

There are men in the tunnel, what are they doing? As we get closer, we’re not sure we want to know. Each alarming riff is followed by a warning crash of bass and drums. It’s coming, it’s coming, what is coming? The still man in the siding is sat down, the other man twitches at the crash of drums. We are getting too close to the men in the tunnel, they stare at us. The still man is standing again. The other man is jumping unnervingly. He’s ready now. The men in the tunnel start to run. The chaos begins.

m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator
I’m the fear addicted, danger illustrated

Having been iconic and omni-present for some 23 years now, it’s hard to express the impact that The Prodigy’s Firestarter had on me, my peers, and popular culture at the time. It was, to put it with no exaggeration, a revelation. It was a much needed release during a period in which me and my peers were still coming to terms with both the raging hormones that were ravaging changes to our bodies, and the growing and seemingly inexplicable anger inside us, that, only with hindsight decades later, we can put down to the growing, unconscious realisation that the adults around us and in power weren’t the clever, knowing and authoritative individuals they’d have us believe. They were fucking everything up.

m the bitch you hated, filth infatuated, yeah!
I’m the pain you tasted, fell intoxicated

Culturally it was a revelation as well. With rave becoming commercialised, grunge becoming radio fodder, and Britpop starting to eat itself, Firestarter’s aggressive blend of rave and rock (it sampled relatively obscure alt-rock, synth-pop and house tracks) was a breath of fresh air. With its melding of genres, it was the beginning of the breakdown of the tribal barriers that had separated music fans for so long, a band that any of us could get behind.

keep coming back to @stuwhiffen DJing at the Bullseye when I was 17. It was an odd night, Indie/Metal/HipHop/whatever but there’d be a moment each Friday night that everyone would dance together, that moment would always be for The Prodigy.”
Music producer Dan le Sac on Twitter

The song’s lyrics, written by Keith Flint, the maniacal vocalist in the video, are shockingly violent, and the pummeling backing track, orchestrated by the sampling magicianship of still man Liam Howlett, is, to this day, an abrasive, triggering pleasure. In The Prodigy producer Liam was the fuel, and growling vocalist Keith was the fire we were all drawn to. Firestarter shocked the establishment, with both song and video only allowed to be played after the watershed. But the people loved it and lapped it up, making it the band’s first UK No 1 — where it stayed for three weeks — and their first big international hit.

m the self inflicted, mind detonator, yeah
I’m the one infected, twisted animator

You can see the roots of what The Prodigy were creating with the Firestarter video, mashing together the aesthetics of the two biggest youth movements of their lifetimes: punk and rave. Keith Flint was mesmerising not least because of his performance, more on which in a bit, but because of how he looked: punk haircut, goth make-up, chunky BDSM necklace and pierced tongue, contrasted with that boldly patterned (political?) top, and short trousers that added an unexpected and uncomfortable sense of the little boy lost. This on-the-nose mash-up of alternative cultures might not have worked either, were it not blended together by being filmed, disconcertingly, in black-and-white.

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Keith Flint in the video for The Prodigy’s Firestarter

But the video was much more than just a show and tell of Things The Prodigy Love. Keith took his obvious admiration for Johnny Rotten and ran with it, taking it to a darker and, conversely, more fun place. It’s a classic punk frontman performance with deeply disturbing flourishes.

He’s troubled, trapped — literally at some points, in a web unable to move legs or arms, his body waving around uselessly. He twitches at every crash of bass drum, banging his head on the empty space in front of him. There’s something inside his head he’s trying to shake out, scratch out, but nothing works, the fire keeps burning inside. There is no respite. Sometimes he loses himself in the music and there’s a pleasing campness to his performance, a Freddie Mercury strut, juxtaposed with terrifying aggression as he punches the air between you and him and stares, challenging you to look away.

His bandmates move around him like moths to a flame, not getting close enough to be burnt, but unable to draw themselves away — his madness is inexplicably intoxicating, appealing. Dressed normally, wearing the baggy tops and trousers most of us boys and girls were wearing in the mid-90s, the rest of The Prodigy represent us — the young and the jilted, just before Tony Blair and New Labour came along in their blindingly shining armour to give us some hope. They represent us, drawn to an idea, no matter how terrifying, of the freedom of madness and the chaos and uncertainty of rebellion, waiting in the dark, waiting for the opportunity to spill out on to the streets above.

m a firestarter, twisted firestarter
You’re a firestarter, twisted firestarter

It’s this aggressive and unflinching passion for life, and making it something worth living, and living it on your own terms, that makes it so hard to reconcile with Keith Flint’s suicide. As I write we have no idea of the circumstances that led to it. He has talked in the past of his battles with depression and the resulting, gargantuan intake of drugs and alcohol that led to the collapse of The Prodigy in the mid-2000s. But the band had regrouped, continued to have No 1 albums (last year’s No Tourists being just the latest) and sell-out tours (one of which they were in the middle of when he died) — Flint’s performances leading to much overuse of the word ‘incendiary’.

Personally, he was married — to DJ Mayumi Kai — and lived in a nice house in Essex. He seemed to be embracing a sober and fit life, describing his live performances as his “drug. You’ve got to go out there firing. There’s nothing sadder than watching a heavyweight boxer and he’s out of shape and getting bashed around.”

That all seemed well is substantiated by his own bandmates’ reaction to his death. Announcing it on the band’s Instagram page Liam Howlett said: “The news is true , I can’t believe I’m saying this but our brother Keith took his own life over the weekend , I’m shell shocked , fuckin angry , confused and heart broken ….. r.i.p brother Liam”.

In recent years there’s been a number of well-known men who have taken their own lives, and some of them — Robin Williams, the double sucker punch to alternative music of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington — I’ve been quite stunned and moved by. None of them moved me quite like Keith Flint’s death has though.

I’ve had my own issues with suicide ideation, which I won’t go into here as I’ve written about it before. But these events are certainly triggering and I’ve had to become adept at managing my own mental health and bouts of depression. I’ve found the best way of dealing with my sensitive reaction to the unexpected deaths of people I’m a fan of is to write about it (hence this blog) and to talk to friends about it. There was a flurry of messages I swapped with them in reaction to the news of Keith Flint’s death. This was a man and a band that had soundtracked our teenage and adult lives. As one friend said: “this makes our youth seem a long time ago.”

But, while The Prodigy’s 1994 album Music for the Jilted Generation was a seminal album for me (here’s the self-indulgent paragraphs) — one that showed me pop music didn’t have to be limited by genre, its cinematic scope and profound energy firing my imagination like few other albums have — The Prodigy’s impact didn’t stop for me and my peers in our teenage years.

I’ll never forget one couple I’m friends with picking Firestarter as their first dance at their wedding, much to the shock of their older guests and the amusement of the younger ones. The first time I saw Keith Flint in a live situation was not with The Prodigy, but with his short-lived punk band Flint at the Scala in London. The music might not have been fire-starting, but there was no escaping his mesmerising energy. Even in the quieter (for The Prodigy) ’00s I remember the grinding funk of Girls kick-(fire)starting a party I was attending. They were never far away even if their career seemed to be winding down.

Then, during their comeback in 2009, I finally saw them live (they’d been a long and conspicuous gap on my gig-attending CV) at the Big Day Out festival in Melbourne. Pogoing and head-banging in a tent in the Australian heat, it was one of the sweatiest and most breathless (from yelling “breathe with me”) live shows I’ve ever attended. Their show at Alexandra Palace in 2015 was similarly visceral — a beer-soaked blur of noise and adrenalin, mostly remembered amongst my friends now for one particularly amusing photo of me straddled on a friend’s shoulders, my arms thrust into the air, lost in the pure energy of the music.

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Attending The Prodigy’s live show at Alexandra Palace in May 2015

Their music has continued to soundtrack our lives — last year’s No Tourists album providing a thought-provoking and incensing musical backdrop to the continued polarisation of politics we’re seeing, and unsure how to respond to. (Unintentionally, it seems — Liam Howlett has said the album is more about “escapism and the want and need to be derailed and not to be a tourist and follow that easy set path” and back in 2004 he told The Guardian: “Politics? It’s never political for us. We just write music for people to go ‘yeah!’ to. To be honest with you, I’ve never been angry about anything in my fucking life.”) As one friend said to me: “[No Tourists is] so good! They are so relevant and I hope it puts some energy into other [bands] to make something to wake people up.”

What we’re all struggling with though, more than the loss of Flint as a presence in our musical worlds, is the inexplicable nature of his death. It was the same with the deaths by suicide of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington in 2017. And the same with any high-profile suicide — Anthony Bourdain, Avicii, Verne Troyer, Robin Williams, Alexander McQueen, and way back to that most talked about of rock suicides, Kurt Cobain’s — whether you’re a fan of these people or not, that question of ‘why?’ sits uncomfortably and stubbornly unanswered.

If even Flint’s bandmate Liam Howlett, who he’s just spent weeks on tour with, can be “shell-shocked” and “confused”, what hope do we have of understanding the sudden death of a man who has been a familiar and invigorating presence for nearly 30 years? As one friend put it: “It’s just awful. Makes you realise that anyone you know could end up taking this path.”

he word that you hear is ‘selfish’. That used to get bandied around quite a lot: ‘Why would they be so selfish, look at the people they’re leaving behind.’ But they literally think that everybody else around them will be far better off without them there.”
Tony Robertson in ‘Horizon: Stopping Male Suicide’

That question of ‘why?’ is what recent BBC documentary Horizon: Stopping Male Suicide, aired in August last year, tries to explore at its start. In interviewing survivors of suicide attempts, and the friends and family of those who succeeded, they establish a number of key factors that can, and do, lead to men attempting or committing suicide. But before I describe them, here’s some stats for you:

· In the UK ¾ of people who commit suicide are male.

· Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK, causing more deaths in this group than car accidents and cancer.

· In the UK, someone takes their own life every 90 minutes, and it’s estimated that for every person that succeeds, there are 20 more attempts.

· There are higher rates of suicide in the north-east of England, where people are 35% more likely to take their own lives.

· It’s estimated that each suicide death costs the economy £1.5million.

· It’s UK Government policy to reduce suicide deaths by 10% by 2020.

· Funding for research into suicide prevention is much lower than many other areas of health: there is 22 times more funding for each cancer patient than for each person affected by mental health issues — suicide prevention funding is even smaller.

The Horizon documentary explores a number of factors that can contribute to suicidal thoughts or even lead to suicide. Not least of them is mental health issues, but the difficulty of using those as a predictor of suicide is that the majority of people with a mental illness never attempt suicide. The factors are more complex, and people with suicidal thoughts are often not in touch with mental health services. As one doctor puts it, “it’s like looking at a car and asking how it broke down — you need to know so much more about the car before you can work that out.”

Shirley Smith of suicide prevention charity If U Care Share, while talking about the larger numbers of suicides in the north-east of England, says there’s three factors that are common: bereavement, finances and failed relationships. The high unemployment rate in that area is also undoubtedly connected. If you lose your job, she says, that will have a knock-on effect on where you live, your relationship: “it’s a domino effect.”

That domino effect continues after someone has committed suicide as well — people are statistically more likely to attempt suicide if they know someone who has taken their own life. This is all within the context of diminishing friendship groups: the big gang you spend time with at school or university and into your 20s grows smaller, with many men relying only on their partner as they get older. If that relationship breaks down they are left isolated — many men not having the emotional support network that women nurture.

In 2017 Men’s Health magazine conducted a study “to better understand how mental ill health affects ordinary men in ordinary ways.” An astonishing 15,000 men contributed, with startling results. More than half (56%) said they have had suicidal thoughts, while 70% of them said that their mental health wasn’t good.

As Men’s Health editor Toby Wiseman describes it, what was revealed by the survey was a “conflict between notions of masculinity.” All the respondents subscribed to the idea of the ‘new man’, but found that hard to reconcile with the hard-wired, older idea of masculinity — defining yourself by your career, being the bread-winner, etc, which results in panic. “They know where to go for help but back themselves into a corner where they don’t feel able to, fighting some internal dialogue between the man they feel they should be and the man they can’t help but be.”

f I knew 10% of what I know now, my son would still be alive.”
Steve Mallen of Zero Suicide Alliance

While showing that that factors that can lead suicide aren’t effective means to predict and therefore prevent it, Stopping Male Suicide does offer some advice to help us achieve what its title suggests, things we can do immediately and don’t need to be medically qualified for.

It all comes down to talking. Talking and listening; communicating better with your friends and family, and not skirting around the issue of suicide when someone you know seems down or troubled. Don’t be afraid to ask someone directly if they are feeling suicidal. There is evidence to show that this will help protect a suicidal individual — they will feel noticed and listened to. For guidance on how to do this, check out Zero Suicide Alliance’s free 20-minute suicide prevention training course.

Horizon also interviews Kevin Briggs, a highway patrol officer who has spent many years patrolling the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He says he’s spoken to hundreds of people threatening to jump off the bridge — only two did. “Most people come back because of the glimmer of hope that folks need,” he says. “Many times folks are just looking for someone to listen to them: not to give advice, not to give them a prescription, not to say ‘you know what you shoulda done’, not to argue or blame, just to listen. Just to listen to what’s going on.”

I’ve no idea what all this says about the suicide of Keith Flint, or even if it can help me and my peers try and understand what he did. The factors that caused him to finally end his life will be as complex and inscrutable as any other — possibly even for those close to him. But I hope his death at least makes us all a bit more aware of what the people around us might be going through, more curious about their thoughts, and braver about asking exactly what is going on in their heads.

Music and film fan. Reluctantly politically engaged because, well, look at the news. Explores other cultures and examines my own. Ill-at-ease gay man.

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