Keith Flint took the rockstar fairy tale and gave it devil hair

The Prodigy’s vocalist and dancer, who died yesterday at the age of 49, was an elementary life form — bollock-naked and gurning.

March 05, 2019
Keith Flint took the rockstar fairy tale and gave it devil hair Jo Hale/Getty Images  

Keith Flint once told me he was an amoeba. “I’m so basic, you see. I'm just the guy who never got chucked off stage. I got on stage once, and they never threw me off. That's all I am. That's all I wanna be. End of.” You can imagine him chuckling to himself here if you like.

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But was he basic? In one sense, yes. No one would deny was a kind of lite-algorithm Pacman on stage, a man who ate beats as though he was living inside a piano roll, and shat out head-shakes. To be backstage watching Keith and Maxim walk from their dressing room to the stage was like watching the All Blacks in the tunnel in the Rugby World Cup Final: kohl-eyed, increasingly grizzled as the years rolled on, their whole personalities dropped away, unsheathing the techno BattleBots beneath. War was here, every night.

Life didn’t start out simple, back in Braintree. Keith had had one of those nasty childhoods. His dad was "a violent cunt" who once frogmarched him down the street to the barbers to chop off his mohawk. They weren’t poor by any stretch — his dad was an engineering consultant. But home was so bad that he’d come home for dinner, which was mandatory, and if the food was delayed by three minutes, he’d go back out for precisely that amount of time. His parents split up, he was dyslexic. He’d come home and literally bang his head against the wall listening to Siouxsie and The Banshees. After he clobbered a teacher with a rolling pin in cooking class, it was no shock he was chucked out and packed off to "special school."

If you were a pop psychologist, you could argue that this made him complex. But that fiery forge seems to have mainly made him into a very nice, very elementary life form. I got the sense from him that his guiding light was that whatever life threw at him from here on in, at the very least he’d never, ever have to go back there. That allowed him to meet people with a gentleness that didn’t seem to lean on ego for its gentility. So long as he had The War on stage, off it everything was a laugh.

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After all, his career path was not one you could describe in increments on LinkedIn. Essex teems with Keith Flints — smart, funny geezers who never thought of themselves as smart, never crutched on their wit, who are now just funny smart roofers. Keith was that roofer — a long-haired rave-hippy who’d save up his builder’s wages to go backpacking round the Middle East. He turned up at one of Liam Howlett’s DJ sets, at a club called The Barn, requested a mixtape, then loved it so much he demanded to be made a dancer. It was nothing but a cosmic joke that he got famous.

Keith was never a McCartney to Liam’s Lennon — he was the fucking dancer. But there was something just as fated in their connection. They were an under-remarked upon odd couple. What I always got off of Keith and Liam’s dynamic was that each needed the other to take the edge off of their weirdness.

Liam was shy and quiet, a genuine prodigy as a kid, who once freaked out his music teacher when she realized that he hadn’t read a note of the sheet music she’d been giving him for months. He’d learned it all, first time, by ear. In later years, Prodigy dancer Leeroy Thornhill would laugh about how shy Liam was. He needed a seeing-eye dog for awkwardness, and that’s where Keith came in. Keith gave Liam the courage to hang back, as he needed to — to be the guy who chipped-in with the one-liners, rather than the guy holding court.

Keith gave Liam an exoskeleton he could don to bestride the globe. To chuck his clunking, juddering rave-anvils right across the known world. “When you've gone into The Lebanon and Bosnia while the aid trucks are still going in under armed guard,” Keith babbled at me in 2009, “and you go to the Lebanon and there's not a building to play in that's still standing and you're still bringing the fattest beats ever, you know, we kinda found ourselves with no place to go. It's not as if there were countries to still go and conquer, cos we'd been to them all, youknowwhatImean?”

That was the size of The Prodigy’s footprint at the height of their powers. Far from the Hell Of Touring, Keith loved it. One of the reasons following up Fat of The Land became such a saga was simply that they’d spent six years on the road.

Keith once said that being on stage was like necking half a pill — he didn’t need the one if he had the other. A common thought. But here was someone who needed that half’s effect, whether it was onstage or off.

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The trouble started around "Baby’s Got A Temper," their pisspoor stopgap single from 2002, the one with a video like Mad TV doing The Prodigy, smeared with Keith’s gormless lyrics about Rohypnol. Liam was scathing a couple of years later: “It was a fucking load of shit… I pulled on Keith too much on that. Keith’s lyrics are very introverted and that’s not what we’re about.”

The band scrapped the planned album around “Temper.” Liam retreated to his bedroom, built a £70 000 studio in his house, and shut Keith out of the creative process. This clearly hurt. The lines of communication were never direct between the two. Now, the signal dropped.

“It’s like…” Keith explained to me in 2015, “We lead separate lives. I’m in Essex, he’s in London. You want to phone up your buddy and have a chat, but you also want to ask about the album. So… communication gets lost somewhere. You stop talking.” What was this push-pull thing? Like two over-sensitive lovers, it felt as though Keith and Liam needed each other’s approval a bit too much.

Eventually, Liam’s natural perfectionism wore their relationship down. Keith had nothing to do. In the lag times, when Liam was noodling about with compression patches, he needed to re-engage with the thrill of twenty thousand mall-punks in a Swedish football stadium, or else the lazier ways of reproducing that same high, the low-hanging fruit, would creep up on him again.

This was a guy who told NME, in 1995, that he secretly loved bike crashes. He reckoned he’d had about 13: “The buzz of crashing is unreal. Everything goes slow motion. One of my best buzzes ever was going under a car.”

In the good years he’d channel that amoeba spirit into adrenaline sports. He had his own bike-racing team — they won races on the Isle Of Mann TT, the legendary race on an island between Britain and Ireland, where at least three bikers a year pass away approaching the 200mph mark.

In the bad ones? “I’d line up rows of pills and just take them and take them and I'd lose track of how many until I passed out.”

This was a mogwai you should never feed after midnight. 'Rockstar' was the only suitable job for him, because almost nothing else would have lit up his dopamine circuits. He needed an IV line of buzz: “I’m not the kind of guy who can be sitting around listening to Joni Mitchell, chilling. I’d rather bash my head against a wall.”

In 2007, Liam and Keith managed to get back into each other’s heads. The band set about making an album, but they got so into the partying aspects that they had to scrap their first attempt. Liam remembered moving a couch out at the end of the sessions and finding "about twenty champagne bottles" lodged behind it.

Eventually, they cleaned up and made the zippy Invaders Must Die, but what a strange dynamic: all icy shade-wars and hot make-up-sex, these two. Next time round, somewhere on the way to making The Day Is My Enemy, they buried another two potential albums in the scrapheap as Liam and Keith once again retreated into their corners.

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Yet they loved each other, as only men who took on the world together can. “I think Liam is the only person I’ve ever loved,” Keith told Matt Blake in 2015. Keith was already a decade married at the time.

It’s unsurprising that Liam could nail Keith’s entire appeal in a line, when he described to The Quietus how Keith came to sing over "Firestarter." Liam laughed when his bandmate first said he wanted to put some lyrics on top of one of his tracks: “Keith's so simple with his delivery and with his lyrics — it's almost too simple… I'm not saying people want to be like Keith, but they want to be simple and straightforward. But lyrics confuse things and complicate things too much. Keith's no singer, and he's not trying to be — that's Keith. That's why he's good at what he does.”

Simple. Rectilinear. D-U-M-dumb. Some will remember the piston-rave circus-daemon; I will also remember the guy moaning to me about energy-efficient lightbulbs. “You have to turn them on on Tuesday to see what you want on Wednesday. What’s the bloody point!?!”

Here was Essex Man unchained. Keith knew what he wanted; he then proceeded towards it in a straight line. Was the spirit of early rave socialist? Or was it libertarian? Keith always suggested to me the latter. He had an almost Rayndian commitment to the power of personal responsibility — one of his favorite rant topics was "the nanny state." And he really, genuinely, did not give a tinker’s cuss what you thought of him. Why else would he have he joined his local fox hunt — thumbing his nose not only at animal lovers, but at every peg on the ladder of the British class system? When he told one poor NME writer that he was ‘playing naked Twister’ on Christmas Day, it might have been a wind-up, but it was just as much the way Keith lived his life — bollock-naked and gurning.

Who else could have described his decision to marry in such laconic terms: “I’d done my share of shagging around… Look, we all like to get busy, but in truth I was a bit worn through with it.” Keith was blunt, simple, but he was, as everyone, including James Blunt, seems to have noticed in the past 24 hours, exquisitely nice because of that.

“I’m not saving up for anything,” he told Matt Blake in 2015, in a quote that has today gone right round the world. “I’m cashing it all now. I’ve always had this thing inside me that, when I’m done, I’ll kill myself. I swear to God that’s not suicidal – it’s definitely a positive thing. The moment I start shitting the bed is when you’ll see me on the front of a bus.”

Well, so far as we know, he wasn’t shitting the bed. He had all his teeth and all his marbles. He’d apparently just put in a personal best at his local Parkrun, photographed in lime-lumo leggings and a shock-orange cap, two days before his death. So what was eating Keith Flint? Does it matter? More than almost anyone, he knew what danger was, he knew where the edge of the plughole was, and I fear his death will at once be both an eternal mystery, and plain as day: the most uncomfortable fact, the one we fear to dwell upon, is that some of us might die because that is what we want.

He was basic. But that made him the most original of characters. Essex has lost its emoji.

Keith Flint took the rockstar fairy tale and gave it devil hair