Sanctuary, 2002, 315 pages, US$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-86074-356-0
The March 2009 release of The Prodigy’s fifth studio album Invaders Must Die rekindled my interest in the band to such a point that I was primed to buy anything about them on sight. The Toronto HMV on Yonge having cannily placed copies of Martin James’ Prodigy on an end rack to promote the band’s recent local concert, I went from “I had no idea this book existed” to “I’m buying this now” in about a second.
But don’t feel sorry for my impulse purchase: Prodigy manages to fulfill every expectation a fan could have regarding a musical biography. A much-expanded rewrite of a biography first published in 1997, it’s a complete narrative of the band from its early-nineties roots to 2002. It covers nearly every single piece ever produced by the group (some of them still unreleased even today), gives a fair impression of what it would be like to hang out with them and doesn’t shy away from covering the more controversial moments of their history.
If you’re receptive to rock and techno music yet aren’t already a fan of The Prodigy, I would suggest listening to either The Fat of the Land or their greatest-hits compilation Their Law. Chances are that you too will be hooked by their infectious mixture of energetic rhythm. They bark their vocals over catchy melodies, but they’ve never forgotten their roots in the rave scene: Their music is meant to move you until you drop from blissful exhaustion as the sun comes up. If Martin James does one thing particularly well at the onset of Prodigy, it’s to give us a good idea of the music scene in the early 1990s as Liam Howlett started assembling the foundations of his musical group. James is no mere scribbler with a book contract and access to a good bibliography: As the first few pages of the book make clear, he’s a long-time friend of the band, and his own concert memories often dovetail nicely with The Prodigy’s growing success. The result is a biography with ready access to the band members, almost but not quite veering in hagiography: Prodigy doesn’t shy away from the band’s less glamorous moments, and while it usually presents The Prodigy’s version of events as the correct one, it never forgets to give at least a cursory summary of the opposing arguments.
It goes without saying that the best way to read Prodigy is to do so with your favorite MP3 player and the best possible assortment of the band’s tracks. I ended up listening to my entire Prodigy catalog a few times as I was making my way through the book, an approach made easy by a single-by-single discussion of the band’s discography as it is assembled. Since the video clips are also discussed, you may as well start looking for the DVD anthology of The Prodigy’s video clips while you’re collecting the complementary material. The various spin-off albums from members of the group (such as Flightcrank, the Dirtchamber Sessions or Liam Prodigy’s “Back to Mine”) can also help in rounding up the remaining references. (As luck had it, my first visit to a used record store after completing the book ended up netting two Prodigy singles and a copy of Flightcrank!)
One of the best things about the book is how is contextualizes many of the tracks for those who weren’t in the scene at the time. For North-American fans, for instance, it’s hard to understand the political subtext behind Music for the Jilted Generation without understanding the changing nature of the British rave scene due to authoritarian clamp-downs: “Their Law” indeed!
Weighing in at 120,000 words, this revised and expanded biography leaves little uncovered, although its 2002 publication date is getting more frustrating every year: A lot has happened in the band’s life since then, including the “Baby’s Got a Temper” episode, the mixed reception for Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, a few more side projects, the reunion of the group and the well-received release of Invaders Must Die. The Prodigy is still touring, and their music is still unmistakably as hard-hitting as it’s ever been. If someone’s paying attention over at Sanctuary Books, a third edition of the book would be more than welcome.