Mindfields

The Fat Of The Land came out when I was only 10 years old.

The 10 year old me was listening to pop music. I’d grown really fond of Madness, and was sucked in to the excitement of the Brit Pop battles of Oasis and Blur…trying to sing Oasis songs with my best Liam Gallagher impersonation. But that was it. Other than that, you were looking to whatever was in the charts…at that point it was The Spice Girls so, secretly, I add, I was listening to them, too.

I remember the first time I saw and heard Prodigy. Top of the Pops, ‘Firestarter’. My Dad had heard it on the radio and was saying how amazing this song was and then it was on TV. A black and white music video, in a tunnel, with Keith Flint dancing and shouting his vocals. I remember thinking I’d never seen anything like it before.

The ‘Firestarter’ video got banned by the BBC due to complaints from parents saying it had scared their children. The video didn’t scare me but it did make me take notice and it has always remained one of the most memorable music videos for me.

Ultimately, the thing that made the ‘Firestarter’ video stand out wasn’t the music – as brilliant as it was, and still is – but actually the performance of Keith Flint. I’d seen clips of, say, The Sex Pistols but Flint was different. At age 10, Keith Flint was the most punk rock person I had ever seen. The devil horn hairstyle, the crazy dance moves, the clothes, the make up…I was enamoured by this person.

I always found it odd that the video for ‘Firestarter’ was black listed. There was nothing scary about it to me, it was just punk. And dance. I soon discovered ‘Breathe’, a video that I thought was creepier than ‘Firestarter’ but fewer people seemed to agree. From those two songs and videos came my introduction to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ – a music video that, even now, pushes boundaries and a song that, even now, causes such controversy.

Prodigy were a dance band, but they were more than just that…they were the most punk rock band I’d ever seen, with Keith Flint, the most punk rock man I’d ever seen, leading the charge. I remember getting their 1997 album ‘Fat Of The Land’ when I was just shy of turning 11 and listening to it all through. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

My love of music is something I often think I got from my Dad. In the car, he’d put on Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Elton John and so on, and talk to me about the gigs he’d been to. It got me in to rock music from a fairly early age, even if my preferred style was pop. I look back now and think of my Dad introducing me to Prodigy and it makes me laugh a bit. From an outside perspective, to go from introducing your son to ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by Prodigy…it may seem a bit odd. But this is how I was raised with music, and another reason as to why I think I like music of so many genres.

All of my Dad’s favourite music had their “angry” songs, protest songs almost, but none of them had the raw energy, anger and aggressive feel of the Prodigy. I loved it.

Keith Flint as front man opened my eyes to a vast surrounding of music I’d otherwise ignored. I often think that had it not been for Flint, for Prodigy, I’d have never listened to some of the punk that I adored in my later years, never had listened to Nirvana, never had listened to punk and metal. My musical tastes would be completely different.

On hearing Keith Flint had passed away, aged only 49, I find myself thinking of that first time I heard ‘Fat Of The Land’, and feeling massively grateful for the lasting effect it had on me with my taste in music.

I saw Prodigy perform live only once, at the Download Festival in 2006. It was insane. They headlined the second stage while Guns n Roses headlined main. It felt like more people had come to the tent for Prodigy and the mix of people was unbelievable. Metal heads, ravers, punk rockers…it was a musical free for all. And when they started the whole tent went berserk. Energy like I’ve rarely, if ever, felt at a gig. People climbing the rafters. The whole place a mosh pit.

My cousin and I lasted a few songs before we had to go. You could feel the mood turning on the night and the band were having to stop performing to encourage people to stop climbing rafters. All in all, it was a recipe for disaster. A mix of ravers and moshers, in a tent too small. But Prodigy were immense. Keith Flint parading the front of the stage sticks in my mind. This man, the first person I saw that made me think “punk rock”, is in front of me and he is still the most punk rock person I’ve ever seen.

That mix of people, that impression of Flint, is part of the reason why Keith Flint is an icon. There are very few people that could bridge the gap between dance, electronic, punk and metal like Keith Flint did…and there may not be many that do it anywhere near as good, with such ease, ever again.

To hear that Keith Flint took his own life adds to the sorrow of the day and he joins an ever growing list of musicians I love that have taken their own lives; including Kurt Cobain, Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell and more. All men. All men that other men would look to as a voice – be it a voice to help them release pain, or sadness, or anger…or just a voice they loved.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 50 in the UK. Bigger than cancer, bigger than road accidents, bigger than heart attacks. Suicide. And with every Chris Cornell, every Chester Bennington and now with Keith Flint we’re all left with it there in front of us. Depression doesn’t care how successful you are, how loved you are or about what you have…but, as men, we struggle to talk. We struggle to admit. Why?

Stigma plays a massive part. With every famous suicide I still see comments online of how selfish the person is, how someone has taken the easy way…”the cowards way”…and it’s all unfair. Suicide is not cowardice, it’s an end to an illness for someone that hasn’t got better. I see comments of “they don’t think about their loved ones”…but I’d argue the contrary and encourage people that believe that to think this way. A suicidal person always thinks of their loved ones. A suicidal person will believe that they are doing the best thing for those people because, and this is the biggest issue, a suicidal person believes more than anything that they are a burden, they are a problem and that everything will be better without them.

Stigmas and attitude can only change when we begin to try to understand. At 49 years old, Keith Flint has added to the number, the already huge number, of UK men aged under 50 that choose to take their own life. Of all those people, how many could have been avoided had more people taken the time to understand and be there rather than pass quick judgements and create stigma?

This is the male problem. And with every famous suicide, the focus comes back. But how sad is it that more death, more pain, is needed to make people reflect, change and talk?

Keith Flint is an icon, and a man I feel I owe a lot to as I know it was him that made me become more open minded to other genres of music and groups of people. The Prodigy and Flint really did take me to another dimension.

And now I hope his passing serves as not just a reminder of his brilliant music, but as a way to make more people become open minded to mental health, removing the stigma around it and maybe give someone the courage to talk to somebody else instead of meeting the end.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Friday 8th January 2010, West Brom are at home to Nottingham Forest. It’s a top of the table clash on a really bitterly cold night. A win for Albion and we’re three points behind Newcastle at the top and making space between second and third, occupied by Forest. Forest win, they leapfrog in to second.

Expectations at the start of the 2009/10 season were high. Albion and Newcastle were the favourites to bounce straight back up. Undoubtedly the quality was there in both sides…Newcastle dominated for near enough the whole season, and had kept the likes of Gutierrez. There was never any doubt with them. Albion, under a highly rated Roberto Di Matteo, had kept several players after relegation the season prior and remained around the top spots all year. There was an air of expectation and arrogance, we knew we were better.

Then Forest came…and it was awful. 3-1 Forest. Absolutely nothing clicked. I remember watching it and debating with other Albion fans that it had been one of those that “had been coming”. For all the good results, there was something about the Albion that felt fragile. That night, we were found out. Focus turned to recovery.

Jump back another couple of years, to the 2007/08 season and Saturday 15th March. Albion are hosting Leicester City, a side in a relegation battle. Albion, fourth, can jump to third if they win.

It starts well enough; a Robert Koren goal putting Albion in the lead…and then disaster. Luke Moore, already fighting unpopularity at The Hawthorns after joining from Villa, runs across the pitch and makes a rash challenge. I was in the East Stand that day, it happened right in front of me and straight away knew he was gone. Moore’s first red card of his career, and perhaps a sign of the disappointment he’d prove to be.

Albion never recovered. Gareth McAuley (who’d in later years become an Albion star) equalised, Lee Hendrie goaded the fans continually and Steve Howard scored a hat trick. Leicester won 4-1. Fears began that Albion might fall away from the top, already five points behind the automatic promotion places.

From both of these matches, the Albion moved forward. Almost as if they were wake up calls, the response that followed changed everything. After the Forest game in 2010, Albion lost only two in 22 and finished the season second. After the Leicester game in 2008, Albion, fourth at the time, went unbeaten for the remaining nine games and won the league. Before that game, Albion had lost 10 in 36.

A big part of leadership is learning from your mistakes and working to ensure they don’t happen again. It’s inevitable that there will be a time where the result isn’t what was intended but then the focus has to be on looking ahead, putting your hands up and acknowledging the errors and working to ensure they don’t happen again.

Albion’s last two games have been massive. Sheffield United and Leeds, both in the top four alongside Albion, both looking towards automatic promotion and both games disasters for the Baggies.

Sheffield United win 1-0, and do so with relative ease. They look so much more organised, they defend in numbers, attack in numbers and look the real deal. Had Rodriguez’s disallowed goal been allowed to stand it would have been a huge injustice (and not only because it was such a blatant handball) – Sheffield United were by far the better team.

We move on, we head to Leeds, a team that lost 4-1 at the Hawthorns. It’s shocking. 4-0 to Leeds, Albion deserve nothing. “We didn’t get a performance”, says Darren Moore, before talking about the togetherness of the players. “We win and lose games as a team.”

These results had been coming. Much like the Di Matteo season in the Championship there have been some wonderful results, but they have largely been due to moments of brilliance from Harvey Barnes (before being recalled by Leicester), Dwight Gayle and a few others. There haven’t been many games that have been dominated by Albion, games without moments that have had fans panicking.

Again, similar to that season under Di Matteo, there’s an air of expectancy around the club…but, unlike that season, there’s heightened fear. Fear that the team won’t turn it around, fear that they won’t learn from the mistakes and fear that promotion will not happen.

Darren Moore, in his first season as a manager, has done well. After a disastrous season in the Premier League (that he almost miraculously saved), he’s done a brilliant job to remove the losing mentality from the team and build them back up. He’s bought a decent atmosphere back to the Hawthorns with more attacking football being played. The club sit fourth in the league, things could be far worse.

But they could be better.

The quality of the Albion team is far greater this year than any other season in the league but the same issues rear their head again and again. Defensively we’re still fragile, and, worse, we now seem to have lost some of the cutting edge. When you struggle defending and struggle scoring you’re going to struggle winning games. It’s that simple.

So now, eyes fall on to Darren Moore. Despite having a good start he has his critics and it is sometimes incredibly difficult to argue against them. Substitutions are a big source of complaint. A stubbornness to alter the game plan if it isn’t working. He has to look at these games and change things going forward.

Moore has done it before, changing from three at the back to four improved things massively, but now, playing 4-3-3, the team are being found out. Other clubs are wise to it. We expect so much from Gibbs and Holgate as wing backs that teams know that if they cancel them out, they stand a chance. Ball retention is still up and down. Gayle plays in the wide position of the front three (not on the wing as many complain…you have no wingers in a 4-3-3 formation), meaning he has to cut in but we are now struggling to create for him.

The optimist would look to the games mentioned beforehand…the Forest match during Di Matteo’s time and, even more so, the Leicester game during Mowbray’s Championship winning year…and argue they were catalysts of change and after that it was excellent…but the pessimist would argue we’ve been here before this season and, despite change obviously being needed, we’ve done very little or nothing at all.

It’s then a concerning thought if Albion do fail at promotion this season. The clear tactic on recruitment has been to get in loans so the club are financially stable either way but if promotion is missed, the loss of players could potentially be huge. Gayle would likely be gone, Rodriguez too. Phillips, Gibbs, Dawson, Hegazi, Livermore all likely to be off, as well as all the loanees. Morrison, Brunt, Barry…even Rakeem Harper…all out of contract.

The potential rebuild as the club also tries to raise funds could be as big as any rebuilding job at the Albion for years. There is often a reason so many teams that get relegated and fail to win promotion first time struggle the following year and this is one of those reasons.

And then you ask, if Albion don’t go up, is Darren Moore the right person for a rebuilding job as big as the one it could be? It pains me to think that more experience would pay dividends, such is my want for Moore to do well, but if it came to it I think the club would have to seriously consider its options.

The hope has to be that Darren Moore treats the Leeds game as the wake up call it should be. It’s not bad leadership to admit you got it wrong and then change things – if anything, that’s heading to great leadership. If he continues with a reluctance to change things when it’s going wrong then the club, and Darren Moore, are in trouble.

In a similar position under Tony Mowbray, the club went on to win the league. Nobody expects that this season, but if Leeds serves as a similar wake up call to the team as that 4-1 defeat against Leicester in 2008 did then, who knows? The Championship is an incredibly unpredictable league.

And this is Albion…very often, over the years, an unpredictable team.