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Daft Punk: A Retrospective

A love letter to “dafty punky thrash”.

Forming in 1993 and disbanding in 2021, Daft Punk gifted the world 4 studio albums, 2 live albums, a soundtrack album, and two films. The impact the robots have had on both music and the wider world is difficult to explain. The duo sold over 10 million records worldwide, yet I would hazard a guess that most people don’t know their names, let alone their faces. This anonymity has always been an intentional facet of Daft Punk, and it’s what makes them so important, both to me personally and to the world.

Daft Punk was Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (silver and gold helmets respectively). The two met at secondary school in Paris, where they started a band with Laurent Brancowitz (yes, that one), named Darlin’. Darlin’ themselves carved out a very important piece of history, through a review received from Melody Maker Magazine describing their music as a “daft punky thrash”. Entertained by this, following the disbandment of Darlin’ and Brancowitz’s departure to his new band, Phoenix (yes, that one), Daft Punk were born.

1997 saw the duo release their debut studio album, Homework, to the world. Homework is a remarkable album in a few ways. It established the duo’s characteristic style and sound, its popularity and critical reception brought global attention to French house music, and it is also a fantastic body of work. From Daftendirekt’s understated but undeniably groovy beats to Fresh’s walls of guitar feedback easing into serene synth pads and oceanic samples, Homework is groovy, dynamic and rich with texture. Homework is also an album that set out to introduce Daft Punk to the world, and showcases their already impressive palate of influences, creativity and singular stylistic niche. Its lead single Around the World is noteworthy for a few reasons—it was relatively successful, Michel Gondry directed the music video depicting various elements of the mix as dancers doing different choreography, and the funny robot man says “around the world” 144 times in the album version of Around the World (and 88 in the radio version).

The next few years were busy for Daft Punk as individuals, with Bangalter founding the group Stardust with Benjamin Diamond and Alan Braxe, going on to release one of the most popular dance songs of the last 25 years, Music Sounds Better with You. They also both founded their own record labels. This was not all however, as the robots had been cooking together during the late 90s and early 00s. The product of their labours was 2001’s Discovery.

Discovery is one of the only records in the world that I cannot keep still whilst listening to. It overflows with energy, groove, emotion and colour. The record explores themes of experiencing things for the first time and open-mindedness, and does so remarkably well. Whether it’s falling in love for the first time, captured beautifully by “Digital Love”, which also happens to go absolutely bananas in any setting you can dance in, to “Face to Face”, with the most insane sample flips possibly in history—seriously, watch a breakdown of the samples and give up your career in music production. My personal favourite on Discovery is Something About Us. I refer all naysayers of electronic music as a genre to this song. Something About Us is funky in an understated way, instantly hooky and memorable. Then the vocoded robot comes in, delivering an almost unsettlingly emotive verse. Then he fades out, and the guitar/synth line comes in, and you’re transcending and you’re crying and asking yourself “why don’t she want me man” (real). If it isn’t apparent enough already, Discovery is a very important album, both to me personally, but also for Daft Punk. Lead single One More Time was a massive hit across the world, and launched the robots further into the mainstream. If you haven’t heard it yet, play it on the best speakers you can find, in a room with room to both dance like you’re geeking in a Parisian nightclub and to cry like you’re in a Glaswegian flat in late November. Also noteworthy is the tie-in film manga artist Leiji Matsumoto created with Daft Punk, Interstella 5555, a genuinely breath-taking animation largely without dialogue set to Discovery. Watch it and discover the music speaking for itself.

The next few years were relatively quiet for the robots, with the exception of the release of Alive 1997, a 45-minute long recording from a Daftendirekt tour performance. Alive 1997 is a pretty good way of emulating the experience of seeing a Daft Punk concert, but the robots had much better things coming soon on that front. 2005 saw them releasing their third studio album, Human After All. The creation of this record was very different from their previous two, with recording taking place over only two weeks, made with two drum machines, two guitars, a vocoder and an eight-track recorder. This departure from their usual methodology resulted in an album that was, in my view and the common critical consensus of the time, not as good as their previous two works. The main criticism levelled at Human After All was that it was too repetitive. This seems like a silly thing to take issue with, given this is electronic music. However, the issue lies with the nature of the repetition. Previous Daft Punk songs featured repetition, and it was iterative—new musical ideas are added on top of the ones already playing to recontextualise them, whether in Around the World’s B section featuring a new bassline on top of the otherwise unchanged elements, or Veridis Quo slowly fading into a drum machine and synth bass groove atop the haunting lead melody. Human After All suffers as the repetition is not iterative; it just keeps going, largely unchanged. The change in instrumental palate to more guitar-led is interesting, and in concept seems very appealing. However, with the exception of a few songs like Robot Rock (absolute slapper, not denying that), “The Prime Time of Your Life” and the title track, this palate is grating, too distorted (a complaint I don’t often make about music), and grows boring quite quickly.

It wasn’t all bad for the robots in the 2000s, however, as their success facilitated a world tour. The Alive tour is of unparalleled importance in the history of the genre—it is credited as bringing dance music to North America and the rest of the world at a previously unseen scale. Their Paris performance was released to the world as Alive 2007, the duo’s second live album. Alive 2007 is on the same level as the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense for me as far as concert recordings go, and I do not say that lightly as a David Byrne cult devotee. Alive 2007 features a megamix/medley of the robots’ entire catalogue, many of these being from Human After All. By fusing elements from different songs from their catalogue, the Human After All tracks are cleverly recontextualised and shine in an entirely new light, as do all the other songs featured.

Quickly returning to Alive 199—my mention of it was very brief, because as far as I’m concerned ‘97 crawled so ’07 could grow bionic wings with jetpacks on and fly to space. Alive 2007 has been compared to The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, rightfully so, and I would even go so far as to compare it to Radiohead’s In Rainbows – From the Basement or Mac Miller’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert. I would recommend this to anybody who has listened to the robots’ discography up to this point like how I would recommend breathing to sentient life.

It is 2009. Daft Punk are more popular and successful than ever, having just taken the world by storm and single-handedly changing the way popular music would sound for years—and they didn’t even know it yet. Naturally, they had been cooking. At San Diego Comic-Con, it was announced that Daft Punk were scoring Disney’s heavily anticipated Tron: Legacy. This was another step into the world of massive musical success, a step taken by many others before the robots, with frankly mixed results, but more importantly it marked the first time Daft Punk had worked with an orchestra. The score itself is pretty good, but Tron: Legacy for lack of any better description, is not. The highlight for me is Derezzed, which ironically does not feature this orchestra at all, opting instead for heavy enveloped synth lines and distortion, driving drums and stuttered and glitchy effects throughout, to remarkable effect. If only Human After All chose this path. Tron: Legacy aside, the robots were moving forward with higher musical ambitions and a taste for orchestration. This would take them in a direction few could have predicted.

Random Access Memories is an album that should require no introduction. You’re likely picturing the cover art in your head, or Get Lucky is being faintly sung to you by a worm that has lay dormant in your ear for the last ten years. If only the worm knew the line wasn’t “like the legend of the penis.” Random Access Memories was both a stylistic departure for the duo and a return to their roots. Songs like Get Lucky, Lose Yourself to Dance. and Fragments of Time sound more like disco and soul records the robots would have sampled and flipped in the 90s and 2000s. This is an enormous compliment—these songs are so evocative of the time they are inspired by, likely because of some key personnel involved. I am of course talking about Nile Rodgers, one of the greatest guitarists and producers of all time, and his touch is all over this record. Then there are the more electronic-focussed songs like Instant Crush, Doin’ it Right and Contact. These aren’t just returns to form, they are new twists on the genres the robots have dominated. Instant Crush is a particular standout, featuring Julian Casablancas of the Strokes and the Voidz, in a collaboration that probably shouldn’t work, yet is one of the most infectious, groovy and emotionally charged performances from the three. Vocode Julian more often. Please.

Then there are the other songs on the record, a weird in-between featuring varying ratios of electronic and disco influence, namely Touch, Within, Motherboard and Giorgio by Moroder. These songs are rich tapestries of texture and emotion, in completely different ways. The touches of orchestration on these tracks put them on a completely different level to anything else the robots have released. I could rant like a lunatic about any of these for hours, but I will spare you that and move on. Random Access Memories is much more than just a Daft Punk album, and the people involved reflect this—the aforementioned Nile Rodgers contributes on a few songs to unbelievable effect, while Omar Hakim plays drums on most of the record and is absolutely outstanding, especially on Giorgio by Moroder where he takes an incredible drum solo. Nathan East plays bass on a lot of the tracks and provides the songs the regulation level of Daft Punk groove, but the human touch and ear he provides lends the record a certain je ne sais quoi that only the bass greats can.

Random Access Memories was the final record the robots released. The duo worked together with the Weeknd on two of his biggest hits a few years later, but remained largely quiet and seemingly inactive. 2021 comes around, and the robots upload a video to their YouTube channel titled Epilogue. Featuring a scene from their live action film Electroma that has Thomas Bangalter (the silver robot) exploding into lots of small pieces as Guy-Man (the gold robot) watches from a distance. It cuts to Guy-Man walking away towards the sunset on the horizon. With that, the robots called it quits. It was shortly announced after that the breakup was mutual and amicable, but like any breakup, it left me wounded, lost and confused.

Fortunately enough for me, earlier this year the robots announced a ten-year anniversary reissue of Random Access Memories featuring unreleased tracks, demos and sound tests of the orchestra, and an undeniably cool recolour of the cover art painting the robots shiny silver. These are all wonderful pieces of music history to have access to, but the most noteworthy of these in my view is the Infinity Repeating demo featuring Julian Casablancas. I love Julian under (almost) any circumstance, but if that wasn’t enough the robots also dubbed it their final song. As a soundtrack for their departure, it is utterly magnificent. Julian sings vague but evocative lyrics over an understated instrumental featuring sparse keys, tight but minimised drums, and a wonderfully erratic bassline. The song builds and builds in intensity, more poignant guitar and keys are layered in, more percussion is added, and the build continues. As Julian sings refrains over the chorus, the drums get louder and louder in the mix drowning everything else out, then an electric guitar starts repeating a riff so emotionally evocative it should be illegal. The guitar gets louder and clearer as the drums distort and clip more, then the drums suddenly drop out and we hear the guitar line once more, by itself. Chills. Every single time.

That’s it. Daft Punk changed the world. They did so as robots, not Guy-Man and Thomas. Millions of records sold, three undeniably fantastic studio albums, and one live album to rival all the greats. The robots proved that celebrity, appearance and superficiality pale in comparison to talent, collaboration, passion and creativity. The drumless version of Random Access Memories releases on November 17, and if the two singles Within and Motherboard are anything to go by, it will be another wonderful recontextualization of one of the most intricately arranged, composed and recorded albums ever made.

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