Daft Punk – Random Access Memories – Throwback 10

On 12th April 2013, Daft Punk stole Coachella for the second time.

For months, the iconic and influential dance duo had been drip-feeding teases of their long-awaited return.  In late February, a signing with Columbia Records and new chromatic helmet designs which would later constitute the record’s front cover.  In early March, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it logo reveal during an ad break on Saturday Night Live, backed by a 15-second disco snippet which was immediately circulated around the Internet and looped with excited fervour.

Two weeks later, song lengths are registered with the appropriate copyright parties.  Mid-March, billboards start cropping up in select locations with those same Daft Punk helmets.  Late-March, another SNL ad featuring another 15-second disco snippet which was also immediately circulated around the Internet and looped with excited fervour, this time accompanied by a pre-order link and an album title: Random Access Memories, which turns ten on 17th May.

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Each morsel of new info was pounced on by fans and media alike with the desperate hunger of a rabid dog finding an untouched cheeseburger on the ground.  This is barely an exaggeration.  I remember just how ridiculous the faintest prospect of a Daft Punk return excited all of us.

In the six years since their Alive tour came to a close, dance music had conquered the pop world on both sides of the Atlantic.  They’d famously stolen the 2006 Coachella Music Festival by debuting the famed pyramid set-up and brought their pummelling sensory overload live show to the American masses.  Over the following 46 shows, they would convert entire generations of future DJs to the wonders and thrills of dance music, setting a template for EDM that would be imitated in force for the rest of the decade and much of the next.

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That was far from the first time Daft Punk shifted or signalled a shift in the tides of dance.  In fact, shifting tides was kinda Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s whole thing.  1997’s Homework refocused attention on France’s underground dance scene, pairing cool house with a goofy rock-friendly aesthetic cultivated in MTV-ready videos by the likes of Michel Gondry.  2001’s Discovery, preceded by Bangalter’s side-project one-off ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ in 1998, canonised filter-house – disco and funk-sampling groove loops often filtered to sound like old AM radios, at once pristine but also retro chic – as the sound in pop-ready dance music for the 2000s.

2005’s Human After All was divisive upon release, shifting to harsh electro-rock with punishing production and simplistic (arguably underwritten) song-writing, but Ed Banger and blog-house’s rise don’t happen without it, and the aforementioned pyramid tour did a lot to contextualise and rehabilitate the record for many listeners.

‘Get Lucky’ screencap.

So, yeah, any new Daft Punk activity was an Event and came with lofty expectations.  By 2010, they were so canonised into music’s upper echelon that a motion picture score was able to crash the Billboard Top 5 just because it was technically new Daft Punk music.  They’d sat out the entirety of the EDM boom as artists like Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, Justice, deadmau5, and Calvin Harris jacked elements of the Daft Punk style and iconography for themselves.  We all leapt on even the tiniest snippet of music not just because it was new Daft Punk after eight years in the wilderness, but also because it could be a harbinger of what pop and dance music were soon to become.

Hence why, on 12th April 2013, Daft Punk stole Coachella again and the robots didn’t even need to play a note of live music.  Instead, across the close of Day 1, before each headliner was set to take the stage, the respective screens would play a two-minute-long trailer for Random Access Memories.  The shiny sequin suits, the Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers reveals, the first extended taste of lead single ‘Get Lucky,’ and ending on a list of collaborators.  Within minutes, grainy phone-cam footage was all over the web.  Daft Punk were back and they had a hitA week later, ‘Get Lucky’ drops.

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What more can really be said about ‘Get Lucky’ at this point?  The song that gave Daft Punk their first UK #1, twenty years in.  The song that revitalised Nile Rodgers’ popularity to a generation who’d never heard the iconic Chic guitarist’s litany of classic tunes.  The song that reset Pharrell Williams’ career trajectory.  The sound of the summer.  It’s one of those songs where you can’t quite imagine it ever not existing.

Even at the time of release, it sounded just so effortless and timeless.  The groove laid down by Rodgers’ guitar.  The trilling piano chords.  The crisp snap of the drums.  The alternating vocal runs of the chorus.  The bridge where Daft Punk break in with their trademark clipped vocoders and digital take on the prior drumset.  The Wurlitzer outro.  That ceaseless nagging hook which has been living rent-free in everyone’s heads for the past decade.  ‘Get Lucky’ is one of those near-perfect pop songs which never gets old no matter how many listens or how many years pass.

‘Instant Crush’ screencap.

Releasing it as the first single was also the canniest move Daft Punk made in an album rollout that aimed to be nothing but canny moves.  For one, it’s Random Access Memories’ most immediate and floor-filling song.  For two, it’s a perfect representation of the duo’s aesthetic and artistic aims with the record, even if it’s not wholly representative sonically.  After Human After All’s improvisational quick-fire six-week gestation, RAM was worked on over the course of five years in a minimum of five different professional studios (itself a first for the duo) largely to analog and cost over a million dollars.

‘Get Lucky,’ a song that sounds both expensive yet also effortless, took 18 months to make.  The duo sought out the session players who’d worked on classic Michael Jackson records to play the melodies they had in their head.  A sixty-three-piece orchestra was hired to play on every track, and they only kept the work recorded on four songs.  They crafted a custom-made 5x7ft modular synth and carted it across the Atlantic multiple times.  Giorgio Moroder is here on a track named after the electronic pioneer and, rather than play the Moog modular he made famous on Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, he instead provides a brief spoken-word summary of his early career.

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Daft Punk had always been in conversation with the forerunners of dance music.  Homework’s ‘Teachers’ was a track dedicated to Bangalter shouting out a list of their musical heroes; Discovery was an album-length tribute to the disco and rock records which made up their youth.  But those still had a mischievousness and clownishness that wasn’t much concerned with existing on the same pedestal.

On Random Access Memories, Daft Punk no longer wanted to be in conversation with legends; they wanted to be those legends.  It’s an album that arguably insists on its own importance from the length (73 minutes), to the cast list, to the gigantic orchestra, to the meticulous audio engineering, to the almost total lack of proper all-out bangers.  RAM is the kind of album you’re expected to invest time into, to recognise the artistry and craft of, to marvel at the musicianship as much as enjoying the actual music contained within.

‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ screencap.

You will be unsurprised to read that Daft Punk were not big fans of the electronic artists who took over in their absence.  “Electronic music is in a rut and it’s not moving an inch,” went one quote from the press tour.  “Is it still a show when a magician makes a trick in front of an audience, if everyone is a magician and everyone knows the trick?” went another, referring to homemade laptop-based dance music.

A third: “You hear a song: Whose track is it? There’s no signature.  Everyone making electronic music has the same tool kits and templates.  You listen, and you feel like it can be done on an iPad.”  In a sense, they weren’t wrong, per se, but the duo’s innate traditionalism and (arguably) classism was all over both the interviews and the album they ended up making.  The refined version of those YouTube commenters who bemoan about whatever happened to ‘real’ music.  (If this same press tour and eventual album came out today, you could put money on them getting dragged to hell and back for sharing this view whilst coming from money.)

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And so, rather than engage with modern music, RAM aims to drag it back to the 70s.  Disco into soft-rock into adult contemporary into R&B into musical theatre into, more than anything, prog.  Yet, in spite of everything, it worksRandom Access Memories was and remains a hell of an album that earns the bombast and the pomp and the self-importance and pretension it invited upon itself.

The key factor is, unsurprisingly, the Daft Punk of it all.  They just couldn’t help themselves when it came to writing massive hooks or jaw-dropping moments of music.  I distinctly remember my first listen on 13th May, four days before release, when iTunes put the whole thing up for streaming.  I can recall the goosebumps which set in upon ‘Giorgio by Moroder’’s orchestral break.

It’s undoubtedly cheesy, coming straight after a snippet of Moroder dialogue where he talks about “free[ing] your mind from the concept of harmony and music being ‘correct’”, but it’s also transcendent.  This prog-disco Moog groove forced to a halt so the song can hang in the air upon a bed of symphonic minor-key strings, like a rollercoaster cresting the apex before tunnelling back down to earth on a scale-based guitar shred and towering drums by the legendary Omar Hakim.  I still get those same goosebumps when I hear that break today, like the song is scraping the underside of sky.

‘Infinity Repeating’ screencap.

There are dozens upon dozens of such moments across RAM’s thirteen tracks.  The flute riff that functions as the instrumental sound collage ‘Motherboard’’s stickiest hook.  The bit in ‘Give Life Back to Music’ where Paul Jackson, Jr.’s muted guitar picks get subsumed by the arrival of Nile Rodgers’ signature disco flick.  The glorious cheesy keytar solo that sends ‘Fragments of Time’ into its climax.  The way that the vocoder vocals in ‘The Game of Love’ hit a mournful scale after the second full verse that’s simultaneously mechanical yet achingly tuneful, blurring the line between singing and key-playing.  When the choir fades in on ‘Touch’ for the melancholic hopeful refrain “if love is the answer, you’ll hold/hold on”.

I could go on and on and on listing individual moments that continue to make me flip a decade on.  But they’re also so effective because they highlight Daft Punk’s skill at creating a constant sense of progression and evolution in their songs.  They may not be operating in the house sphere anymore, but that habit of knowing precisely when to add or reduce components to a track to keep things from becoming stale has followed them over to working with live bands.

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‘Giorgio’ is nine minutes long, but to me never feels like it drags because, despite revolving largely around the same Moog groove, new elements and variations reliably arrive every sixteen or thirty-two bars to change the track’s complexion.  A synth bed that rises slowly upwards, a funk-inflected bass solo from James Genus, drum lines becoming a lot jazzier, a brief guitar lick, all keeping the track humming along in between the more monumental shifts.

Speaking of progression, RAM is a cleverly sequenced album.  Sonically, the record jumps all over the place.  But aesthetically it’s cohesive as all hell and, though only nominally a dance record, still has that Daft Punk album flow.  The more immediate crowd-pleasing numbers are never more than a track or two away from the downcast ballads or sprawling epics.

‘Within,’ the album’s lowest point emotionally, gets chased down with two of the best pop tracks on-deck (‘Instant Crush’ and ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’).  Musical-theatre excursion ‘Touch’ is smartly followed by ‘Get Lucky’ in case any more casual listeners were preparing to give up altogether.  ‘Motherboard’, though gorgeous, is maybe the most indulgent track on here and that gives way to a one-two-three hit-parade finale of ‘Fragments’ into ‘Doin’ It Right’ into ‘Contact’.

‘Get Lucky’ screencap.

The bangers are proper bangers, by the way.  ‘Instant Crush’ pair the robots up with Julian Casablancas from The Strokes for the kind of early-80s synth-rock ballad his own band had been trying to nail for two albums around the same time, and it’s arguably better than both of them.  (How I long to exist in the universe where Julian hung out with Daft Punk rather than forming The Voidz.)

‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ often gets dinged for being similar to ‘Get Lucky’ (it features all the same principal players) but the vibes are totally separate; ‘Get Lucky’ is the radio-friendly pop hit, ‘Lose Yourself’ is the late-night body-to-body disco-sweat sex jam.  ‘Fragments’ reteams with Todd Edwards from Discovery’s ‘Face to Face’ for a track which nails that breezy California drivetime-radio sensation, and that little synth burble which follows every “I’ll just keep playing back” has never once stopped delighting me since first listen.

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In fact, I finished that first listen convinced I’d heard a masterpiece.  Sure, it helps that RAM goes out on its best song, but it’s also the rare record which fully deserves the mythology it attempts to cultivate.  It sounds immaculate, even by Daft Punk standards – listening on a good pair of headphones at least once is mandatory, you’ll hear so many interesting choices regarding channel-mixing and buried details.  The musicianship is astonishing – I’m still at a loss as to how they made those ascending pitch screams at the end of ‘Contact’ and I kinda don’t ever want to know the answer, it’s a proper (as they say) magic trick.

The hooks are stellar.  For as slavishly devoted to traditionalist ideas of dance music and their inspirations as they are, RAM never feels like musical cosplay in the way that lesser retro-fetishising acts would and did fall into; there are too many idiosyncratic touches.  It’s fun and heady and emotional at various turns.  Imperfect to be sure – I’ve always felt the album take of ‘Get Lucky’ is too long, ‘Within’ I can take or leave depending on the listen, and the grand orchestral opening of ‘Beyond’ writes cheques the rest of the song has no interest in cashing – but an album I have always adored even with the occasional misstep.  And, with ‘Get Lucky’ being truly inescapable that Summer, it did feel like Daft Punk had caught the zeitgeist again.

‘Instant Crush’ screencap.

Except, that’s not what ended up happening.  Sure, Random Access Memories was a massive success by almost any metric you slice it with: #1 in nearly every major country, 3.2 million copies sold worldwide by 2014, critical acclaim that ranks as the second-best of any major (more than 25 reviews) release that year, and the Grammy for Album of the Year.

But in terms of long-term influence?  Of signalling a musical shift like they had done with all their prior releases?  Of, as collaborator DJ Falcon hoped, other dance artists mining RAM for samples like Daft Punk used to?  None of that really occurred.  As of May 2023, nobody (to my knowledge) has mined RAM for samples.  Swizz Beats has not repurposed a hook for a club-ready Busta Rhymes thumper.  Kanye West has not taken one of the vocoder lines to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Michael Gray has not jacked a sample from ‘Motherboard’ and made a Top 5 house hit with it.

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In terms of influence, you can count Bruno Mars (who was already on that path thanks to the previous December’s Unorthodox Jukebox), Mark Ronson (who did indeed try to make his own RAM for 2015’s Uptown Special), the album’s own Pharrell, and maybe the earliest Meghan Trainor and Charlie Puth singles.  But that was about it in the pop sphere – everyone else instead chased a 17-year-old girl from New Zealand who’d break big two months later with a song denouncing free-spirited party jams as unrelatable.

And the dance scene didn’t even try to take any lessons from RAM – they chose to imitate a different mega-successful duo-made revivalist dance record released that May.  Even now, where the alt-pop scene is fit to burst with disco revivalists, none of it feels like a direct result of Random Access Memories.  For a record so hung up on being seen as important, it didn’t really change anything or leave a lasting imprint.  Certainly that’s been the stick used by its critics in the years since release, even with the obvious counterarguments of how any album this tangibly expensive and this reliant on classical musicianship was expected to be imitated by anybody, and that an album not leaving an obvious legacy doesn’t discredit its merits as a work of art in any way.

‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ screencap.

Despite years of begging from fans, enough for someone to troll the Internet with a fake Alive 2017 website, and the duo refusing to rule out the possibility after the album’s release, Daft Punk never toured.  They played live only twice in its aftermath, both times at the Grammys, the second being a surprise guest appearance with The Weeknd.

In the years following RAM, they co-produced four of the best tracks on the now-disgraced Kanye West’s 2013 release Yeezus, repaid Pharrell with a guest vocal hook on his 2014 album G I R L, produced two tracks on The Weeknd’s pop stardom-cementing 2016 Starboy, and co-wrote a 2017 single by Australian band Parcels.  There would be no new Daft Punk music.  On 22nd February 2021, weeks before Discovery turned 20, they announced their disbandment via repurposed footage from the art-film that they directed backed by the climactic choir calls of ‘Touch.’  RAM was not the start of anything for anyone.  It was instead the end.

Which makes ‘Contact’ (excluding technicalities) such a perfect final song for Daft Punk.  The only song on the album to include samples, utilising the atmospheric sci-fi synth opening minute of ‘We Ride Tonight’ by The Sherbs as its base.  There are drops, actual honest-to-God drops, though they’re courtesy of Omar Hakim’s sensational drum work rather than traditional sample or bass drops.

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The first half is somehow rockier than the rock track it samples, cresting and tumbling and unveiling the stars.  Then, with the second-half, the rocket boosters engage and we go stratospheric.  James Genus’ bass charging forward, the sample flanged and digitally distorted to its limits, a modular synth that starts screaming from the lowest possible pitch right to the highest, before everything but the screeching synth cuts out as we go subsonic, the ascending noise eventually tearing itself apart.

When Bangalter first played the finished mix of ‘Contact’ to DJ Falcon, the speakers blew out.  It’s kinda poetic.  The final song on what would be the final album by a generation-defining musical act, a song that’s an aural escape into outer space, blowing out their studio’s own speakers.  It’s my favourite thing Daft Punk have ever done and, in retrospect, it’s the only way they could’ve ended.  Having found no more roads on earth to walk, the duo who prided themselves on never doing the same thing twice chose to launch themselves out of our world in a blaze of glory.  Shooting off into infinity like the stars they were.

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories was released on 17th May 2013.

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