By Scott T. Sterling
The seeds of Daft Punk’s hype-redefining fourth album, Random Access Memories, were effectively planted on the band’s 1997 full-length debut, Homework. Featuring hits “Da Funk” and “Around the World,” the album’s gatefold sleeve features an image that appears to be a teenager’s desk. Among the transistor radio, Playboy, audiophile magazines and Iron Man comic book lurks a copy of “Stage Fright,” the 1981 single by disco pioneers, Chic.
It was Chic guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers’ January blog announcement of his Daft Punk collaboration that kicked off a public frenzy that made Random Access Memories the most talked-about album of 2013.
That Homework gatefold image also features a poster for a 1976 KISS concert at New Jersey’s Roosevelt Stadium. This nod, though small, serves as a clue to what Daft Punk could become – a precursor to their evolution from fresh-faced Frenchmen spinning records in a Wisconsin field in 1996 to the mysterious, helmeted robots who are likely to own the year in terms of musical conversation. It’s about being everywhere without being seen.
Daft Punk have quite successfully captured the imagination of not just the music world but the pop culture public at large, and done so in a way that would’ve surely impressed the late Bill Aucoin, legendary manager of KISS during their ‘70s heyday, who’s credited with elevating the band’s commercial status with inventive and relentless marketing moves. Where KISS utilized a bombastic stage show and their larger-than-life characters to launch everything from made-for-TV movies to comic books (which boasted band members’ blood in the ink), Daft Punk have carved their own similar but still unique path to cultural ubiquity.
Despite a successful career as dance music producers with albums like the revered 2001 release, Discovery, and the much-maligned but fruitful Human After All from 2005, Daft Punk’s profile exploded in 2006 with a single performance at Coachella 2006. It was in the California desert that the robot duo debuted their now legendary Alive 2006/2007 tour, with the band performing in the heart of a giant, LED pyramid. Mixing tracks from all three of their studio albums into concert mega-mixes, the shows have taken on a mythological status, with dubstep superstar Skrillex crediting the L.A. date of that tour for being a major influence on him even making electronic music.
While not performing live since a string of Australian dates in December 2007 to end the Alive 2006/2007 tour, the duo maintained their quietly increasing public profile with a series of finely-tuned collaborations that reached beyond just the music world. They teamed up with Kanye West to perform his song “Stronger,” which samples Daft Punk’s 2001 single, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” during the 2008 GRAMMYs, the duo’s first live TV performance. For the 2010 World Cup, the band was featured in a splashy Adidas commercial that plunked them into the famous Star Wars cantina scene, sharing screen time with characters Han Solo, R2D2 and C-3PO as well as Snoop Dog, Liam Gallagher, Ian Brown of the Stone Roses and more. 2010 was the same year Daft Punk was tapped to compose the score to Disney film Tron:Legacy, as well as appear in the movie.
From branded Coca-Cola bottles to designing a t-shirt for Playboy, Daft Punk’s subtle assimilation into pop culture culminated with the band signing to Columbia Records to launch the Random Access Memories campaign that’s still in motion.
Theirs is the most elegant example in the current return of the monoculture of yesteryear, when albums, movies, books and other big artistic statements were shared experiences rather than important to certain subcultures or “kinds of people.” In a time when entertainment has been splintered into countless micro-niches, Random Access Memories has generated the kind of shared culture experience rarely experienced since the years when KISS appeared on major network Halloween shows and Michael Jackson first did the Moonwalk during the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special.
Where some listeners and critics have publicly lamented the lack of immediate gratification tracks such as the band’s breakout 2000 single, “One More Time” (from 2001’s Discovery), Random Access Memories is a deep, labor-intensive magnum opus that plays like a tribute to a long-lost but beloved era of music-making that reveals itself with repeated listens and comes packed with songs for a future generation. The lush, cinematic productions are far too vast for quick and easy consumption, and the record’s immense scale is loaded with the kind of pathos that looks far beyond the present in anticipation of being discovered by listeners just now being born. With Random Access Memories, Daft Punk has come for your children.
It’s an album that aspires to be found by inquisitive music fans in their parents’ record collections years from now, much like perennial totems such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Random Access Memories nods towards these goals with a simple perusal of the many collaborators involved in its making. Beyond just pop stars like Pharrell Williams and the Strokes’ frontman Julian Casablancas, the album’s personnel list is collection of musicians whose collective discography opens up into a treasure trove of classic and essential recordings. Drummer Omar Hakim, for example, has provided the beat for such luminaries as Carly Simon, Miles Davis and Madonna, and is listed on the credits of such platinum albums as David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Sting’s solo debut, Dream of the Blue Turtles. Guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. has a similarly enviable resume, playing with a wide range of artists like Elton John, the Temptations and Steely Dan, and appears on many Michael Jackson albums, including Thriller and Bad (he’s currently a member of The Tonight Show Band). For the album’s mastering, Daft Punk even went so far as recruiting recording legend Bob Ludwig, who engineered everyone from Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones to Guns ‘N Rose and Nirvana.
Most telling of the Random Access Memories collaborators is arguably songwriter Paul Williams on the album’s centerpiece track, “Touch.” While much has been made of his role in Brian De Palma’s ‘70s sci-fi film Phantom of the Paradise and the helmeted lead character’s obvious influence on Daft Punk (the duo claim to have seen it more than 20 times together as kids), it’s his catalog of influential songs that brings much weight to the proceedings. Williams is the man responsible for such stalwart classics as “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie and Barbara Streisand’s Oscar-winning “Evergreen,” from 1977 film A Star is Born. Much like Williams’ most subversive hits, Random Access Memories emits a dreamy, almost childlike sense of wonder, one that has more in common with event movies like E.T. The Extraterrestrial than the latest EDM sensation.
“The first thing I said when I heard it was: ‘Can I see it again?'” Paul Williams himself told the Guardian about the album’s cinematic scope. “That’s an interesting slip of the tongue. The best way I can describe it is Kubrick’s 2001. They take you back in time and then they take you into the future.”
“Some people seem to love it while some people seem to hate it which is extremely healthy,” Bangalter told Mixmag about the early response to the album. “Art and music is about triggering debate and different reactions and the most depressing reaction for an artist is indifference.”
In an era where many of music’s biggest hits are conceived quickly and efficiently on computers, Daft Punk have taken the time, money and ambitious vision necessary to create something that is determined to stand out among them in years to come. Serving as a shimmering signpost to dance music pioneers, songwriting legends and studio giants — from the sweeping disco symphonies of Chic to Giorgio Moroder’s influential work with everyone from Donna Summer to Sparks to Blondie — only time will tell if Random Access Memories lives up to its aspirations.