It was a provocative thought: What if, Daft Punk wondered, we take our retro flirtations and lean all the way in? Is it the moment to fully consummate a Pharrell connection that stretches back over 12 years? In spite of everything that’s made our name, shall we reject modernity and embrace tradition? To each, an affirmation: Bien sûr, pourquoi pas?
Random Access Memories, which swept into homes 10 years ago on the back of the most fulsome rollout imaginable, arrived with “Classic!” practically etched into the lacquer. Yet Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s fourth and no-fooling final album is their only one to see its reputation stall, or even backslide when put under scrutiny—unlike the rest, which all traveled from varying shades of skepticism to being regarded as either significant, genius, or both.
RAM is slow, it’s said, a long 75 minutes; the airlocked grooves are linear and the opening run sags under the weight of treacle. This was an undeniable event record, but does the lore supersede the songs themselves? Where Homework and Discovery teem with eternal youth, RAM’s unyielding devotion to the past can fix it in time.
The next installment in a post-dissolution push to gild their legacy, Random Access Memories (10th Anniversary Edition) supplies 35 minutes worth of unheard or hard-to-acquire bonus material, as well as a wormhole back to 2013—an era of buzz, naivete, and fortune-cookie wisdom that good times can last not just all night, but forever.
Having conducted extensive interviews about the duo’s universal influence for a forthcoming book, After Daft, I was surprised by how much was left to discover about one of modern pop’s most pored-over records. Among not only their team but also a small auditorium’s worth of affiliates, the same giddy perspective recurs uncoerced: They were all nestled in the belly of a magnificent Trojan Horse bedazzled with Hedi Slimane sequins, knocking at the gates of the big leagues.
The plan for RAM materialized at a point when Daft Punk’s stock seemingly couldn’t go any higher. Midway through Alive 2006-07, the tour that reshaped live electronic music's potential, they hatched a plan to pivot sharply. Bangalter, de Homem-Christo, and their creative director (or, according to those closest to the nerve center, silent third member), Cédric Hervet, were in agreement: Pro Tools, plug-ins—anything their clubworld peers might avail themselves of had to be ditched unless unavoidable.
They amassed a band of engineers who would keep pace with Bangalter’s cultured ear (“the best in the business,” says DJ Falcon, despite lingering hearing damage sustained from a misfiring speaker in 2002), then spent years rotating between premium studios—including one, Henson B, that required an enormous crystal to be spotlit 24/7 because the ghost of Karen Carpenter was said to lay within. The preliminary sessions in 2008 didn’t produce much, save for the eventual arpeggio on “Giorgio by Moroder,” a moment of liftoff so goofily brilliant it shot into the annals of memes with zero astrodynamic drag.
Following a detour to work on 2010’s TRON: Legacy soundtrack, progress steamed forward “like a train without brakes,” according to core mixing engineer Peter Franco. The Avengers of session players were assembled to jam for days on end while Daft Punk captured, miniaturized, and rearranged their physical essence as they once treated 12"s by Billy Joel and Barry Manilow. After splicing one rhythm section from the West Coast with one from the East, a distinctly buttery texture began to form: two parts Stevie, one part Steely.
The duo corralled inspiration differently. Bangalter drastically reduced his liquid intake to enable 15-hour stints without the flow-jarring mundanity of bodily functions. De Homem-Christo—“the wrangler to Thomas’ wild buck,” as Franco puts it—typically offered feedback from a nearby couch, sharpening a song’s contours by requesting lighter snares here or extra syncopation on a two-bar loop there. (He also nearly wiped Julian Casablancas out with a late tackle during an impromptu soccer game; whether this was a motivating tactic remains unclear.)
No expense was spared. An exceedingly rare Sennheiser VSM201 vocoder, the same make employed on Kraftwerk’s Computerwelt and Herbie Hancock’s Sunlight, met decommissioned hi-hats from Off the Wall, which drummer John “JR” Robinson had dug out for a specific, non-dominant crispness. Old pal Todd Edwards, who crashed out of music in the late ’00s, took up temporary residence in Bangalter’s guest house and was restored to factory conditions. Of the launch recordings that NASA handed over, Daft Punk chose humankind’s last successful moon voyage, Apollo 17. They weren’t exactly burying the intergalactic lede. You think Earth’s orbit can’t be breached again? Watch this.
Heaviness hung in the air, too. Unbeknownst to most, de Homem-Christo was churning through a divorce at the time, which might explain the soft agony marbling “The Game of Love.” When it came to adding toplines in 2012, the project’s gravitational pull could warp those who entered its atmosphere. Pharrell and Nile Rodgers both recall experiencing a peculiar memory fog, which makes you wonder if “Lose Yourself to Dance” really was the result of groove-hypnosis. Noah Lennox, unaccustomed to working under the judgmental glare of soundproofed glass, suffered a nervy first-day flub with his idols. In the end, “Doin’ It Right,” an inspired modular hymnal without any clear antecedent in the Daft catalog, was well worth the pounds lost in flop sweat.
Even mastering wasn’t free of drama. Petrified by the fear of damage or a leak, Franco loaded two duffel bags of foil-wrapped tape reels into the trunk of a gleaming BMW 3 Series and embarked upon the four-day trek from L.A. to engineer Bob Ludwig’s bolthole in Maine, sleeping next to the tapes at night just to be sure. He was pulled over twice, once in Arizona and then again in Arkansas, suspected of hauling supposed contraband across state lines. Which, in a way, he was.
Listening back, one of the most commonly held knocks against the record rings true: It takes nearly a half hour to pick up and sustain momentum. RAM shines brightest in pursuit of fun across a back half where the bow tie hangs loose. That Gainsbourgian extra syllable conjured from the word love-uh during “Beyond” is a hoot. The ’70s songwriting guru Paul Williams punches in the performance of a lifetime on the irreducibly sweet “Touch.” “Contact,” constructed around a sample that DJ Falcon and Bangalter first spun on a joint Cassius/Together DJ tour, then further elevated with pinched synth tones and fusion specialist Omar Hakim’s antic fills, rips. “Get Lucky” is “Get Lucky.” You can’t step to it, and there’s no use trying.
A true monocultural event, “Get Lucky” slammed in at No. 2 Stateside, breezed nicely past the one-million mark within 69 days in the UK, and tipped the scales in favor of team Daft Punk’s five-trophy sweep at the 2014 Grammys. The hit was so ubiquitous, recalls Edwards, that attempts to promote anything else got splattered. As the next four singles whistled clear of the Billboard Hot 100, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo simply made peace with the fact that “Get Lucky” was set to run and run (and run).
Before anyone heard a note off the rest of the album, the noise surrounding RAM was intense. Overall, it’s an unrepeatable highlight reel: Teasers on SNL and at Coachella, a premiere in some remote Australian town called Wee Waa, riffin’ on stage at the Music’s Biggest Night to “Le Freak” and “Another Star.” If you had the industry in the palm of your hand, wouldn’t you?
From that performance until 2021, Daft Punk’s career became marked by silence, save for a few banner production jobs and fan dreams of an Alive 2017 tour melting into a puddle of purest copium. Following a grace period to process all the attendant emotions of calling time on their creative unison, plans for this reissue quietly ran in parallel to 2022’s commemoration of Homework’s quarter century, with 2/22—a date in the Daftian calendar thick with import—of this year destined to be the 10th Anniversary’s kickoff.
Paradoxically, the group now appears more active in death than in life. Many might wish there was more trace material worth flexing for this reissue, yet theirs was not a regimen conducive to cranking out B-sides on the fly. Indeed, none of the outtakes lifted from what we know generate more than fleeting intrigue. Take “The Writing of Fragments of Time,” where Edwards’ eagerness and the happenstance of Franco leaving a tape running hot can’t carry the attempt to retcon a Get Back-style eureka moment atop the original.
Of the unlocked extras, the synthetic croon of “Infinity Repeating” doesn’t quite make up the down payment on Casablancas’ pledge in 2014 of it being “super bizarre,” nor does it hit on the same level as the laser-guided lovesickness of “Instant Crush.” It just… is. “Prime,” however, comes correct with a high-noon epic that brings to mind the superabundance of disco pioneer John Morales’ reel-to-reel edits, or 1997’s Daftendirektour, where Daft Punk would break into a galloping cover of Moroder’s “Chase.” It’s a tantalizing glimpse at how an alternative RAM might have panned out with extra rocket fuel.
“The worst thing you could do for an album is release it,” Bangalter confided to TRON: Legacy’s orchestral arranger Joseph Trapanese. For RAM, however, market conditions could hardly have been sweeter. Both social media and the music press were at peak effectiveness as promotional vehicles, entire staff rooms marshaled to lavish attention upon this monument to midtempo.
Handily, an antagonist had also emerged. The dance sphere had become convulsed by a debate pitched between DJ traditionalists and the high-octane, low-subtlety new breed of EDM stars who brazenly pushed Daft Punk’s theatrical live template toward an event horizon. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo surely couldn't have foreseen a wave of cake-throwing as the direct ramification of Alive 2006-07, yet it provided the perfect opening for these upstarts-turned-scene-elders to splash cold water in the face of a rapidly overheating scene.
Well, here’s the rub. RAM’s titanic popularity offered a roadmap to disposability, sparking a wave of cosplayers who gestured toward the album’s burnished chrome and instructed their labels that, if enough money was dumped down the hole, they too could attain a throwback vibe, man. Top 40 radio and festival bills alike became hopelessly bogged down with yawningly sterile business-class bops, a mid-2010s morass of Earth, Wind & Dire.
There’s still plenty to relish, but front to back, the songs on this set are not airtight enough to be impervious to time’s ebb and flow. The framing of RAM as an antidote to screen addiction has calcified into a Boomerist rind; today, the most compelling forms of expression do emanate from a laptop, and a decade’s worth of denuded disco and rich-guy funk simulacra has rendered plush melodies and scratchy licks of the ’70s bloodless. Human After All, which bludgeoned listeners for being supine in the face of a commodified future, strikes a positively relatable note by comparison.
Such is the curse of music as Fabergé egg. Where the visuals for Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You” and Discovery counterpart Interstella 5555 conclude with the dream of a child, RAM comes off like the high-spec dream of an adult. Which is fine if that’s your thing—and to be sure, it is a great many people’s thing—yet the most self-evidently perfect recording of the century can’t help but feel as if it’s best admired through a gold vitrine.
Random Access Memories was assembled to preach the credo of analog over digital, faces over interfaces. To electronic fans who were switched on by the generosity and million-volt charge generated between Homework and Alive 2007, the move suggests a different binary: that of abdication over affirmation. During the press junket for Mythologies earlier this year, Bangalter was eager to state that his communion with the machines was over. It’s not as if we couldn’t already tell.
Whether you love RAM the album, or loved the pomp, circumstance, and deserved celebration of Daft Punk that accompanied it, is to a degree immaterial. Several collaborators have said the group was comfortable in the face of possible rejection, which I don’t entirely buy, but if the very attempt of an Apollo-level moonshot was the goal, why fuss over sticking the landing. The residual memory we carry alongside the music is that of Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, ringed by friends, dangling their feet off the edge of pop culture’s Mount Rushmore, game finessed.
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