Daft Punk: A Retrospective

by Jack Reid

Daft Punk have developed that all important asset for a world-class music act: a persona. This persona exists in some space between the internet and the enormous posters on bedroom walls, of funky robots. Much is owed to their history of anonymity; a painfully select few know the faces behind the masks. So the question is, then, who are Daft Punk?

The names Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo don’t slide off the tongue so quickly as the monikers associated with these ground-breaking synthpoppers, but there it is, that’s them. Bangalter and ‘Guy-Man’ are simply two Parisians who were in a band (Darlin’) together in school, a fairly typical story. When the band came to nothing significant, the two went off together to experiment with fusions of their idols and the new electronic tradition of French House. The product of their tinkering with drum machines and synthesisers was their first release as Daft Punk: The New Wave. The appropriately named single was a blend of the hard techno circulating at the time and what would come to be known as distinctly daft synth work. Next came two singles that were more commercially successful. First, Alive and then Da Funk which came to lay the foundation for the sound that was to follow.

Those two singles were included on the first Daft Punk long play: Homework (1997). The name having come from the fact that the album was produced cheaply in Bangalter’s bedroom, the album was a game-changer. The tracks on the release vary wildly in theme as style, as they were produced as a series of singles. Many of the songs were abrasive, shocking and heavily electronic (Rollin’ And Scratchin’, Oh Yeah) but next to these pieces were the elements that made the pair so famous. Around The World shocked the pop music world by climbing the charts with a song bearing only one lyric, and a relatively simplistic beat and melody. With this song, Daft Punk began to show their vital link with the visual arts. The music video, directed by the eccentric Michel Gondry, featured a surreal but striking dance set piece that shared the same intoxicating simplicity as the music. To promote their album, the duo began Daftdirectentour, which reached the US for the first time, albeit without the splendor for which their live performances are now known.

In 2001, the visual element of Daft Punk became even more relevant with the adoption of the famous robot masks. Prior to this the duo had worn simple Halloween masks when they had made any public appearances. Now, they donned complex and expensive helmets adorned with automated LEDs. This innovation arrived simultaneously with the release of the album Discovery (2001). Where Homework had been an exploration of electronic elements, Discovery sought to hearken back to Punks’ rock past. The gritty sounds gave way to the smooth funk blends of Something About Us and Digital Love. Introduced into the mix were un-credited, artfully auto-tuned vocals. The first single release from the album was One More Time. Arguably the act’s most successful outing, the track is a euphoric dance record that burst out into mainstream dance music and remains in the DNA of pop music today. Until this point, the duo themselves had been relatively invisible behind all of their hype, which seemed entirely separate from the musicians themselves. The two rarely granted interviews (and still don’t) and rarely released press material. In the wake of Discovery, much more was made of their visual image. The robot masks could be found in much more publicity material.

After another four year gestation period, the robots released again. Human After All (2005) continued along the theme of the electronic versus the human, this time leaning back toward the electronic. The album landed to a tepid reception. When it leaked a few weeks before release, many took the album to be a fake, expecting more of the duo. The controversial nature of the release can be explained by the generative process. Bangalter wanted the record to be unpolished, “pure improvisation”, an “unworked stone”. The themes of the album were Orwellian fears of the invasion of technology into the private realm, with songs like Technologic and Television Rules The Nation bemoaning the automation of everyday life. The disco elements faded into the background, and fans began to grow apathetic toward the album. The costumes the Frenchmen wore became more stripped down, the bright colours left Guy-Man’s mask in favour of a smooth curve of metal and glass.

In late 2006, the pair began their second major live tour. Supported by their associates in the French touch, Kavinsky and SebastiAn, Daft Punk embarked on the Alive 2007 tour. The tour was a landmark moment in defining Daft Punk as a world-class act. The stage setup was an imposing and dazzling pyramid, atop which stood the robots, controlling a complex web of electronic controllers. Their set consisted of tightly woven mash-ups of all three of their previous releases. Crowds were newly convinced of the contents of ‘Human After All’ as they heard the likes of Robot Rock and Steam Machine blended with known classics to great effect. The tour was lauded as the greatest electronic performance of all time, and the pyramid was etched into the minds of EDM fans forever more. After the big unveil of the pyramid at Coachella in 2006, nothing was the same. The robots were well and truly known to the mainstream; in 2007, Kanye West released Stronger, a chart topper that prominently featured a sample of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.

After the Alive 2007 tour, the robots went quiet once again. Three years later, the duo’s music and visuals could be found in the Tron remake, Tron: Legacy. With a soundtrack credit, a cameo role, and a costume redesign, Daft Punk seemed pretty invested in the project. Ideologically, it’s not hard to tell why. With the revival of the retro robotic, and the interaction of the human and the defunct electronics of the game world – how could the robots resist? The Tron era of Daft Punk, was brief and unsatisfying however. Once more, the robots slipped out of the limelight.

In April 2013, the Coachella music festival kicked into action. Upstaging the onstage performers was a tantalizing snippet of a disco tune featuring the surprising vocals of Pharrell Williams, produced by none other than Daft Punk. The video, featuring a retro performance of the neo-disco tune, Get Lucky, haunted the internet, playing on a brief loop of summer saccharine. During the video, the words Random Access Memories spun on screen, written in smooth Miami script. It emerged that this teaser was for a single off the new Daft Punk LP release Random Access Memories. So the anticipation began. The single dropped and yielded a surprisingly simple, studio-sounding tune. A simple hook, Pharrell’s carefree vocals; a Daft Punk pop song through and through. In mid-May, the full album was released.