“Not everyone understands”: The genius of Random Access Memories

Fast forward a bit, and my high-school punk-and-alternative self unquestioningly scorned the grandiose, inclusive pop of the ‘70s. I had to be awakened by hip hop before I began to understand what had been lost. Along with many of my generation I was astonished at the warm, organic sampled sounds of the ‘70s on revolutionary albums like 3 Feet High and Rising and Paul’s Boutique. Later I was liberated by house and began to learn about its roots in funk, disco and garage. But through all this I was increasingly alienated by the concept of “pop music.” When I would discover that a certain cherished De La Soul sample was a Hall & Oates hit from my childhood; or when a DJ would drop Michael Jackson into an after-hours set, I may have felt a twinge of nostalgia but didn’t glimpse reconciliation.

Nor did I sense it in Daft Punk’s early singles, however striking and original they were. Da Funk’s incendiary combination of disco, tech and acid disrupted the flows of many of an earnest house DJ in 1995 – it was plain hard to find a record to match its energy; while the B-side, Musique, almost single-handedly invented ‘French house’ as we know it, with its brutal percussion and heavily filtered but wonderfully tuneful disco loops. This audacious sound dovetailed with the no-nonsense funk and tough beats unleashed by second-gen Chicago and Detroit producers like Sneak, Moodymann and Glenn Underground that I was going crazy for. Thomas Bangalter’s splendid solo efforts – harder and more minimal – were more evidence these guys were the real shit.

I’ll never forget when Homework came out in 1997. My DJ partner from Brooklyn excitedly rushed over to my place with a fresh copy just so he could play me Revolution 909. I couldn’t believe that a band from Paris with such a daft name had clarified our collective deep-house aesthetic so perfectly – working on a major label at that. That track became one of the anthems of our outlaw loft parties, from its police sirens to the icy rustle of its classically executed high hats to its deliciously melodic bassline and keyboards – never failing to get hands reaching for the ceiling.

Da Funk’s incendiary combination of disco, tech and acid disrupted the flows of many of an earnest house DJ in 1995 – and it was plain hard to find a record to match its energy.

Soon French house seemed to take over the scene; no other set of producers seemed so consistently willing to combine respect for the old school with such a fearless and crazy production aesthetic. I had as many French records as the next guy; but I admit I started to burn out in 1998 when Stardust’s Music Sounds Better With You became such a club smash. I loathed that tune at the time. Something about its cheeky lounge-lizard absurdity was too perfect a soundtrack for the druggy emptiness of the scene at its worst.

It took a couple of years for me to finally appreciate it – hearing it played between innings one sunny afternoon at a packed Yankee Stadium, of all places, something crystallised and I suddenly got it. I realised then that this loopy European club music had the potential to be the kind of bright, bold pop the mainstream was sorely lacking.

All these years and a Gap ad or two later and here we are; EDM’s gone Vegas, and Daft Punk are bigger than the Beatles, or so the hullaballoo would lead us to believe. When I dutifully downloaded Random Access Memories just like everyone else in the world the other day I had no expectations at all; despite my respect for Daft Punk’s history and their hard work, I expected it to be hopelessly compromised, pop in the worst sense, a plastic object, interesting, colourful, but inert and useless. Imagine my shock to discover an album so vital, original and heartening – and pop in the best way.

Why not though? Think about the names involved: Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams. Three of the most influential dance-pop producers of the past 40 years are aboard to help Daft Punk craft what seems not only a career-defining statement, but a manifesto of an art form. This is explicit on Giorgio By Moroder, in which the legendary producer recounts the tale of the beginning of his career in the German discotheques of the late ‘60s. It effectively ties Random Access Memories to the last half-century of music history. The track itself symbolically demonstrates this – it’s a jaw-dropping epic that starts as a lovely Moroder-esque techno-jazz garage jam before ascending to crazy orchestral prog-rock heights.

The entire album is marked by similarly grand tributes – especially the sophisticated disco-pop fusion of the three cuts co-written by Rodgers, who serves as the album’s godfather. The result is an artifact, like an audio Rosetta Stone, that if transmitted to the rest of the galaxy (and you know they would do it if they had the means) could decode and explain what dance music was like on Planet Earth during an entire epoch.

The lyrics on the new album are all about the simple yearning for human connection, and once found, celebrating it on a dancefloor. As basic as that sounds, it’s potent in these crazy times.

But it’s not even limited to dance music as we think of it. Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan are also obvious influences; as are Elton John, Prince and OutKast. …Memories is no more interested in being exclusively tied to the dancefloor than Michael Jackson was in his heyday – and suffice it to say the Daft boys work hard on a contemporary version of that perfect combination of dance, jazz, rock and pop that Quincy Jones achieved on those albums. …Memories’ wild ambition is part of the story of course – it seeks to be nothing less than the Sgt. Pepper’s of dance music. Whether it succeeds or not will be argued till the fans get tired and go home; the conversation alone is testament to how good an album we have here.

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