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

With an abiding love of disco and house, inthemix writer Jim Poe first discovered the raw power of Daft Punk as a New York DJ in the 1990s. (It was also around that time he toured across America with Aphex Twin, an adventure he revisited for inthemix.) Now, on the weekend that the duo returns with Random Access Memories, Jim goes deep on how the dance music originals have come full circle.

This story begins as so many others must: with an in-depth analysis of a DJ Sneak tweet.

This week, after Daft Punk began streaming their latest album Random Access Memories (you may have heard of it), as the penultimate stroke in has to be the most diabolically clever marketing campaign in human history, the Chicago-house gangsta and impresario posted the following on Twitter:

Not Everyone Understands Daft Punk Music, It’s A Spiritual thing> A Robot thing> a Soul thing. great Job guys> the story continues.

In case you missed it, the reference is to Eddie Amador’s 1998 single House Music – a movement-defining anthem from an era when the pre-helmet Daft dudes were just starting to make waves on the international scene along with their French brethren like Bob Sinclar and Alex Gopher. “Not everyone understands house music – it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing.” For a house-head like Sneak it’s the ultimate compliment.

If reading news posts on inthemix has left you with the conclusion that Sneak is an unforgiving bastard who lives to torture European dance-music wannabes – well, you’re probably right. But why doesn’t Daft Punk fit into his axis of evil that includes Swedish House Mafia and now Seth Troxler? Why does one of the most overexposed acts on the planet – and Euro as they wanna be – get a free pass from the arbiter of underground cool? And why does Sneak seem to be indicating that this radically ambitious collection of polished pop, Euro-disco and indie-R&B qualifies as house in the first place?

I’ll get to the issue of why Random Access Memories is a supremely house album despite the fact that it doesn’t contain one housey-house dancefloor-first 125-bpm track later. First, let me tell you a badly kept secret about house music. Real house-heads, no matter how hard or ghetto they may seem, are big softies, pussycats at heart. They don’t judge by race, sexual orientation, creed or border. They only care about one thing: how the music sounds, preferably in a darkened basement. And they tend to be equally passionate about any kind of good music, made by anybody, from the Doors to Depeche Mode, as long as it carries a certain intensity of feeling.

(I should mention that the saltier side of Sneak did show up when a follower tweeted a reply, inarticulately questioning his agenda in promoting this admittedly over-hyped album. Sneak, who after all collaborated with the Daft gang years ago, snarled: “I’m going to ignore your ignorance you Lil prick. U know nothing about nothing.”)

For mine, Random Access Memories is a supremely house album despite the fact that it doesn’t contain one housey-house dancefloor-first 125-bpm track.

As I write this, thousands gather in Wee Waa, Middle of Nowhere, Australia, for the official launch of an album that’s been available for free everywhere for days. It is, for some reason, the most-publicised event since the last royal wedding, or maybe since the invasion of Normandy. Perhaps some fans will pause to flick the hay out of their hair and wonder what it all means. To me it sounds like ultimate redemption for a distant musical era – an era for which ‘disco’ is a convenient but limiting tag.

In 1979, in one of the most notorious incidents in American pop-culture history, 50,000 people flooded the gates of Comiskey Park in Chicago for ‘Disco Demolition Night’. A radio shock jock named Steve Dahl rallied the frenzied multitudes, mostly young white guys, into chanting “Disco sucks! Disco sucks!” as a crate containing the offending vinyl was dynamited on the baseball field; the scene then escalated into a near-riot.

Today this explosive moment is widely seen as a paranoid and resentful backlash against the black, Latin and gay subcultures that disco represented in a society divided along hard economic and racial lines. “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning,” Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers has said. (Sneak, née Carlos Sosa, would have been about 10 and living not far away on the South Side.)

A little bit younger than Sneak, and probably a lot more sheltered, I was blissfully ignorant of such tension. My musical memories of that era are of spending hours in my cousin’s bedroom in Oregon, listening and dancing to 7” singles of hits by Blondie, Lipps, Inc. and a little act known as the Bee Gees – or watching Dionne Warwick introduce the same acts on Solid Gold. Hugely popular but undeniably weird tracks like Heart of Glass and Funkytown were readily digestible by my young psyche but contained a mystery and fascination that would eventually open up a larger world for me.

But the backlash against disco and the excesses it represented was very real – if not always as violent as Disco Demolition Night. Soon it just wasn’t cool anymore to be as fabulous and free as John Travolta’s symbolic working-class kid in Saturday Night Fever. The word ‘disco’ itself became a joke. Queen, Kool & the Gang and Donna Summer had to adapt or fade into obscurity. Rodgers and his partner Bernard Edwards fell so out of favour in the music industry that they “couldn’t get arrested.”

The economic realities of the early ‘80s dictated a pop mainstream that was safer, more straitlaced. Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna waged heroic efforts to shake us out of it, of course. And incredible things were happening on the New York and Chicago undergrounds – but it would be quite a while before I was aware of that.

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.

The title of the project alludes to the struggle to process human experience in an age overwhelmed by technology. The elemental song titles say a lot: Touch, Within, Beyond, Contact. The lyrics 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.

In a week that saw a victory for Monsanto in its campaign to control the world’s food supply with genetically modified crops, and a case involving corporate patenting of human genes come before the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s something sadly heroic about the title and refrain of the album’s opener, Give Life Back to Music. Sneak is right – it’s a spiritual thing. Meanwhile, the track is a suitable prelude to the journey to come: a heartfelt hybrid of disco, electro and rock, alternately cool and hot, with a richly layered live feel and uplifting lyrics to offset cartoonishly robotic vocals.

What’s so impressive is that, despite this monumental effort to summarise, to amalgamate, to pay tribute, there’s nothing at all watered-down, stiff or compromised about the music. For some reason it sounds like the freshest thing out there right now, in the mainstream anyway – as melodic as it is adventurous, as smile-inducing as it is surprising. It’s a tribute to the Daft boys’ savvy that their intense focus on studio craftsmanship doesn’t overwhelm the house-music production ethos of loose experimentalism and innovation.

The album is packed with interesting sonic detail and texture from start to finish, and it never sounds like they’re simply aping a specific style or era. Weird permutations pop up everywhere – on Instant Crush, the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas sings a pop ballad through a vocoder that sounds like androids covering early-’80s Hall & Oates - only if they were doing it in the early ‘90s. And it’s exactly nothing like either the Strokes or Daft Punk.

There hasn’t been a ‘live’ house album this good since Nuyorican Soul – another era-defining collection marked by collaborations with musical titans (in that case, Roy Ayers, Tito Puente, George Benson and Jazzy Jeff among others). The two albums remind me a lot of each other, especially in their organic fusion approach that unites house with its 1970s roots while stretching its contemporary limits.

Or is it better to say house doesn’t have any limits? Yet another astonishing tune, Touch, features a guest vocal from 72-year-old Paul Williams. We’re talking the guy who wrote standards for Streisand, the Carpenters and Kermit the Frog; the guy who co-starred with Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. Here he is, crooning “You’ve almost convinced me I’m real,” over a ridiculously over-the-top orchestral lounge-ragtime-country-electro-funk medley that sounds like something Isaac Hayes and Moroder might have collaborated on for the best imaginary Muppet TV special ever (with Abba as guest stars?), complete with honky-tonk steel guitars and a choir. And when Get Lucky evolves out of this madness, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world. It’s a quintessentially ‘house’ progression from an epic breakdown to a grinding dancefloor anthem.

No, there’s no ‘house’ on the album, if that means a certain BPM or a specific range of Beatport sub-genres. But in some ways there’s nothing more house than the album’s expansive sound. Listen to music heads who were there back in the day in New York’s proto-house era and they’ll describe David Mancuso and Larry Levan blowing minds on their huge sound systems with jams by Steve Miller, the Police, Pat Benatar, Dan Hartman, Stevie Nicks, and many other mainstream acts we don’t normally think of as house pioneers, next to the more obvious underground disco and early electronica.

There was no set tempo or style, and there was a spirit of adventure and an unpretentiousness that dance music has never fully recovered. Though in an age when fierce disco edits of Dolly Parton and Lionel Ritchie reside comfortably on the world’s turntables next to arpeggiated Norwegian electro and the xx’s R&B covers, maybe we’re moving in the right direction.

On this album it sounds like things have come full circle once and for all. It’s as if Daft Punk have set their coordinates back to that brief moment of freedom, when it was hard to tell the difference between rock and pop and funk and disco and even country – before things exploded, before music fans split into hundreds of tribes that began to regard each other with permanent suspicion. It’s as if they’re on a mission to re-unite the tribes, re-unite every sphere of pop music – even pop at its most earnestly white and primetime-schmaltzy – under the all-inclusive banner of house. And it sounds absurdly perfect.

When it comes to chart-topping sounds, if the choice is between Random Access Memories on one hand or The Voice and mindless EDM on the other, we’d have to take this every time.

This is why the massive marketing megalith behind this phenomenon, and the unprecedented global hysteria, is…well, it’s not exactly OK with me; but as long as it has to exist, the music might as well be this good.

The universal appeal of this stuff is not only deserved but well-timed. These guys have come along with their analogue synthesizers and their robot costumes and placed themselves, like a postmodern Trojan horse, right into the middle of a frighteningly inhuman mass culture with the most intensely human music that could be imagined right now.

It must feel like a triumph for Rodgers, 30 years after he was left out in the cold by the ‘death’ of disco and a fickle music business. When it comes to chart-topping sounds, if the choice (for us, or for the aliens listening in on the transmission) is between Random Access Memories and something else – say mindless EDM on the one hand and The Voice on the other – we’d have to take this every time, are you kidding? And no doubt somewhere beyond Wee Waa there are eight-year-old cousins dancing to it in their bedroom and having new worlds opened up to them.