By 2021, we didn't think that much could shock us. We were wrong. When the painful news that Daft Punk had called an end to their time as a creative duo broke, it was a surprise - considering their last album came almost eight years ago, and a tour nearly fourteen with no sign of fissures along the way. Whilst they may not have been under the spotlight, the pair have still been hard at work contributing to some of the biggest songs of the past few years in unexpected ways. Here, we will be reflecting on the history of one of music’s most influential pioneers, their impact, and what lasting effect they will leave on culture itself.
It’s incredibly rare for a single artist to define a genre of music in the way that Daft Punk has done for dance. It’s a genre of music that is constantly fluid and always evolving. Ever-changing alongside how we listen to and consume music, how and where we express ourselves dancing to it, and even down to the way we create it over the year, each of those many factors has a major effect on what we even consider dance music to be.
Yet one constant has remained - that being the impact Daft Punk. So many DJs, dance artists, and groups have a peak moment at the top of their field or that one song that goes on to define them in music history. Daft Punk had many: they also had the ability to completely disappear, remove themselves from the limelight and whenever they decided to grace us with a return, the world stood still and listened.
For nearly thirty years, only one thing has been certain when it came to Daft Punk, and that was their ability to defy both convention and your expectations. For the most part, the pair have let their music do the talking, as they remain hidden inside their robotic chrome disguises. That however wasn’t always the case.
After meeting at school in 1987, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo would go on to form the rock band Darlin in 1992 (alongside Laurent Brancowitz who would later go on to be part of Phoenix). Their work was trashed in the Melody Maker by rock critic Dave Jennings, one line from his scathing review of which would stick with the pair when he called the music ‘daft punky thrash’. With Brancowitz going his separate way from the pair, ‘Daft Punk’ was born.
You might also like...
From 1995 onwards they were hard at work creating a series of singles, including the much lauded ‘Da Funk’ as well as batting off various record labels. Eventually, they formed a creative partnership with Virgin Records, determined to keep as much creative control as possible. At only the age of 22, the pair released their debut album Homework which would go on to influence a whole new generation of artists. Critically acclaimed, and featuring tracks such as the much sampled and adored ‘Around The World’, alongside experimental tribute ‘Teachers’ and the aforementioned ‘Da Funk’, the album was heralded as the revival of house music, bringing a departure from Eurodance music which had dominated the nineties. It also marked the pairs first adoption of masks. When asked by Melody Maker’s David Stubbs on their motivations, the pair remarked on how it was part of determination not to add to rows and rows of pop icon faces: “it's one of the rules, and we want to break rules."
The pair followed the album’s release with a wide-spanning club tour titled Daftendirektour in which they adapted their home studio set up for the intimate club stages. It would later become the basis for their Alive 1997 live album. Following this tour, Thomas would form the side project Stardust with DJ Alan Braxe and Benjamin Diamond, releasing just a single song, the now legendary ‘Music Sounds Better With You’. Virgin reportedly offered Bangalter $3 million to create an album but he turned it down and went back to focussing on Daft Punk. The song’s influence however can be felt heavily on follow-up Discovery...
Discovery/Human After All/Alive 2007
Daft Punk truly broke into the mainstream with their 2001 sophomore record Discovery. Featuring arguably one of the better first four-track runs of any dance album ever with ‘One More Time’, ‘Aerodynamic’, ‘Digital Love’, and ‘Harder, Better, Faster Stronger’, it turned the duo into a global force. It also saw the evolution of their masks into a full-on interactive, robot disguise. It feels like the turning point for the duo, and whilst their image is a major factor in how they’ve managed to make an impact, the music always comes first, and with Discovery they had truly evolved from the raw sound of Homework. Now there was an extra emphasis on a synth-heavy sound. They sampled in innovative ways, and their production now had a glamorous galactic sheen to it. This era also saw them pay homage to some of their greatest influences such as Giorgio Moroder on ‘Digital Love’ and embraced the UK garage scene with the epic ‘Face to Face’.
The pair wouldn’t tour Discovery, instead deciding to fade back away from the spotlight. They would return four years later with Human After All. Recorded in only six weeks, it featured tracks such as ‘Robot Rock’ and ‘Technologic’. Critics quickly turned on the group with its release, lamenting the album's hastily made creation and minimalistic, repetitive feel. The Guardian went as far as to label it "a joyless collection of average ideas stretched desperately thin".
Whilst at its launch the record was considered a failure mercilessly piled on by critics, it would still form the main basis of their following tour. After a now-legendary debut in Coachella’s dance tent back in 2006 (a six-figure sum by the festival allowed them to create their extravagant touring idea) with their futuristic and groundbreaking pyramid stage heralded a way forward for live dance and DJ performances. Human After All also took on a new life, the albums sound integral to the pair’s live show. The success of the Coachella show now had fans and critics alike reconsidering their views on the record.
Only their second and what we now know to be their final tour, Alive 2007 spanned arenas and festival stages all over the world. It is no exaggeration to say that those years were instrumental in transforming what it meant to be a live dance performer, and left fans who both witnessed the shows and those who were perhaps too young, or missed out, clamoring for more.
Many Daft Punk fans have spent the years that have followed anticipating festival lineups, looking out for their name. A vicious cycle each year as we await news of festival lineups, part of us thinking: is this the year they return? Even when they weren’t on the lineup, rumours would circle like wildfire, whispers through the fields of Glastonbury or the valley of Coachella: a secret set, hidden underground at the Rabbit Hole perhaps? Arcade Fire used the hysteria to their advantage when in their 2014 Coachella headlining set they bought out a fake version of the duo, titled Phat Dunk to tease the audience, duping hundreds of festival attendees as a consequence. It’s yet to be seen whether the end of the group will only magnify the hope of a magical return to the stage in the years to come.
TRON/Random Access Memories
After conquering the globe, Daft Punk receded out of the spotlight once again, and instead of returning with more dance/pop crossover hits, they turned their attention to soundtracking Disney’s TRON: Legacy, a rebirth of the 80s sci-fi epic. Anyone could see the pairing was a match made in heaven. The score was a grandiose combination of electronica and orchestration. Featuring an 85-piece orchestra, the finished work is a true love letter to the soundtrack genre. The next generation of electronic and dance artists such as M83 and Avicii got to lend their hands to the reconfigured remix album the group would release the following year.
The scene of their live comeback triumph in 2006 at Coachella’s Indio Polo Fields would also lay the basis for their fourth and final record Random Access Memories when in 2013, a surprise trailer was played across the festival’s large scale screens marking the return of the pair. Lead single ‘Get Lucky’ dominated charts across the world, firmly cementing itself as the song of the summer. However, it was perhaps a red herring for the rest of the record. Its ultra sheen disco Chic-inspired sound (in due part to Nile Rodger’s dazzling contribution) was pure pop gold, the rest of the album however was unlike anything dance or Daft Punk fans had heard before.
There’s a quote from a rare interview with Rolling Stone magazine which best summarises why their musical output has been so far and few between, yet so groundbreaking when it does arrive. Discussing the reasons behind creating RAM, Bangalter said: "electronic music right now is in its comfort zone, and it’s not moving one inch...That’s not what artists are supposed to do.”
Once again Daft Punk had subverted all expectations, they’d created a sound that blended the nostalgic influences of dance and disco’s past and brought it decades into the future. Also, the album leaned on a heavy sense of collaboration, this was a sharp shift in the pair’s style. Something they described in detail to NPR: “it's really simple. We've always been really shy and making music in a small bedroom on our own. And in more recent years, we've been more open to the outside and working with different collaborators… I think it's all one of the best things that has happened to us recently: sharing our work and allowing people into our bubble and maybe us getting into a bigger bubble with all of them. Random Access Memories is the result of all that teamwork, and it's one of the things that I think we are most proud of.”
Not to mention, at a time when EDM, beat drops and electronic music were at their most chaotic, they released a patient and groove-based album that astounded and bemused critics and fans in equal measure. They deviated away from the full electronic setup of the past, preferring live instrumentation over computers, only vintage vocoders, synths, and some drum machines remained. It was and still is a record that feels both like the origins of synthesized music and the future all at once. It won the Grammy award for Album of the Year and became their first and only US chart-topping record.
RAM feels like a natural progression for the group, especially when you consider the large impact Motown and funk music had on Discovery, paving the way for the main samples that make up the iconic riffs, beats, and melodies of that record. To date, RAM is their most acclaimed album by critics, with tracks like ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’, ‘Get Lucky’, and ‘Instant Crush’ still on wide rotation. If it is to be their final goodbye, they’ve left a pretty much flawless discography on a high.
The last projects
Whilst RAM may have been the last full-fledged Daft Punk project, they’ve still been hard at work collaborating with others in the interim years before their split. In 2013, leftover drum beats and production from Random Access Memories found their way onto Kanye West’s sixth album Yeezus, serving as executive producers Daft Punk helped craft that now-iconic drum line for ‘Black Skinhead’ as well providing production for ‘On Sight’, ‘I Am A God’ and ‘Send It Up’.
Their dabbling into hip hop and R&B didn’t stop there, however, as they made one of their most surprising collaborations in the form of featuring on two singles by The Weeknd, ‘Starboy’ and ‘I Feel It Coming’. Whilst collaboration on their work was rare, outside contributions to other artists - especially named features - was unheard of. Born out of a shared love of the French wave club scene, a sense of mystique and moving in similar circles led The Weeknd to the duo. In a conversation with Zane Lowe, Tesafye opened up on the process of crafting the songs, describing the duo as directors, trying to ensure ‘I Feel It Coming’ was as authentic as possible.
Whilst the duo’s last collaborative work was with The Weeknd, they have since released a complete edition of their TRON Legacy soundtracking, bringing together all the various formats into one vinyl and digital set. Bangalter’s production and synthesizers meanwhile can be heard on the glittering ABBA-styled track ‘Everything Now’ by Arcade Fire, long-time admirers of the duo. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo meanwhile produced The Weeknd’s dark and experimental ‘Hurt You’ alongside fellow French producer Gessaflestien for the My Dear Melancholy project.
Daft Punk may have only created four studio albums but their impact on the work of others over the past two decades has been countless. Without Daft Punk we wouldn’t have LCD Soundsystem. We wouldn’t have Robyn. We wouldn’t have the whole modern genre of EDM. We wouldn’t have countless numbers of early 2000s Daft Punk inspired chart hits ('Call On Me', 'Hung Up', 'Lady Hear Me Tonight'). Their music remains a constant club staple and has itself led to its own legendary samples, Kanye West reinvigorated ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ with his interpretation on 'Stronger'. The duo has long held praise for their influences (Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers & Chic, Paul Williams to name just a few). Now, following their split, the industry has been quick to heap praise on the pair themselves. Nile Rodgers, when discussing working with Daft Punk, echoed statements made by The Weeknd: “they make you up your game." Disclosure was also quick to pay tribute: “words can’t describe the inspiration & knowledge we gained from listening to the 2 robots over the years”.
Meanwhile, for such a secretive group, a sweet tribute from their long time publicist and friend Kathryn Frazier has given fans a tiny insight into what life was like traveling the globe with the pair.
View this post on Instagram
I’d like to end the article with a quote from an interview with the pair themselves. Following the release of their debut in 1997, David Stubbs from the Melody Maker asked Thomas and Guy whether they were worried about Daft Punk having a 12-month shelf life...
"Thomas throws up his arms in despair: 'What can we do about it? Since the beginning, we're trying to do our thing, not showing our face, showing we can do it with just music, that the music can be popular, not us.'
'And, of course, there's been this big hype, but we don't care about anything,' growls Guy. 'Things are growing BECAUSE we don't care. And, if next year there's another Daft Punk, fine, good for them. We'll stop when we stop making good music.'"
Whether nearly thirty years later they decided to hang up the helmets because they don’t believe they can make good music anymore we may never know: they may never return or make a note of music again as a duo, but it goes without saying that you’ll continue to hear their impact and influence of Daft Punk on music for decades to come.