The 1980s saw the flourishing of punk music and the first major ska revival, both of which contributed to how awesome a band known as the Specials were.
The Specials were not a punk band, but brought punk attitude and energy (and a large portion of the fan base) to their take on Jamaican ska music, a precursor to reggae that the Specials breathed new life into. The Specials’ lead singer, Jerry Dammers, founded “2 Tone Records” in 1979, giving “2 Tone Ska” – a genre that combined pop and punk with ska – it’s name. What do the Specials have to do with French house giants Daft Punk, and more specifically, Daft Punk’s most recent album “Random Access Memories?”
The answer to that lies in an interesting fact about Jerry Dammers and his view of the future of music. Alex Petridis from MOJO magazine breaks down what was going on in early 1980 during the recording of the Specials’ second album:
Dammers was keen to venture beyond the first albums ska roots. He had become interested in muzak and easy listening, a dramatic shift in sound which caused some consternation in the band: [bandmates Neville] Staples and [Roderick James] Byers were particularly unimpressed…Dammers’ taste for muzak and easy listening can be heard most distinctly on the Specials’ 1980 single “Stereotype”:
This brings us to “Random Access Memories,” Daft Punk, and a man named Giovanni Giorgio Moroder, celebrated on the track “Giorgio by Moroder.” Giorgio is an Italian producer and songwriter who worked with Donna Summers and a number of disco and early electronica artists in Germany, and his influence is very audible on RAM. Like Jerry Dammers going full muzak, Daft Punk have finally (inevitably?) gone full disco.
A decent review of RAM on Slate notes that:
[Daft Punk have] “sampled” the vintage production of their favorite records, using the same analog equipment, techniques, and musicians. Instead of sampling Chic, they brought in Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers to play guitar on two tracks. Instead of sampling Quincy Jones’ productions for Michael Jackson in the 1980s, they brought in the actual session musicians who played on the albums—including John J.R. Robinson, a drummer on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, and the guitarist Paul Jackson, who played on Thriller.
Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homen-Christo originally teamed up in 1987 in a group called Darlin’ with Laurent Brancowiitz, who would leave Darlin’ and later form the band Phoenix.
From the get-go, Daft Punk’s fascination with disco, easy listening and smooth 70s- and 80s-era R&B and dance has been obvious, but “Random Access Memories” is not a smile and wink at these influences (as Daft Punk’s previous albums may have been) so much as a meticulous modern reconstruction of the sonic landscape of these influences. It’s their least dance-y album so far, and (if you are a fan of disco and yacht rock, like I am) one of their best.
House music fans could well hate it, but unlike Jerry Dammers’ foray into muzak, this doesn’t sound forced or tacky – “Random Access Memories” sounds like two guys that have piles of money, a serious lust for 70s and 80s pop and dance music, and a deep Rolodex have made a record that is, in some sense, both a time capsule and a form of time travel. RAM should be sold with a sequined jacket and an eight ball of cocaine included.
So, is it any good? Absolutely.
Not only do Daft Punk completely jettison sampling in favor of “real” instruments on this record, the production value on RAM is astonishing – as Mark Richardson from Pitchfork notes , “From the jump, it’s clear that the particulars of the sound are important. In a strictly technical sense, as far as capturing instruments on tape and mixing them so they are individually identifiable but still serve the arrangements, RAM is one of the best engineered records in many years.”
“Random Access Memories” is a must-listen for people who know and love their disco, for production nerds, and for fans of smooth, polished grooves – it may be an atypical Daft Punk album, but it hits all the sweet spots that have made people Daft Punk fans all along.