Ask any IT wiz to give you a definition of what RAM is and does and you’ll likely get a technical description about a storage system that allows the reading of data to happen much faster, allowing quicker access and minimal lag than it would from a hard drive.
Comparable to a short-term memory that never ‘fills up’, RAM essentially allows a machine to function at its optimum performance level; while the ‘Random’ part is deceiving – simply meaning that it can be accessed directly, and is in fact rather organised and controlled in the way it enables data to be stored and retrieved to specific locations.
The parallels between RAM’s literal computer function and the title and themes of Daft Punk’s latest magnum opus, the extraordinarily hyped Random Access Memories, are neat and conceptually satisfying.
The ‘data’ that these musical robots are accessing is specifically of the past: accessing memories of their deepest stylistic influences – disco, funk, jazz fusion, RnB; eschewing cut-and-paste samples (almost) entirely for live instrumentation yet approaching it with the same “organised and controlled” methodology of a machine.
But the RAM that helps the Daft Punk robots function at their optimum level isn’t just their turning back the clock to the glory days of the 70s and 80s and the upgrading of outdated styles through a contemporary lens. The storage device that Random Access Memories draws from is the living, breathing humans that the Parisian pair of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo idolise. Namely, the roll call of A-list collaborators that have so characterised the immense marketing juggernaut that steamrolled Random Access Memories into ears worldwide.
Why snaffle a Donna Summer sample when you can use your sheer star power to go directly to the source: synth-disco godfather Giorgio Moroder? Why settle for slinky Chic guitar work in second-hand when you can simply call up Nile Rodgers for a jam?
This is the tantalising prospect that was presented to the French duo and it hardly matters which of the album’s many collaborations came first, once the two realised they could plug in directly to the source, as it were, the results snowballed. Why settle for slinky Chic guitar work in second-hand when you can simply call up Nile Rodgers for a jam?
It’s clear too that the star-studded guests were only too willing to drop everything and heed the call when it came – as seen in the ongoing making-of video series, The Collaborators.
Pharrell Williams hazily recounts an encounter with ‘The Robots’ in the same revered, statuesque rhetoric usually reserved for Zeus or Jesus. Todd Edwards, in his Brooklyn drawl, breathlessly counts his lucky stars for being allowed the privilege of a second expedition with Daft Punk (following Discovery’s ‘Face To Face’).
Meanwhile pianist extraordinaire Chilly Gonzales equally equates the cyborgs as God-like, praising them for reaching down from on high for assistance:
“They don’t really need any help, so when they ask for help, it’s because they are at such a high level and so advanced, and have such a good self-awareness – you have to have to operate on that level – that you can ask for help on certain details that are going to make the work be transcendent,”
Gonzales describes his role in the album as a “cameo actor”, one that “requires a great film director, such as Daft Punk” to be utilised to its full potential (much like the opening computer/RAM analogy).
In this way, Daft Punk mirror one of their 70s touchstones – Steely Dan. The jazz-rock forefathers who transformed from the uniform lineup of their 1972 debut into a turnstile of star session musos orbiting around the central duo of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, in turn producing their best work (including their 1977 zenith, Aja).
Random Access Memories posits The Robots as a modern-day Fagan & Becker. In their pre-album interview with Rolling Stone, Thomas Bangalter admits as much, saying that after early electronic demos sounded like they were operating on “autopilot”, a new blueprint surfaced. “We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers… but with people.”
To this end, Daft Punk turned not only to their little black book of celebrity musicians, but to a number of virtuoso session players. Unsung heroes like drummers John Robinson Jr. who worked with Quincy Jones and played on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, and Omar Hakim, whose CV includes employment by Bowie and Miles Davis. “We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers… but with people.” – Thomas Bangalter, Daft Punk
Random Access Memories may primarily be a love letter to Daft Punk’s musical influences, but one that just so happens to have the very same people it’s addressed to, help pen it.
The ambitious musical smorgasbord of influences – slinky jazz fusion, Vaseline smeared soft rock, vintage RnB, bossy disco, 70s West Coast and 80s radio pop – combines into startling configurations that at once recall both a fetishism for a bygone era of record production and a contemporary postmodernism of musical collage, a more articulate version of the mash-up.
Nowhere is this example clearer than on the nine-minute ‘Giorgio By Moroder’ in which the eponymous producer gives an oral history, with the epic headtrip truly beginning when the Italian icon recalls discovering ‘de zound of de future’ (in his alluring European tones) in the synthesizer. The history lesson halts as the track hurtles into a 23rd century mesh of cosmic grooves, noodling keyboards, shimmering strings, and scratch beats; inventing prog-disco in the process.
It at once displays the album’s highest achievements and deep-seeded flaws. Overwrought in the most beautiful, dazzling way, it acts as a precursor to the even stranger psych-fantasy musical that is ‘Touch’, but like the rest of the album – it’s ambitious, impeccably mixed, arranged, produced, and presented by absolute masters of their craft.
Even the album’s most over-the-top moments – cast adrift somewhere between a disco-fied Dark Side Of The Moon and progged-up Thriller – have their precursors in the Daft Punk discography.
Sure, none of them are in the Eurohouse blueprint of 1997 debut Homework, but one obvious link is the vocoders that star on ‘Within’, ‘Beyond’ and Casablancas’ auto-tuned, sensitive delivery on ‘Instant Crush’. All sit fairly close on the spectrum to sophomore stunner, Discovery. (‘Digital Love’ could even conceivably be the jubilant yin to Random Access Memories’ ‘The Game Of Love’ as heartbroken yang.)
The lush orchestrations that pepper the album – such as the strings that prologue ‘Beyond’ or the cinematic ‘Motherboard’ – are also clearly the result of a skill set honed by the TRON: Legacy soundtrack.