'They left an indelible mark on my psyche': how Daft Punk pushed pop forward

Gabriel Szatan
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Following their split this week after 28 years, Daft Punk have ascended to pop Valhalla. Perhaps they’re sitting next to Prince, whose pirouetting falsetto funk and emotional vulnerability inspired the duo’s 2001 masterpiece Discovery, and Led Zeppelin, from whom they cribbed double-necked guitars and 10-tonne drums on 2005’s Human After All. Yet those albums were met with a mixed reception – audiences and critics alike had to learn to trust Daft Punk’s vision of the future.

For British producer-DJ Erol Alkan, whose fan forums were an essential incubator of the blog house movement that swept through club culture in the 2000s, the Parisians had a “deeply profound impact” on a generation, including Alkan. “They were a gateway into so much music that I love, and a big part of that admiration comes down to their position as outsiders,” he says. Daft Punk’s magpie approach to songwriting and visual art was a dominant story of early 21st-century music, similarly colouring the work of MIA, 2ManyDJs, the Avalanches and other sample-stitchers. Although some commentators queried how much inspiration could actually be bound up in recycling, Alkan thinks that in Daft Punk’s case, “the references are strong and familiar, and there is enough of themselves in there for it to always remain theirs”.

Even as young men they exuded a rare aura, says Maya Masseboeuf, the former artistic director of Virgin Publishing France and a pivotal figure in the group’s development. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Man de Homem-Christo demanded to retain their master recordings and asked the label to indulge their cinematic tendencies by commissioning music videos that could double up as feature-length films. “We were happy to do so,” recalls Masseboeuf, “as you could already feel they were geniuses with real vision.” Their innovative streak was most evident with the Daft Club online membership card, giving fans inner-circle access to the band through personalised messages and exclusive downloads, a model now used by artists from Nick Cave to BTS.

As well as a jackin’ house meteorite strike, their 1997 debut album, Homework, was a show of their values, full of the aesthetics, language and sonic grit of the US midwest. On Homework’s Teachers, they shout out a roll call of elite innovators to whom they owe their art: the intergalactic audacity of George Clinton, the low-end thump of Dr Dre, and numerous pioneers of house and techno from Chicago and Detroit. Working with these teachers on Discovery brought out some of Daft Punk’s most irresistible songs, including One More Time, Face to Face and Digital Love.

One of the teachers was Chicago-based producer Paul Johnson, who held court “in the living room of [Bangalter]’s father’s place” and was treated to a rendition of his own song Feel the Music on a grand piano to show how much the duo revered his contributions. “From 1995, we became close, hanging out and playing parties instantly. They told me I personally was one of the reasons they started to make house – shit was pretty damn touching.”

In the late 90s, you could already feel they were geniuses with real vision

Maya Masseboeuf

At 9.09am on 9/9/99, they transformed into their robot alter egos, never willingly again showing their faces in public. Enhanced by this playful theatre, their first decade gave them huge cachet in electronic circles; the filter-happy frolic of the French touch dance style they helped create also propelled artists such as Bob Sinclar, David Guetta and Cassius toward stardom. A victory lap came later, with Daft Punk’s 2013 hit Get Lucky and 2016 collaborations with the Weeknd earning wedding-disco ubiquity.

Yet it was their Alive 2006-07 tour that shifted the cultural needle – a quantum leap in the possibilities of concert-as-spectacle and the most consequential live event of the digital era. Across the 48-date, 19-month world tour, Daft Punk performed atop an enormous LED-fronted pyramid. The cockpit was loaded with state-of-the-art equipment and touch screens, enabling the duo and a team of remote engineers to synchronise a graphics display in perfect harmony with a microscopically reconstructed mega-mix of their own anthems – something that had never been done before at scale. The tour’s curtain-raiser at Coachella festival in 2006 was as significant for dance music in the US as the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was for rock’n’roll, breaking the mainstream’s stubborn resistance to DJing as a valid medium.

Daft Punk playing the 2006 Coachella festival.
Daft Punk playing Coachella in 2006. Photograph: C Flanigan/FilmMagic

For Skrillex, one of the 2010s’ true producer-DJ superstars, seeing the show in LA “was like walking into the portal of my destiny. It left an instant and indelible mark on my psyche. The idea of delivering a full concert experience while departing from a band on stage was game-changing – not just for me but for all creators.”

Taking place shortly before social media became entwined in the fabric of everyday life, the tour was instead documented on sweat-clouded Handicam recordings and comically distorted flip-phone videos. Daft Punk were so enamoured with this in-the-field reportage that they buried plans for a DVD tour and opted solely for a live album, Alive 2007, instead.

Alkan was tapped for the warm-up set at the tour’s first UK date. Although stricken on the day with serious tonsillitis – the abiding memory of his performance is, simply, “pain” – Alkan recognised the sense of occasion and couldn’t bring himself to cancel. He bundled into a car with Pedro Winter, Daft Punk’s then-manager and boss of era-defining label Ed Banger Records, and Justice, the Parisian electro duo who ably carried the cross for Daft Punk after they retreated from view, and set off for the Global Gathering festival. “The anticipation in that tent was unprecedented,” Alkan recalls. “I’d imagine that almost everybody had seen clips of the Coachella show on YouTube, so were aware of the scale of production, but I don’t think anybody expected it to be as incredible as it was.”

As Daft Punk’s popularity surged, the dividing lines between compartmentalised genres crumbled. “My dream [in the 90s] was that this would happen one day,” says Masseboeuf, “but you have very few artists who succeeded artistically mixing different flavours while becoming icons on the level of Thomas and Guy-Man.” This was most notable in the commingling of rap and dance, two tribes that had an uneasy truce at best: Kanye West rode his Daft Punk-sampling Stronger to the top of the charts around the globe, and from there the floodgates opened, resulting in bottle-popping crossovers that dominated radio and clubs for years.

This is where the legacy of Alive 2006-07 gets sticky. “Designed for stadiums but with the pace and suspense of a club DJ set,” explains Alkan, “there’s no doubt this was the blueprint for what was distorted into EDM.” This term was applied to the supersized electronic dance music that came in the wake of Daft Punk – often pejoratively – as a byword for largesse, vacuity and assemble-by-manual euphoria. To purists it is an unforgivable aberration, dance music’s equivalent to hair metal; it gives rave a bad name.

More pressing than a matter of taste was the lopsided power structure that championed predominantly white EDM artists over Latin and African American dance music originators. If house music is a church, then Alive 2006-07 spawned a legion of televangelists. These newcomers hadn’t just replaced spiritual ablution with mechanistic command – hands up, wait for the drop, go crazy – but crashed a gold limousine into the pews and spray-painted the stained glass. Many of the teachers lost out. “I have no issues with the new lot,” says Johnson, “but their young fans need to learn respect, learn their history and stop talking crazy about legends.”

Related: Daft Punk were the most influential pop musicians of the 21st century

Daft Punk, then, had become teachers themselves. If the question of whether their students inferred the right message remains up for debate, what everyone agrees on is that the Parisians’ intentions were pure. “The Alive show was like entering a massive hug with everyone part of it,” says Skrillex. “Daft Punk transcended a niche culture and made something global for the masses, uniting all of these people with hooks that are simple and true.” It would be perfectly in line with their playfulness for there to be one more plot twist – perhaps we should expect a goodbye gift. Dedicated disciples of the 1970s going out as David Bowie did with Blackstar? Stranger things have happened.

Their legacy will ultimately rest on their music: a redress to cynicism and an encouragement to cherish the positives in life. Whether putting finger-tapping guitar solos on techno cuts or inspiring ‘ed bangers on the dancefloor, they tore through a wall of snobbery and revealed a Technicolor land of pop pleasures beyond. The drawback was that they raised the bar to a point that few could touch. Music, they seemed to wink from behind the helmets, sounds better with you – but it sounds best with us.