This exchange began as a Facebook thread in which musician and writer Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500, Luna, etc.) and myself disagreed publicly about the French recording artists Daft Punk and their recent Grammy triumph:
Rick Moody: It is perhaps a commentary on awards and the weakness of awards-season stuff generally that among the very worst, most cynical and utterly vapid records of the decade is the one that won album of the year at the Grammys. And yet if I had been asked to pre-select the winner, I would have drafted it.
Dean Wareham: I listened to that Daft Punk album all summer long. I suppose it's vapid, about as vapid as "Rock Around the Clock" or "Sexual Healing.” But I enjoy those songs too.
I think Daft Punk has about as much soul as an aspirin commercial, and I don't think it makes me old to say so. I do like the Dawn of Midi album. And they are young. I think Daft Punk makes "Let's Dance" sound effervescent it's so dead inside, so calculated, so EXPENSIVE. The simulation of the human makes me want crawl under a rock. I want the actual, not the fraudulent, even if it's clever and shiny.
“Sexual Healing” has a great melody, and a great singer, and I would argue neither of these is present here (except perhaps during the Paul Williams number on "Random Access Memories"). And if they were present, ephemerally, it would be because the French robots PURCHASED these things. And: I could make the argument that the lyrics of "Sexual Healing" are the very opposite of vapidity. Perhaps dreadfully earnest, but not vapid.
OK, you don't have to like it, but I will point out that this Daft Punk album (unlike their earlier ones) was recorded with real human beings; drummers, guitar players (including the guitarist who played on "Let's Dance," but I guess you knew that). In fact a lot of Daft Punk fans were bitching about this when the album was released, that the record sounded old-fashioned. The Grammys are a joke but I think they got it right with “Get Lucky.”
And maybe "Sexual Healing" is the wrong choice for vapid lyrics. And most singers don't stack up to Marvin Gaye. And lyrics (especially in English) are not a strength for French bands. But I will leave you with this Lou Reed quote (from a guest DJ spot on WPIX in 1978): "I like mindless disco . . . they say the lyrics are stupid and repetitious. So what's wrong with that? So is lying in the sun. Not everything has to be serious."
I, too, like some disco. (Although if we are speaking of black music from the '70s I would rather listen to funk almost any day.) But I think an ahistorical imitation of disco that is created by a massive roundup of session players (yes, Nile Rodgers, et al.) does not square with art; it's just slavish imitation. About as interesting as Interpol's imitation of Joy Division, or Counting Crows' imitation of Van Morrison, etc. For me, the appearance of Pharrell Williams, a singer of almost no interest at all, is a sign of this imitativeness. Anyone, with the right Rolodex, could make this record.
In that main, this was the substance of our Facebook exchange. (And I am leaving out some fruitful ripostes from others, including my friend Harper Simon, who has a great and humane point of view on these issues.) At this point, I challenged Dean Wareham to a full-throated debate on the subject of Daft Punk. And this debate now appears below.
Dean Wareham: I accept your challenge. And I see your point about Counting Crows and Interpol being imitations of Van Morrison and Joy Division, respectively. But I am going to posit that Daft Punk are to disco what Sergio Leone is to the western: derivative, certainly, but dazzling and inventive, also.
I suppose I could concede that "Get Lucky" is not a great "song," per se; it will sound pretty silly with just piano or acoustic guitar. But it did not win song of the year at the Grammys. It won record of the year -- an award supposedly given to the best performance or recording (though the history of the award is pretty awful over the last 40 years). Song of the year went to Lorde, a 17-year-old from New Zealand who was essentially poking fun of every rapper and rock star sitting at the Grammy Awards. “Royals” is about sitting at home in a shit town listening to people sing about champagne and diamonds, and feeling very disconnected from them. And it is a song that can be covered (there is a very funny version on YouTube sung by a sad clown).
I've grown a little tired of "Royals" at the moment, but I don't think I'll ever get tired of "Get Lucky." It is six minutes of ecstasy (that is, if you have been listening to the superior album version, not the radio edit). And you are right that it is a triumph of sound (or perhaps a triumph of groove), rather than of songwriting. It's a simple song, a sex song. It appears to be about hooking up with a special person at a dance club (which is probably the best place to hear it, too). She's up all night to the sun / I'm up all night to get some. Some what? And yes, it's all about the groove being played by Nile Rodgers, but whether he appears as himself, or as a facsimile of himself, his playing is so tasty on this song — and wherever he appears on the album — that he elevates everyone around him. Still, my favorite moment, among many enjoyable moments in this song, occurs about three minutes in; that’s when the robotic Vocoder voice enters and you know you are in the presence of Daft Punk
I'm glad you mentioned KC & the Sunshine Band. "Get Lucky" has basically the same message as "Get Down Tonight,” and this too was probably written for the dance floor. KC and the Sunshine band are not my favorite disco act, but they seem to have played an important role in that movement. I would point to "Rock Your Baby," a defining song in the history of disco. It's not officially KC and the Sunshine Band — George McCrae sings and gets the credit — but they wrote and produced it. Their guitarist Jerome Smith's rhythm guitar track is a thing of beauty, and surely you hear echoes of that in the sound and patterns of Nile Rodgers. And according to my former drummer Stanley Demeski, "Rock Your Baby" was the first radio hit to feature both a drum machine and a live drummer. Perhaps for you this is the moment everything started going downhill.
Doesn’t “Family Affair” have the first drum machine on a top-40 hit? Oh, but maybe no live drummer too. As I have argued in the past (see my book, "On Celestial Music") the insistence on drum machines in black music is different from the use of drum machines in robotically inspired white dance music. I will concede that “Get Lucky” does fuse black music (Chic, in particular, but disco generally), with robot music, dehumanized white music that prizes its lack of humanism. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.
I can’t find the vocoder interesting here because I already know about the vocoder from Kraftwerk (about whom I have mixed feelings, too). I also know about the vocoder from "Trans" by Neil Young. That album, which is fascinating in its meanness of spirit and its ahistorical mashing-up of traditions, seems to hate the vocoder in a way, and to render inert a naive, unreflective use of the vocoder. But the French robots apparently do not know about "Trans," or rather, they are too cynical to care about "Trans," and they bank (it’s the operative word here) on the audience’s lack of knowledge about the history of the vocoder. So they use it again and again like a neurological tic, and given that this vocoder section is the only appearance on this song of the actual robots rather than their surrogates—the musicians who are hired to make the song sound as though it has actual soul—it is inadequate as a sign of the auteurs.
In short, yes, Nile Rodgers appears here, and he seems to sound just like Nile Rodgers, or, at least, a Nile Rodgers who is mostly out of date, and the vocoder appears, and it sounds exactly like other robot-iterations of vocoder, and then there is the lyric, which you allude to above, and which is exactly as stupid as a KC and the Sunshine band lyric (and it keeps making me want to ask Why do you have to stay up all night in order to get lucky? Couldn’t you have gotten lucky at 12 or 1?), indicating that this is a song assembled entirely from hitherto-existing pseudo-musical gestures.
And I haven’t gotten to the vocals yet. For me, Pharrell always sounds like one of the instances in which producers or composers sing who aren’t really confident or interesting singers, like Bacharach singing his own songs, or Malcolm McLaren’s later recordings on which he occasionally sang. He’s a placeholder for a better singer, and it’s a measure of the inadequacy of the album that he is the best that Daft Punk could do. Either that, or they actually wanted a not-very-good singer for their hit, as an acknowledgment that their whole project is bankrupt (which I sometimes suspect is the motive here). He is the barometer for what a mediocre singer sounds like (I only like him on the N.E.R.D. albums), and here performs to type, until the song gets to its B section, where they pile on the Earth, Wind & Fire harmonies. (What do you make of Earth, Wind & Fire’s suppression of the serial comma, by the way?) This EWF passage is so exactly imitative of the harmonic intervals, and those falsetto harmonies of EWF, that it’s almost laughable. Laughable if not so transparently cynical. Philip Bailey should be getting royalties on this song. Given that there is not one new thing on “Get Lucky,” not one new gesture, not one idea, whether in terms of arrangement, composition or performance, not one idea about music, where is the space in which its qualities are admirable. Where would the admiring take place?
Meanwhile, I concede my shocking inability to get song of the year straight as regards the Grammys (I do not and have not watched them in years and years), but I am looking forward to talking about the rest of the album, if you are willing, because the rest is far worse.
I find much to enjoy just in the first 30 seconds of "Get Lucky." I don't know if you can call it admirable (yes, you can) but it works on my ears. It's a simple bag of tricks; they build it up, they break it down, removing the rhythm section and then bringing it back, much as Chic might have done, or the Rolling Stones in '78, or the Clash a couple of years later — anyone creating an extended dance mix. And these are pleasurable moments; the moment the bass reenters is tasty, and for me the entrance of the robo-vocal is surprising and exciting. Up 'til then it could be anybody. The track is a triumph of production and musicianship. New gestures? Not so much. Still, I don't think anyone else has done it better than this. And this is what Daft Punk do -- they mine yesterday's trash, they recycle tired sounds but recombine them in new ways, and generally with humor and musical intelligence.
Is it black music or white music? Well, like KC & the Sunshine band, or Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, it is both. And yes, they paid for it — just like any other big pop artist pays for session musicians — and yes, the album was expensive to make. They are operating much like David Bowie did on "Young Americans"; he traveled to Philadelphia in search of the Philly soul sound, and enlisted Luther Vandross and Carlos Alomar. As you say, Steely Dan's "Aja" album was equally expensive. That is an album which I can grudgingly respect for its musicianship and shiny grooves, when I hear it on the radio. But I won't put it on in the house; it makes me want to jump out the window. "Aja" is an authentic '70s downer. "Random Access Memories" is an upper.
You're right: Neil Young makes a complete mess of the vocoder on "Trans." It doesn't suit his voice, but rather it destroys him; he sounds like some rock guy goofing around with a new toy. I imagine Daft Punk are well aware of that album; they seem to have a deep knowledge of trashy music from the '70s. Is the vocoder (or the Talkbox, which can generate a similar effect) their neurological tic? We know they did not invent it, and yet it is one of their signature sounds, part of their identity since their first hit in 1997 — "Around the World." I think they are entitled to use it whenever they please, and we should not judge them for the fact that a thousand bad producers copied the effect in the years that followed.
Perhaps you think this is their great flaw: the French dudes can't sing — especially in English — so they are reduced to either 1) bringing in guest vocalists or 2) hiding their voices behind a vocoder. Well yes, this is certainly an issue; it's something they have to deal with on each album. The same is true of of their counterparts in Air, another brilliant French duo who are not natural singers, which is why their best tracks are instrumental, or make use of a single word or phrase (see their recent song "Love"). But surely this absence of a singer is what makes Daft Punk what they are, and not just another band fronted by a guy who stands in front and sings about his feelings.
Is Pharrell really a mediocre singer? You are not alone in this opinion, but personally I think he does a real nice job on his two tracks (and on his recent single "Happy"). He has a sweet, silky, natural-sounding voice, and he doesn't over-emote or stretch his vowels out to eternity like every other pop singer does these days. If you want "good" singers, you can watch "The Voice" on TV. They let you know how good they are every step of the way.
The rest of the album? We could start with the opener, "Give Life Back to Music,” which features Nile Rodgers at his best (whether he's out of date or not) or the stupendous "Lose Yourself to Dance" (Williams' other vocal performance on the album). But I'm afraid really this would just be the same discussion. You'll tell me it's just another copy of Chic with stupid lyrics about dancing. I'll answer that I like the groove, that I love the vocoder vocal that pans from left to right behind Pharrell's lead, and the way the backing vocals are arranged. I can't tell you how many guitarist friends went running to figure out how Nile Rodgers played that riff (OK, there were just two of us). I do know one other person who hates this song -- my neighbor, she called at 2 a.m. to tell me that the bass was making her walls shake.
Do you want to tell me what's so horrible about "Giorgio by Moroder" and "Touch"? Both clock in around 9 minutes, and both are pretty over-the-top, so there is a lot for you to hate.
OK, I need to concentrate on your first paragraph for a moment, Dean, and then perhaps I will let go of “Get Lucky” (noting, in passing, that you do not dispute the Earth, Wind & Fire charge in my note above). If the simple buildup-and-breakdown methodology were enough for a song to be generally interesting, then any dance mix would be interesting. And perhaps this is the basic assertion of electronic dance music (which is what Daft Punk used to be), that any assertion of four-four is compelling, and enough to make you want to move. I find four-four tyrannical a lot of the time (which is why, e.g., I revere "Trout Mask Replica," or the music of Ornette Coleman), and it is not a foregone conclusion that this is inherently compelling to me at all. But what about the dance floor, you say? I am reminded of Frank Zappa, on "Roxy and Elsewhere," saying to audience members who had climbed up onto the stage to dance that if they could dance to this, they could really dance. I have no objection to dance (I like dancing, and at one time thought I was good at it), and I have no objection to dance music, I just don’t agree with the idea that in order for music to be danceable that it has to have a certain neo-fascist time signature without rhythmical variation, most of it played, these days, by machines. To me this is the sound of corporate enterprise more than it is the sound of music.
I physically and emotionally cannot understand the idea that four-on-the-floor is more interesting, or more danceable, and, relatedly, I can’t understand that building up and breaking down is inherently interesting. I do love a break beat in hip-hop, mainly because I love the drumming on a break beat, but a break beat in EDM is just a chance for the digital processor to show that it can play 64th notes, or 128th notes, and all that does, for me is display the prowess of a computing device. And: The breakdown is a feature of all popular music (been to a square dance lately?), and therefore the breaking up and breaking down should recommend other idioms as well. But does not apparently. Which suggests that it is not the breakdown, unless there is something special about this particular building up and breaking down on “Get Lucky.” (P.S., what if Nile Rodgers’ guitar part is sampled there? Then it’s not a matter of physically playing the part. For me, it’s important to remember the role that digital programming has in the vaunted organic sound of "Random Access Memories.")
And then one last thought about the singing. Of course I’m not saying bad singing renders a song uninteresting. There is a great range of “bad” singers I find enormously interesting, even profoundly moving: David Thomas, Don Van Vliet, Shane McGowan, Yoko Ono, Sun Ra, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Kim Gordon. And "The Voice" often makes me want to run screaming from the room (see my recent review of Leona Lewis on the Talkhouse for more on this subject). I think Pharrell, however, is an example of a bad good singer instead of being an example of a good bad singer. The French robots might be bad good singers, but we will never know, because they hide behind the vocoder. Perhaps this is the secret of the vocoder, generally. Kraftwerk is hiding behind it because of the weakness of their vocals (though they sang a bit back in the day), and Daft Punk is hiding behind it, and all the hip-hop guys who seem to have fallen asleep at the mixing console while depressing the autotune button are hiding behind the autotuner, all to eliminate what’s human about the playing, the actual sound of human beings playing the music and singing the melodies, on the occasions where there are actual melodies. But that’s what makes music a human art form. The sound of humans.
My contention would be along the lines of Joe Strummer, who I believe said, after "Sandinista!": “We have to stop ripping off black music.” I don’t think Strummer was saying that there was something maladroit politically about playing black music (or a white refraction of black music), although there have been moments when that was a fruitful way of thinking about certain “crossover” artists (Macklemore being the example du jour); I think Strummer was saying, in effect, Have we bothered to investigate fully what’s here at hand? Part of my problem with the Hollywood sound of the very expensive "Random Access Memories" (meaning, in this argument, the selective forgetting of one’s origins) is that it conceals what is French, or it makes the argument that what is French is only “ripping off black music,” when that is far from the truth. There’s a whole history of African-American jazz and soul artists going to France for more respect (Nina Simone comes to mind), there’s a whole history of French artists (Django Reinhardt) borrowing American idioms and bringing something nativist to them. But I feel like there’s a quantum change in "Random Access Memories," in that what the French robots bring to the proceedings is that absence of the nativist. They bring superior hiring capabilities, and astute marketing.
One last observation and then I leave off for the day: How should we interpret the line “Give Life Back to Music” in the song of the same name? It’s the opening track on the album "Random Access Memories," and therefore it seems like it has rhetorical importance. It starts with some more very effective rhythm guitar playing, and it has that annoying Wurlitzer arpeggio thing that is a characteristic of a lot of Bee Gees stuff from the mid-'70s, and right away the faceless robot voice comes in with an utterly vapid lyric that repeats over and over (like in “We Are Family”), “Let the music do tonight/just turn on the music/the music of your life/give life back to music.” It has a sample of people on the dance floor, presumably, celebrating the deep and trenchant truths of the song. Longtime fans who dislike the fact that Daft Punk have abandoned what was “punk” about the monotonous simplicity and minimalism of their early electronica presumably see this song as a rallying cry for this slightly disappointing album. Live musicians! So retrogressive! Give life back to music! How conservative! But I take it as a seriously ironic expression of the intent of the album. You say you think the album is in some way funny, and I would be interested to hear in what way is it funny, because for me it’s more ironic than funny, and/or funny mainly in its very traditional irony. When a robot tells me to “give life back to music,” I find it seriously ironic, and risible mainly in the shamelessness of its affront. Because there is so little for me on this album that feels like it has human life about it.
I do, in fact, definitely want to talk about the Giorgio Moroder song, and especially the Paul Williams song (“Touch”), which is the one song I unabashedly like on the record, and “Motherboard,” which actually has some nice drumming on it. And strings! The irony! Do you want to start there?
I greatly admire Joe Strummer so it’s interesting to hear his comment "we have to stop ripping off black music." Did he mean "we the Clash" have to stop ripping off black music? After "Police & Thieves" and "Black Market Clash"? I always thought the Clash were more interesting when ripping off black music than when ripping of the Ramones. Still, no one would mistake them for Black Uhuru or Grandmaster Flash. Robert Gordon wrote that "rock and roll was white red-necks trying to play black music. Their country music background hampered them and they couldn't do it. That's why we don't call what they did rhythm and blues." And we don't call the Clash reggae.
Let me try to answer a few of your questions. Fair enough, the stacked vocal harmony (nicely done by Pharrell Williams) is pure Earth, Wind and Fire. And maybe there's a little Bee Gees in there too. This is what Daft Punk do, and always have. Everything is fair game for them; they have sampled Barry Manilow, Sister Sledge, Cerrone and more. In the past they would take these samples and feed them into a ring modulator or some other kind of processor, and then write a new song on top of the resulting sound (if you look on YouTube you'll find videos where people dissect their early songs for the samples). My all-time favorite Daft Punk song is "Digital Love," which samples four interesting seconds from an otherwise unremarkable song called "I Love You More" (by George Duke), and goes from there. The song later borrows Supertramp's Fender Rhodes sound, and it nods to 10CC, and then comes a dazzling, slightly cheesy/ironic guitar solo, the sound created by playing a guitar into a synthesizer. From this stew they created something that was harder, faster, stronger and better than the original.
But perhaps I should say this is what Daft Punk used to do. Because on "Random Access Memories," the only song based on a sample is "Contact," which lifts from "We Ride Tonight" by the crappy Australian band the Sherbs (aka Sherbert). Sometimes the album you make is a reaction to your previous album. From what I understand, Bangalter and de-Hominem-Christo (they do have names) started constructing this record the way they always have, but found that they were repeating themselves. They decided instead to try a new approach, instead of using drum machines, loops and bass synthesizers they would record a live rhythm section. This doesn't mean that a band sat in a room and tracked whole songs live. But the rhythm section created live grooves that Daft Punk would later chop up and move around in Pro Tools to build their songs. This is pretty commonplace these days. It's not the way I work (I don't have the patience), but many people work on a Pro Tools grid for this exact purpose. You ask "What if Nile Rodgers' part is sampled?" I'm not sure it makes a difference. There is definitely some sampling going on here, but in this case they and their musicians created these samples themselves.
Are they selectively forgetting their origins as you charge? Not at all. I remember being taken to a tiny nightclub on a Saturday night in Rennes (northwestern France) after a Galaxie 500 show in 1990, where I was surprised to find myself dancing to Hall & Oates. This is their youth. They didn't grow up listening to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli; they grew up with the same crap that you and I heard on the radio: Boz Scaggs, Supertramp, Wings, the Eagles, Peter Frampton (pioneer of the talkbox effect) and more. We Americans export our dominant culture to the rest of the world. We shouldn't be too horrified when two French whiz producers chop it up for their own purposes and then show up to claim their Grammys.
How, you ask, are we to interpret the lyrical content of "Give life back to music"? The same way we interpret "Fly Robin Fly,” or "Get Up and Boogie,” by the Silver Convention (another German/American disco act). It's silly. And slightly awkward. There are other awkward lyrics on the album too -- the French are prone to confusing the simple tense with the continuous because they don't have both in their language. I forgive them -- because they are French. And because I do not come to European disco expecting to find Bob Dylan.
Is the album funny? Maybe ironic is the right word, or sly. "Random Access Memories" is certainly over the top at times. "Giorgio by Moroder" starts with a spoken monologue and ends with what sounds like Space Invaders. "Touch" takes us on a similar trip, careening from Tomita-like tinkles to Isaac Hayes wah-guitar to to New Orleans jazz, and employs orchestra and choir to great effect (they can afford them). Structurally both of these songs are similar to "Siberian Breaks" by Brooklyn's own MGMT; an epic song that contains many moods and shifts. Anyhow, I happen to know that the robots liked that MGMT album.
I am glad you find yourself moved by "Touch" and "Motherboard." Maybe this indicates a slight retreat from your first hyperbolic statement that this is one of the worst albums of the decade. And I will admit to you that there are a couple of smooth songs on the album that I do not care for.
Shall we wrap this up with a few closing arguments?
Yes! Now, it is true that the Joe Strummer quotation (and I am re-creating from memory here) is from the period after Mick Jones left the band, and they made that extremely disappointing last album with (alas) drum machines. He was talking about the Clash, yes, and I think the anxiety implicit in the remark is real. He was trying to return to the source, and purify the impulse, even if, in a postmodern era, it is obvious that no musical gesture is ever pure. Purity is always a fool’s errand.
That said, I do actually think "Random Access Memories" is one of the worst albums of the decade. To me, in the end, it sounds as insipid as a Grover Washington album, or the really bad George Benson albums, and the lyrics make me want to crawl under a rock and hide. And nothing can change that. However, I do find “Giorgio by Moroder” interesting because as a song structure it is sort of ridiculous. The monologues are funny, and revealing, and one assumes that by borrowing Moroder the French robots are indicating that they understand that there is nothing new under the sun, and that Moroder was aesthetically bankrupt right at the beginning, and borrowing the aesthetically bankrupt and trying to rehabilitate it is part of their modality. Now there’s a reason that Moroder has been forgotten for a couple of decades, and the reason for that is that Moroder became boring. I too adore “I Feel Love.” Its sexual provocation is immense, and its chorus is magnificent. And the Blondie song was great too.
But I lost interest in Moroder starting with Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and I never quite recovered my interest. In a way it’s the badness of Moroder that merits the attention here (i.e., all of "Random Access Memories" is meant to be understood ironically). After all, the most recent Moroder project seems to be a Haim remix. Haim is when I reach for my revolver (metaphorically). “Giorgio by Moroder,” like many of the less banal songs on "Random Access Memories" tries to make a more earnest point by bludgeoning, and so the big orchestral passage starting at 5:31 bludgeons you with strings. Just as the jazz tinkling of Fender Rhodes early in the track is mannered and imitative, so do the strings strike me as mannered. I do like the drumming, however. There’s some good drumming on “Giorgio by Moroder.” And a nice passage where the drums seem to have some synthesizer treatment happening alongside and there’s a bass solo at about 7:00-7:30. This, at least, is undeniably musicians playing something! And there are no neurotic vocoder stylings anywhere in sight. “Motherboard,” which falls into the usual faux-futurism of EDM, has some of the same problems and successes. I love the arrangement of the woodwinds on this track, even if it sounds a lot like Philip Glass or John Adams. Again, the drumming is lovely. Also there’s a burst of analogue-ish synth noise in the middle, where the drums drop out. Very satisfying. I like noise a lot more than I like smoove jazz. Or retro-futurist-all-but-plagiarized-culturally-appropriated disco. These two tracks, more or less, are instrumentals, and that is part of their appeal.
“Touch,” the Paul Williams number, is something else altogether. Part of its undeniable appeal is that Paul Williams is so oddly applied. We think of Paul Williams primarily as a sort of Muppet. A washed up writer of torch songs who was unbearable in his first iteration ("Smokey and the Bandit"!), and who can only be beloved of hipsters whose perverse wish is to like what is beyond the pale. His craggy Broadway-ish voice, however, is full of a kind of feeling that no other singer on this album can manage. It is his inability to be digitized completely that is so appealing, to come to the album from before the digital age, to be a real musician at a real piano, singing, “You’ve almost convinced me I’m real,” as if to dramatize the central difficulty of the album: the real versus the simulated, the simulacrum counterposed with the genuine. “Touch” lurches along in seven or eight different parts, again flinging strings and a choir — as you correctly note — at the problem in the will-to-musical-legitimacy (the same in the opening of “Beyond,” which I believe is also by Williams), in some completely incoherent structure that ends up, for its total excess, being hilarious, unpredictable and not like anything on the radio right now. I can admire this track, it is true.
Look, Dean, it is difficult to be a person who never much found disco interesting. To dislike “disco” immediately suggests that you are a person who burned Bee Gees albums in a Chicago stadium in 1979, and who therefore cannot be trusted, culturally speaking. I actually love black music, love the blues (especially the country blues), love New Orleans jazz, love hard bop (a lot), love free jazz (I admire Sun Ra without restraint), love Mingus and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and James “Blood” Ulmer, and Ornette, love Coltrane, love almost every period of Miles Davis (except the smoove comeback albums), and I even love a fair amount of hip-hop (I am on the record as regards the Roots, but also Blackalicious, Deltron 3030 and other “underground” hip-hop artists), lest it should be assumed that I only like black music in retrospect. But I found a lot of disco, back in the day, sort of dull. It didn’t really make me want to dance (Funkadelic made me want to dance), it didn’t have any deep message for me, and I didn’t want to go to discotheques anyhow. I wanted to go to punk clubs. Given that this is the case, listening to a perfect, ironic, knowing re-creation of disco is for me like trying to wear bellbottoms during the bellbottom revival. I didn’t even really like them when I was a kid and everyone was wearing them, why would I wear them again?
"Random Access Memories," therefore, reminds me a bit of the French hatred of McDonald’s. The French have a great tradition as regards their national cuisine. They even, on occasion serve food quickly — the croque monsieur, available at any café — but for some reason they allowed the McDonald’s onto French soil, and then, after a couple of decades lamented it, and, now and again, protested the presence of McDonald’s, and hurled a couple of rocks through a couple of McDonald’s storefront windows. I admire this hatred of our American export. It seems just and true to me, like a postmodern rerun of May ‘68. "Random Access Memories" is like a French McDonald’s franchise, it is a simulation of what was ephemeral, weak, thin, wan and unworthy of imitation in the first place, done with a knowing wink that is meant to loft it above suspicion, but which, for me, is like those French New Yorkers who know more about Bushwick than I do. "Random Access Memories" is a kind of exoticism, a French version of orientalism, which is just sophisticated enough that many people don’t seem to know what’s happening before their eyes.
In the end, "Random Access Memories," like the revival of bellbottoms, is perfect for the very young, which is why my wife’s nephew, Jackson, loves “Get Lucky.” Because he doesn’t understand any of the cultural references. I haven’t asked you if your own appreciation of Daft Punk has anything to do with your son, but the fact that I know anything about this record, which I would probably never voluntarily listen to, does have a lot to do, for me, with kids. Kids love it. All of its winking, self-aggrandizing simulation is shorn away for the kids, and it is hard to hate what the kids love. Even if it has nothing for me. I would like to throw a rock through its storefront window.
I know that I have convinced you of nothing, cannot convince you of anything, and I have found your arguments articulate, fascinating, and just shy of irritated with me, and I assume you have some real inside knowledge of the album and its participants, or so it seems to me. This has made the conversation very interesting to me. You are a worthy antagonist, and I thank you for the discussion.
Hi again, Rick. Sorry for the delayed response, but I have been busy rehearsing with live musicians for an upcoming tour. I also took a little time to read portions of "Celestial Music," as I wanted to familiarize myself with your highly entertaining essay on the use and abuse of the drum machine through the years, and the chapters titled “The New York Underground” and “On Celestial Music.” And I learned about some of your own guilty pleasures.
In "Europe, Forsake Your Drum Machines!" you detail your mixed feelings about Kraftwerk, whom you rightly identify as brilliantly ironic, even funny. At one point you call them a comedy act. And yet still you give them credit for writing some beautiful songs. I think we both agree that "Ralf Und Florian" is a wonderful record, it is the record where they become the mature Kraftwerk, the band that then made "Radio-Activity" and "Trans-Europe Express."
You love the band but conclude that their sound became obsolete, that their records did not date well. I have to disagree. At one point, yes, it surely looked that way, but it’s a long race, and when I saw them at Hammerstein Ballroom in 2003, it appeared to me that they had invented the future, that they were a good 25 years ahead and everyone else was playing catch-up. It was one of the best live shows I have ever seen (though how much of it was live I cannot say with certainty).
But take a look at this video of Kraftwerk in the Ralf Und Florian period.
Or this video of “Autobahn,” from Midnight Special 1975, check out the drum solo at 3:30!!
As you note in your essay, they had a hard time holding on to drummers in the early years; drummers apparently objected to having contact microphones place on the drums, or having to keep it simple. Their answer was to build their own drum machines, and that’s what you see here. But these were not sequencers, and they were not spitting out repeating drum patterns; they were in fact electronic drums that were played by human beings.
You continue with a discussion of some unfortunate English and European music made with drum machines (as well as some German electronic music that you admire), and how the sounds pioneered by rave culture were absorbed into even worse American pop confections. And surely you are right. But we both know that it’s not the machine that is the problem. Drum machines don’t kill music; people who use drum machines do. You know who else can really suck? Drummers. Most drummers. Most guitar players too.
At one point you suggest that we check out "Blah Blah Blah" by Kesha or "3" by Britney to see what horrible damage the drum machine and auto-tune effect have wrought, when incorporated into mainstream pop. Sure, those tracks would prove your point. But there is good Britney and bad Britney. Likely there is more of the latter, but check out “Radar” or “Toxic,” which uses drum machines, auto-tuned vocals, and synthesized bass line, but also contains some cool, snaky guitar parts. I think you might actually like it.
Anyway, I too have enjoyed this exchange, even though you can clearly write circles around me, and quickly. I feel we have made some real progress, that this has possibly even been therapeutic. Because I think our different reactions to "Random Access Memories" can be traced to your early teenage years — and mine. These are the years when we form some of our core opinions about pop music. And you and I are separated by two years — two formative years.
I see your point about most disco music (and the whole scene) being unappealing; there was a whole lot of dubious fashion, and a whole lot of bad songs: "I Like the Nightlife," "Ring My Bell," "Boogie Oogie Oogie," "Boogie Wonderland," "Boogie Nights," "I'm Your Boogie Man.” Of course, it wasn’t just disco music that was vapid; there was Barry Manilow and the Starlight Vocal Band too. Most of any genre is crap, whether it's disco, metal, jazz, punk or indie rock.
But let’s look at 1976. I was 12 and you were 14. Hot Chocolate released "You Sexy Thing," Silver Convention dropped "Fly Robin Fly,” and Thelma Houston released "Don't You Leave Me This Way" -- and these made a big impression on me. I saw the Silver Convention chicks on Australian TV and found them spunky — this is the word we used down under; the American equivalent was “foxy.” I remember walking into a record shop, intending to buy the latest single by the Silver Convention, but a sales clerk convinced me to buy Boz Scaggs’ "Silk Degrees" instead. Now I have a soft spot for that LP too.
You probably didn’t have much time for this stuff. You were just a little older and cooler and likely listening to Roxy Music, Frank Zappa and Parliament (correct me if I’m wrong). I think around that age (14, 15, 16) music becomes incredibly important; it helps us define who we are and who we are not. You were not someone who listened to KC & the Sunshine Band, and I don’t blame you. I was too young to know about such things.
A couple of years later our lives were turned upside down by the punk movement. I defined myself by listening to the Clash, Television, Ramones, Talking Heads and Public Image, who appealed to me far more than Cheap Trick, Kiss or Van Halen. And they dressed better too. So I certainly understand that in 1978 you wanted to hang out at punk clubs, where a revolution was taking place in music, not at Studio 54 or Xenon where the douchey people stood in line, trying to get inside to snort coke and dance to the "aesthetically bankrupt" music.
And now yesterday's trash is elevated to the level of art. But I imagine every generation makes this complaint. I scratch my head when some kid tells me that Lionel Richie is a genius. I am more turned off by bad '80s production values (and fashion) than by the bad ‘70s.
I like your formulation "retro-futurist-all-but-plagiarized-culturally-appropriated disco." I agree that Daft Punk (and Air and Phoenix too) can be said to traffic in a form of French Orientalism, that they recycle things that you found objectionable years ago. But since I enjoy the results, since I like it better than Chic or Tavares or Supertramp, I don't care. Yes it’s retro-futurist, yes it’s culturally appropriated and all-but-plagiarized, but so are the songs of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin.
Did I mention that I reviewed "Random Access Memories" for the Talkhouse? So I tried to find out what I could about how it was made. I could not get an advance copy of the album (Sony was worried about it leaking before release), but had to sit in an office and listen on a secure computer and some good headphones. Which I think was helpful -- to listen to the album from beginning to end with no distractions. Hearing it that way, taking the whole trip, instantly convinced me of the essential brilliance of this Bangalter / De-Hominem Christo production. And let me ask, if anyone with a Rolodex and checkbook could have made this record, when was the last time Paul Williams or Nile Rodgers did something this good?
So we disagree on this album. Fortunately we both love Kraftwerk, Arvo Pärt, Pere Ubu, Suicide (best drum machine band ever), the Feelies (a band that changed both of our lives), and the Velvet Underground. I liked your observation, in "Celestial Music," that by the time the Velvet Underground recorded their fourth album, "Loaded," they had ceased to be “underground.” This was their least innovative record; they entered a nice studio and made a rock album, like other rock bands did. But when a friend tells me that "Loaded" is the greatest of all V.U. albums, I don’t necessarily disagree. He can at least make a good case for an album that contains “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” and “Who Loves the Sun?” So it is with this, the fourth album by Daft Punk; they have made their least groundbreaking album, but also their most enjoyable.
P.S.: Yes, my son (age 14) likes it. He and your lucky nephew get to appreciate this album without having to ask what it means.