Becoming the Man-Machines: Daft Punk’s ‘Discovery’ at 20

How the Robots made their masterpiece, and how their masterpiece made them.

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Credit: Paul Bergen/Redferns.

When Daft Punk announced their split in February 2021, there was a justifiable mix of emotions and an armful of unanswered questions. The duo had been broadly inactive since 2014, so why call time now? In their departing video, we only see Thomas Bangalter blow up, so does this mean Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo will carry on solo? And this was all an elaborate fake-out before announcing another tour, right? Right?

But for the most part there was gratitude. Daft Punk’s legacy is assured as effortless alchemists of pop, funk, disco, electro, techno, house, hip-hop, glam, industrial, metal and film scores — a stepping stone to more or less anything you desire. By this point their influence barely needs stressing. For the 2020 edition of DJ Mag’s fan-voted Top 100 DJs list, the editors posed a question to each entrant: “What’s the greatest dance record of all time?” Twelve percent of responses were something by Daft Punk — an answer pointedly given by the poll’s winner, David Guetta, who came up alongside them in the late-’90s Parisian scene. He said there has been nothing better since.

Bangalter and Homem-Christo made records in service to the creativity of the ones they love themselves, going to unprecedented lengths in their quest to capture a given mood. As they grew up, so did their tastes and objectives. All of Daft Punk’s albums have their merits: 1997’s Homework broke the door down, 2013’s Random Access Memories moved the most copies and 2005’s Human After All was an act of crunching defiance upon which their revelatory Alive 2006-’07 tour was built.

Yet it is Discovery, released on March 12, 2001, which will stand as Daft Punk’s enduring masterpiece. It is here where they bent the cultural zeitgeist toward themselves, generated a profound ripple effect in the sensibilities of global audiences and comprehensively aced their mission to give life back to music.

In the 2010s, Daft Punk’s glacial pace of activity had become a bit of a running joke. Once you sell upwards of 20 million records, you can call the shots. But it looked like Bangalter and Homem-Christo were knowingly tickling the frustration of their diehard admirers. They would drop cryptic hints about grand announcements, only to reveal a new line of pin badges or perhaps a custom record stabilizer. Entire festival seasons and Super Bowls have been and gone with rumors of guest appearances from Daft Punk fading. Someone out there is probably still waiting for a Pyramid to rise from the ground in Tampa and the robots to accompany the Weeknd through a halftime rendition of “Starboy.”

The contrast with the 1990s is striking. Between Homework and Discovery, Daft-mania was ablaze and the duo fanned the flames relentlessly. They toured live, DJ’d in superclubs and on the radio, and pumped out instant-classic music videos. Both members started a record label: Homem-Christo’s Crydamoure was dedicated largely to stripped-back dancefloor cuts from the American Midwest, whereas Bangalter’s Roulé oscillated between sharp-elbowed techno and giddy crossover anthems. Already anointed as saviors of dance music, even their side projects seemed to be blessed with a Midas touch. Bangalter’s collaboration with fellow Frenchman Alan Braxe as Stardust birthed “Music Sounds Better With You,” their sole release and a strong candidate for most beloved house song of all time.

The most important event of all took place at precisely 9:09 on 9.9.99. So the story goes, Daft Punk were wiring up their equipment when a rare “9999 bug” caused their sampler to explode. Disfigured but alive, Bangalter and Homem-Christo underwent emergency surgery and became robots. British fashion magazine The Face was permitted to break the news about their facelessness, naturellement

Deeply camera-shy and already bored with the rigmarole of press, Daft Punk’s assumption of robot personas is a model of canny mythmaking. It let them wriggle out of uncomfortable questions about their upbringing in the affluent Montmartre district of Paris, and de-emphasized Bangalter’s father, a veteran songwriter who had given his son a comprehensive grounding in how to maneuver through the industry.

Better still, this transmutation afforded the duo a handy get-out-of-jail card when it came to scrutiny of the new direction they were leaning toward. By disposing of their physical bodies, they could train in on universal human desires without being subject to probing questions about what was really behind the mask. The music would simply speak for itself. Audiences would either go along with it or they wouldn’t.

Before the ’bots: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, from left, in Amsterdam in 1997. Credit: Paul Bergen/Redferns.

At first, they didn’t. To modern fans, it will require a considerable suspension of disbelief to imagine a new Daft Punk release being savaged out the gate. With each new record, Daft Punk would force an eventual volte-face from critics who pushed back on their vision of the future, but it was a war of attrition. In one interview, Homem-Christo flashed a rare show of annoyance, sighing that “our albums have always been destroyed at first in the press. Even with Homework, it was like, ‘You sold out to a major company [Virgin], so you are not underground anymore.’ With Discovery, they said we made bubblegum music that sounds like Supertramp.”

Discovery came out in France on March 12, 2001 and worldwide the following day (the anniversary of February 26 is a misnomer that has been recycled over time). Initial opinions varied. For the rockers, one of the hippest acts on earth had just dropped an album of downtempo breeziness, falsetto crooning and total emotional vulnerability — about as many taboos as you could cram together for cynical tastemakers at the beginning of the 21st century. Their cachet as a namedrop briefly evaporated.

For the ravers who had been electrified by Daft Punk’s pounding early singles, this new direction didn’t scan at all. Repetitive lyrics were just about acceptable — after all, “Around the World” was hardly Shakespeare — but ballads on a club record? Were these French guys out of their minds? And even if you were enraptured, the easy option was just to rewind to the start of the compact disc and let the first four tracks run over and over. Discovery had to earn its respect.

You’re handling a double-edged sword when “One More Time” is your opener. Initially it will completely eclipse the rest of what you’ve worked on. If you release it as the introductory single, as Bangalter and Homem-Christo did, then the shadow it casts will stretch even further. For a while, people should be going wild: It’s dynamite for dancefloors and tailor-made for radio, genuinely genius songcraft with an irresistible vocal from Romanthony that demands to be belted out. Eventually though, those same people are going to grow sick to death of it.

Twenty years on, “One More Time” has been slightly oxidized by exposure, hobbled by its status as the first entry in a DJ starter kit. From “Walk This Way” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” down to “...Baby One More Time” and “Hey Ya!,” the hall of music fame is littered with cross-generational anthems that get pushed into the red of overfamiliarity. The reflex of rolling your eyes and smirking ‘here we go again’ is a handbrake on giving into pleasure, but a totally valid one.

If you’re yawning at the ecstatic release on “One More Time,” fine — have the finger-tapping solo on “Aerodynamic,” a new branch of the family tree extending out from Van Halen’s “Eruption.” If that’s not doing it for you, how about some arena-ready piano vamping on “Digital Love,” or a fiendish vocoder breakdown on the piston-pumping “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”? Discovery’s opening 17 minutes is one long knee slide, a sensational four-hit knockout.

The snap take on Discovery was that it was frontloaded, but the LP’s latter half provides a richer variety of sensations. The zig-zag-Zapping “Crescendolls” sets pulses racing before “Something About Us” provides solace; any port in a quiet storm. “Veridis Quo” is as seamless as gliding a Bugatti through the Palace of Versailles, matched only in opulence by Todd Edwards’ signature sample brunoise on “Face to Face,” wherein the New Jersey house evangelist scatters hundreds of loops across the mix for an aural je ne sais quoi.

By the climatic closer “Too Long” — track length 10:00 precisely — they are showboating in the end zone, double-underlining the whole album’s premise: “You know you need it/I need it too/It’s good for you.” It’s as if Daft Punk are speaking to the listener by this stage: You might not be able to put a finger on our magnetism, but we’re going to make you love us.

Discovery may not have been universally loved from the jump, but the album’s stature quickly began to snowball. Robo-fascination was part of it. Bangalter and Homem-Christo’s helmets, back then modified with LED panels to transmit messages and digitized emotions, felt like a Y2K analogue to Parliament-Funkadelic’s acid-era costumes or David Bowie’s glam Ziggy Stardust persona. Each of Discovery’s first four singles came with an intergalactic animated short that dominated music TV. Unlike Homework, where the videos were perfectly choreographed but clearly distinct, there was a linear story being unfurled, with beautiful detail from master mangaka Leiji Matsumoto and his Toei Animation.

The final product was Daft Punk’s feature film Interstella 5555, a visual feast perfectly in sync with Discovery’s audio. Matsumoto’s work had it all: Spaceships shaped like Flying V guitars, chases through rainy backstreets, a dastardly plan to steal all the greatest musicians in existence, escapes from exploding volcanoes, a World Cup soccer match between Japan and France (France sneak the win); and, once the universe is saved, all of humanity dancing as one, Swiss goat herders and Maasai tribesmen united under a Gallic groove.

By the time of Interstella 5555’s release in 2003, listening habits were evolving. Helped along by file-sharing networks and the release of the iPod in late 2001, mainstream audiences seemed newly appreciative of records that might have been previously trashed as too camp, precious or cheesy. Even to their closest allies, the duo had unlocked an unforeseen level of artistic expression. “We listened to Discovery at Thomas Bangalter’s place one night,” recalled Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz in the career-spanning anthology Liberté, Égalité, Phoenix! “Though you didn’t know it would change the world, you knew it was the best music you had heard in 10 years.”

Brancowitz, who performed alongside Bangalter and Homem-Christo in an early ’90s alt experiment called Darlin’, witnessed Discovery’s impact up close at home. “France changed. After Daft Punk, suddenly people thought international success was possible for a band from France. Before that it was that joke about English wine and French rock” — the old maxim that the impatient English are hopeless at vinification and the aloof French can’t make everyman anthems. It’s not as if Discovery festooned some sort of invincibility cloak on Daft Punk’s countrymen right away though. Cassius, already a hot ticket in discotheques and the charts for their filter-heavy house hits, were best-placed to benefit. Yet their prospects dipped sharply by the time of 2002’s Au Rêve.

By their own admission, Phoenix also struggled to capitalize on the opportunity at first. Only by 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix did the group latch onto a winning formula and crack America. By then, the likes of LCD Soundsystem, MGMT, Hot Chip, Chromeo, Justice, Calvin Harris and a young Tame Impala were putting in hard yards on the tour and festival circuit. The demand for music that had any combination of funk groove, falsetto hiccups, strobing synths, earnest giddiness and a kind of cotton-candy psychedelic flourish had exploded worldwide. These acts were not a monolith, but all owed some degree of popularity to the space that Daft Punk opened up. For LCD Soundsystem, it wasn’t even subtle.

Pyramid dream: Daft Punk give their landmark performance at Coachella in 2006. Credit: Karl Walter/Getty Images.

If Discovery’s strength lies in its capture of childlike joy, its weakness remains the unresolved questions about how much of the songwriting can truly be credited to Daft Punk. The album is built on dozens of samples — sometimes songs that the duo rerecorded by hand and then sampled. In the 20 years since Discovery’s release, online sleuths have periodically identified hidden extras stitched into the background, accompanying the prominent use of Barry Manilow’s “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed” throughout “Superheroes,” or how Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby” gives “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” its pep. For fans who prize original creation above all, finding out those infectious riffs, licks, hooks and melodies were not necessarily coming from Bangalter and Homem-Christo could be a downer.

The critic Simon Reynolds, in his essential book Retromania, presents both sides of the authenticity debate. On the one hand, Reynolds probes, “what exactly is this music’s contribution? Surely, at a certain point, recycling will just degrade the material beyond the point that further use-value can be extracted.” Speaking specifically about Discovery, though, he says the album’s angelic production glow and base humanity had a similar impact as the groundbreaking records made by Kraftwerk: “In 2001, Daft Punk staged a transvaluation of plastic, shedding its negative associations and recovering its utopian promise as the material of the future.”

In the wake of Daft Punk’s split, I asked a number of electronic veterans to consider what modern music would sound like without them and their 2000s output. None could picture it, and a couple didn’t even want to meet the question head on. It’s like stepping into an episode of the Twilight Zone to find that embittered Gen X-ers and regressive Boomers firmly maintain a rockist orthodoxy. There are myriad gloomy outcomes: Romanthony, Todd Edwards and DJ Sneak never get their dues outside of house music circles. Giorgio Moroder receives no late-career renaissance. Kanye doesn’t make “Stronger,” and he certainly doesn’t locate a neon-splattered muse for 808s & Heartbreak and the blockbuster Glow in the Dark Tour. And what are wedding DJs possibly going to pull as an encore to keep the party going?

Of course the world would keep spinning, but you have to ask yourself: Who would want to live there? Daft Punk instead became a generational axis point, two wide-eyed fantasists who ferried listeners of all stripes to a place where genre tribalism was irrelevant and cynicism was to be expunged from your heart. It was 20 years ago when the duo made their Discovery and opened the portal to a brighter future. The timelines diverge and we’re on the better one.

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