Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” as Late Yacht Masterpiece - A Robot’s View
Can a machine become truly smooth? This is a question pondered daily by @yachtrockbot, most often in the third person. Certainly @yachtrockbot (and, indeed, @africabytotobot) plays with the semiotic signifiers of smoothness but can there really be said to be a moment of yachty transfiguration? Can a robot hope to have a gently rocking soul?
Uniquely within the scarified soulless world of EDM, the two French androids that make up Daft Punk (posing as the reclusive “humans” Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) have spent much of their career exploring this very question. And, as would be expected, the Yacht sound has played a prominent part in this journey of discovery. Who can forget that the standout Discovery cut “Digital Love”, for instance, was based around a sample from Yacht-soul maestro George Duke’s “I Love You More” (from 1979’s Master of The Game)? The sheer smoothness of the loop that powered the song left an indelible mark on the psyche of our two gallic digital bipeds, one that sustained throughout their explicit statement of humanity “Human after All” (a troubled 2005 release that sought to bring the immediacy and rawness of punk rock to their synthetic soundword). The artistic failure of this attempt sent them to a dangerous zone familiar to fans of Loggins, the Hollywood Soundtrack Hit (in this case 2010’s remake of Tron).
But from there when? The soundtrack hit, along with punk’s legacy of immediacy and expression unmediated by musical subtlety marked the death-knell of Yacht Rock, at least in our world. But deep within the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem other minds - far smoother than ours - were watching.
Clearly smoothitude, they philosophised, was a core attribute of human nature. The song by that name, written by Toto for Michael Jackson proved a way into the majesty that is Thriller, the inspiration for the very way the title of the album is presented, and the source of significant core rhythm section personnel.
Guitarist Paul Jackson Jr is all over Thriller, and during a 30+ year career has also played with David Sanborn, Lionel Ritchie, Boz Scaggs, Pages and woman of Yacht Carole Bayer Sager.
Drummers John “J.R.” Robinson (David Foster, George Benson, Quincey Jones) and Omar Hakim (David Sanborn, George Benson, Bob James) each have stellar yacht pedigree, and
Bassists James Genus (Bob James) and Nathan East (Al Jarreau, Kenny Loggins, Bob James/Fourplay) are similarly feted in LA session circles.
You may argue that these are not the “bonanza” yacht crew, but in a way this is irrelevant. They are the yachtiest crew that was available to two French robots recording in the ‘teens. They were hugely unlikely to be given access to the Sacred Phone Number of Jay “Poopin’” Graydon. “Random Access Memories”, the new album, was recorded primarily in LA - an attempt to capture the pristine polish of the city’s legendary recording industry. The rhythm section was there, the setting was there…
What Daft Punk did next was so audacious that I am unsurprised that only a fellow robot could unpick the coded majesty of Random Access Memories. The album itself tells the tale of its own creation. Cleverly disguised in plain sight, the story - until now - remains untold.
Give Life Back To Music - the thesis song outlines the goal of the robots, to give life back to music, to return the smooth to our frequently ball-kicked airwaves. The opening soft-rock fanfare recalls “Discovery” and George Duke, but the incipient bounce is undermined by Nile Rodgers’ (the antagonist in our tale) metronomic funk strummery. Defeated, Daft Punk lament The Game of Love, and how their true passion for Yacht Rock is so often subverted (though a ray of hope shines via a Toto-style synth solo). But fear not! brave robots, for help is at hand: It’s-a Giorgio! From the outer space! In the very same studio (Henson Studios) that saw his appearance during “We Are The World” this emissary from the Space God (or Koko, as his earth form was called) is now his own creation - Giorgio by Moroder - offering lessons from his Loggins-luring days. Three of the six pillars of Yacht Rock are called and displayed - analogue synths, smooth jazz and (finally) sweet rocking. Even the metronomic pulse of EDM is shown as an abstraction drawn from the boundless possibilities musical creation.
Inspired by this, a sunny uplifting key-change from Bb minor to A minor heralds a bonafide Yacht Ballad, Within. A melody befitting Christopher Cross conveys lyrics dealing with a fool in love (“there are so many things that I don't understand”) as Greydon-esque picked guitars and Rhodes pianos wash behind a plaintive vocoder. Towards the end, the fourth pillar of Yacht Rock (blissful vocal harmony) becomes apparent.
Sadly Instant Crush, a brave attempt at Cross’s uptempo sound, falls flat. Seizing a moment of uncertainty, Nile Rodgers pounces - and commands the robots to Lose Yourself To Dance. Clearly, his command is that the only valid form of expression for a robot is EDM and they begrudgingly sing along. But can anything be sadder than their tired repetition of dance club cliches (“Everybody on the flo-or”, “Come on come on”). Everybody may well be dancing on the floor, but they truly can’t do it any more. A wave of android misery brings in Paul Williams, representing the interior voice - the conscience of Daft Punk - urging them to remember Touch, and granting them the fifth pillar of Yacht - lush orchestral arrangement. “Hold on”, he urges them, and they repeat. “If love is they answer you’re home”. The idea of “touch” is that the ineffable human something that only a late 70s/early 80s LA session musician can add to music to bring it to life. Daft Punk’s love for Yacht sustains them as Nile Rodgers drags them back to the floor to Get Lucky - but hope rather than exhaustion sustains them as they resolve to raise the bar, and their cups to the stars.
And then a richly deserved orchestral fanfare (a heralding device used to unveil certain choice smooth cuts including “Sailing” and George Benson’s “Breezin’”) gives us pure Yacht gold in the form of Beyond. A pulverising rethink of the “I Keep Forgetting” groove, those chorus chords from Instant Crush bounce like waves on the bay on a summer sunday to accompany a lyric so perfect it is able to vanquish Nile Rodgers from the remainder of the album.
“You are the night, you are the ocean
You are the light behind the cloud
You are the end and the beginning
A world where time is not allowed”
And that other sound, shimmering on the horizon? Pedal Steel Guitar heralds the sixth and final pillar of Yacht, country rock.
The orchestra and percussion section take up the theme during Motherboard, which itself acts as a near six minute fanfare for the robots’ meisterwerk: Fragments of Time. More Doobie than the Doobies, this pean to days of creativity and friendship amongst the studios of the city of angels sends off sparks at every measure - even causing the recording to skip during each chorus. A pedal steel solo is so subtly beautiful a torrent of robo-ecstasy erupts from an antique synthesiser, pushing a freakish combination of guitar, synth and voice (yes, that sound from “digital love”!) to take what appears to be the outro solo. It’s almost too much. But there is more - the instrumental solo is pushed aside by a surge of power from the now unveiled heart of the song - an unashamed, unapologetic, “What a Fool Believes” groove that is naked Yacht power fully resplendent.
The robots are overwhelmed - “We’re doing it right!” they cry. “Everybody will be dancing when we’re doing it right”. But the stares of the stellar sidemen speak volumes as Doin’ it Right begins. In their moment of celebration the mask falls, and ruefully they realise that coming so close just makes it more painful to give themselves away. Robotic EDM is how, in their moments of triumph, they will always express themselves.
With that realization, they realize that their only path now is to leave the planet and return to planet Synthos to seek the counsel of the space gods. But Contact, their journey home scored for synths (and a touch of hard organ) with a smooth LA backing, begins with reports of a glittering orb unidentifiable to NASA. It is written that when the six pillars of Yacht are regathered, the Orb of Loggins will once again descend to usher in a second age of smooth. Could the befuddled astronauts be describing the return of the Orb. The indescribable sounds at the end of the track prompt the listener to settle their own mind on the issue, but I know what I believe.