By Scott T. Sterling
“…I wanted to write joyful music that made other people feel good. Music that helps and heals, because I believe that music is God’s voice.” – Brian Wilson
Daft Punk’s debut album, Homework, released on January 20, 1997, is essentially a tribute record.
As its title succinctly points out, the album is the result of partners Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo meticulously studying the depths of their influences, referencing a panorama of sound that encapsulated Chicago house, Detroit techno and ‘70s disco with a most unexpected twist: the duo’s very serious penchant for classic rock.
Which is why amidst the bombastic dance tracks and party anthems, Daft Punk chose to include the above Brian Wilson quote among the album’s liner notes. It’s just one of many nods the group scattered all over Homework, including shout-outs to a disparate collection of artists including Roxy Music, the Black Crowes and 13th Floor Elevators and future collaborators like Nile Rodgers and Paul Williams.
The album even includes a track titled “Teachers,” little more than a heavily compressed beat featuring a robotic voice calling out a cavalcade of Daft Punk’s biggest influences.
Homework emerged at a time when America’s underground dance music scene was thriving. By 1996, a new generation of DJs, promoters and fans had taken a DIY approach to producing large-scale raves that could draw thousands of people to experience the then-exploding phenomenon. The scene had grown from big cities like Chicago and San Francisco to far more random locales throughout the Midwest and even across the border in Windsor, Canada.
It was the year that Daft Punk made their U.S. debut deep in the woods of Wisconsin at an event called Even Furthur over a rain (and drug) soaked Memorial Day weekend.
The duo already had something of name in the Midwest, thanks in part to Chicago DJ Terry Mullan tacking Daft Punk’s debut single, “Da Funk,” onto his immensely popular mixtape, New School Fusion Vol. 2. The track’s menacing, slower paced glam-rock stomp and squelching acid house riffs stood in stark opposition to the disco-flavored 125 BPM house and techno of the time, and quickly became an after-hours underground party anthem.
The track was a big enough hit globally to find the duo in the middle of a fierce bidding war between multiple record labels before they signed a deal with Virgin Records, and they set about crafting their debut.
The dance music scene was waiting with bated breath for the album’s arrival when it was released in January 1997, but Homework quickly reached a wider audience with its second single, “Around the World.” The song’s hypnotic rhythm and playful cadence catapulted it to the top of the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, augmented by director Michel Gondry’s inventive music video.
The album encompasses a variety of moods. Some tracks followed a similar future-shocked glam-rock template as “Da Funk” (see “Rock ‘n Roll,” “Alive”), while others explored the parameters of hard-edged, for-the-DJs dance-floor workouts (“Indo Silver Club,” “Burnin’”). The group also displayed an experimental side, combining crashing waves, guitar feedback and a chopped vocal loop on “Fresh.”
Listening to it now, Homework is loaded with clues for what the group had in store on future releases. The whimsical, feel-good qualities of “Around the World” are a precursor to the Technicolor explosion that was to come with 2001’s Discovery, while the horror-movie tension of tracks like “Alive” can be traced directly to the monotone relentlessness of 2005’s Human After All.
And now, looking back at Daft Punk’s most recent release, 2013’s Random Access Memories (which snagged the Album of the Year award at the 2014 GRAMMYS), it seems apparent that Homem-Christo and Bangalter had the group’s steady trajectory to borderline-mythological status firmly in mind way back in 1997 when they released Homework.
“We know precisely what we’re doing and what we want.” Bangalter explained in an April ’97 interview. “I know that Daft Punk will make people happy for many years.” Two decades later, they still are making people happy; most recently, they collaborated with the Weeknd on “Starboy.” Twenty years from Homework and four years from Random Access Memories, fans still eagerly wait to hear what the robots will do next.