For casual fans of Daft Punk, mostly familiar with the group through 2001’s now unanimously beloved Discovery LP and 2013’s chart-hopscotching smash “Get Lucky,” returning to 1997’s Homework — the debut album from robots terribles Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo — might be a jarring, if not downright alienating experience. There’s no Nile Rodgers six-string disco-funk, barely any plush ’70s soft-rock keys, and surprisingly little of the vocodered, dehumanized vocals inextricable to the group today; outside of hit single “Around the World” and a handful of interludes, the record is almost entirely instrumental. Instead, there’s a lot of mercilessly pounding 4/4 beats, bass that throbs like a telltale heart, and scorching synths that crank the “acid” in acid house all the way to 0 on the pH scale. Compared to the electro-shock assault of Homework, a later crowd-pleaser like “Harder Better Faster Stronger” sounds… well, like not many of those titular adjectives.
Of course, at the time, the album made total sense. Daft Punk’s early singles — and the duo has since admitted that Homework was essentially a glorified singles compilation — were mostly in this pulverizing mold, particularly their international breakthrough hit, “Da Funk,” a stomping disco rager with a growling, instrumentally ambiguous riff that proved one of the decade’s most inflammable hooks. Moreover, it was a very aggro time in mainstream dance music in general: The big beat invasion, heralded for years on the momentum of increasingly popular block-rocking singles by U.K. acts like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers, fashioned electronic music into something that could soundtrack X Games montages. With alternative rock fading in cultural prominence, due to the radio dilution of grunge and the dissolution of many of the genre’s marquee bands, it seemed like these dance acts were primed for a cultural takeover.
Daft Punk was connected to this moment — “Da Funk” appeared alongside Underworld and Moby on the star-studded soundtrack to 1997’s The Saint, and the duo’s boundlessly imaginative music videos played in rotation on MTV’s AMP next to clips from Orbital and The Crystal Method — but they weren’t really part of it. They were French, not British, and much more rooted in traditional house than most of their contemporaries, many of whom had started to integrate jungle breakbeats and IDM unpredictability into their soundscapes, along with hip-hop grooves and rock bombast. But in retrospect, what really separates Daft Punk from the rest of the electronic Class of ’97 is that unlike their peers — nearly all of whom peaked in popularity in the back half of the ’90s — they outgrew their era exponentially. And that’s in large part because when it came to dance’s ability to cross over to rock fans, Thomas and Guy-Manuel were the only ones to take the long view.
The Robots were certainly no strangers to rock music. They started out as a coldly received, guitar-based act in the early ’90s; the phrase “Daft Punk” came from a negative review of one of their gigs in British indie rag Melody Maker. But once they embraced house music, they left their alt trappings behind, and Homework is a defiantly unrock album, almost entirely absent traditional analog instrumentation — “Da Funk” might have a riff to go ten rounds with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Loser” for the honor of the decade’s best, but actual guitars had little to do with its creation.
Homework didn’t need associate itself with rock stars past or present to establish its credibility; there’s no Noel Gallagher or Keith Flint present to give the group an identifiable mouthpiece, and the lone traditional rock figure name-checked in the inspired-by roll-call “Teachers” is the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Even the song literally titled “Rock’n Roll” is a thumping epic of dance-floor build-and-release with an atonal synth hook coarse enough to scrape the paint off a Fender Stratocaster — the only thing it has to do with Chuck Berry is that both make you want to throw a garbage can through a skylight if you play them loudly enough.
And that last part’s the key. Despite being trumpeted as the future of music and spawning a handful of minor hit singles (and one No. 1 Billbaord 200 album), the big beat phenomenon quickly sputtered out in the U.S. mainstream, as young rock fans decided they preferred the more explicit adolescent fury of nu-metal peddled by the likes of KoRn and Limp Bizkit. Meanwhile, Daft Punk disappeared for a couple years and returned at the turn of the millennium in nearly unrecognizable form, having reinvented themselves as a sublimely filtered disco-pop wrecking crew, still singularly mechanized but not nearly so heartless — and, even though they conceded to some more conventional song structures, still indelibly unrock.
It took some adjusting Stateside — Discovery was met with mixed reviews in the U.S. upon its 2001 release — but its rep grew with every passing year, culminating in a rapturously received 2006 Coachella gig that cemented the duo as the north star of modern dance music, as it became abundantly clear that the Robots had the right idea all along. Today, Homework sounds less dated than any other major electronic album from 1997, because it turns out the big beat paragons weren’t thinking nearly big enough. The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy imagined a world in which electronic music and rock had fused inextricably. Daft Punk dreamed of a future in which electronic music simply was rock.
And though it took some time, the latter prediction is certainly the one that’s been borne out. The most important American musical phenomenon of the ’10s is probably big-tent EDM, a movement with little explicit rock influence, aside from the fact that its biggest stars can whip festival crowds into a violent lather the way Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine might have two decades earlier. And while “Firestarter” and “Setting Sun” certainly had something to do with paving the way for that, it’s Daft Punk whose example is really being followed when a mostly programmed song like Skrillex’s “Bangarang” gets transposed for the Guitar Hero video game series, or when an incendiary instrumental with one warped vocal line like Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” briefly takes over the Internet and the charts. Daft Punk became rock stars without the help of rock music, and it’s their Revolution 909 that’s provided the core curriculum for DJs in the decades since.