In the just-released promo clip for the BBC documentary Daft Punk Unchained, which premiers tonight in the U.S. on Showtime, music journalist Michaelangelo Matos gives an appropriately larger-than-life account of the French duo's legendary pyramid show at Coachella 2006. As with most stories I've heard about that infamous evening in the California desert, the focus is on the giant, colorful LED displays that accompanied the group's beloved catalog of rave hits. By some accounts—including Matos'—Daft Punk's pyramid lit the fuse for the LED arms race that would fuel the rise of the EDM genre. Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste, but one could certainly argue that the focus on the visual aspects of that performance (and others to come) short-changed the musical genius of the duo.
Like everyone who was present on Saturday April 29, 2006 in Indio, I have a story to tell about the Daft Punk. Unlike almost all others, mine has been retold publicly. In Matos' book on the history of electronic music in America, The Underground Is Massive, he recounts my specific tale of being caught in a nearby porta-potty, delayed by slamming too many Red Bull and vodkas, as the curtain came up on Daft Punk's pyramid. It's an amusing anecdote I've retold on many occasions, and I'm honored that it appears inside his impressive tome. However, what happened next deserves airing as well.
Delayed as we were, my group of friends never made it into the Sahara Tent, where—as DP's manager reports in the doc—40,000 people tried to get into a 10,000 person tent. Fortunately, Coachella organizers had the foresight to add extra stacks of speakers, as well as jumbotrons, for those left outside. From our particular vantage point—standing severely stage right, peering through the side opening of the tent—we did not get the full-frontal explosion of moving lights and color that captivated everyone watching. We were removed from the seething pit of punters who bounded up and down through every build and break. Our fists never shot in the air in rapturous glory. And we didn't miss a goddamn thing.
Under the perfect desert sky, we danced to hit after euphoric hit. We moved and grooved on the perfectly manicured Empire Polo field lawn. We broke a sweat in the cool night air. We seethed and gritted our teeth in adrenalized delight as the perfectly EQ'd bass bins beat against our chests in a way that at least I, a veteran of the Midwest "wall-of-bass"-styled soundsystems, hadn't felt in years. Occasionally we would look up at the jumbotron, the cameras cutting between slow zooms on the pyramid and close-ups of expressionless bobbing robot heads in a near satire of the mainstage concert experience. What do you film when there is no one "performing" on stage?
Long before the pyramid, Daft Punk had already perfected a blend of ambitious artsiness and dance-floor efficiency that made them stand out from their peers—notably, in an era when faceless producers were de rigueur. They had obviously learned from the best, as you can hear on the track "Teachers" from their debut album Homework, calling out mainly the Chicago house pioneers who'd been their earliest muse. Songs like "Around the World" and "Da Funk" had hooks, but "Steam Machine's" rapid percussion and the primal scream of "Rollin and Scratchin" tapped into the ancient tribal rhythms that are the real reason why clubbing beats all other forms of communion. The songs from Discovery elevated dance music to pop perfection, while the seemingly incomplete Human After All revealed itself to be one of the most advanced DJ tools in history when put together with the rest of the catalog and fleshed out live inside the pyramid. Listen to the raw power of "The Prime Time of Your Life/ The Brainswasher/ Rollin' and Scratchin'/ Alive" from the 2007 Alive CD, recorded during subsequent pyramid shows, and ask yourself if a single spotlight is needed to make this music shine.
The morning after the pyramid, as we chatted over breakfast and wondered if a final day of Coachella was even worth it following the (MDMA-free) dopamine dump that had occurred the previous night, one my housemates who has been inside the tent walked into the kitchen and said, with a thousand yard stare, "That was the best light show I've ever seen."
"What light show?" was my sincere response. Daft Punk deserves all the credit in the world for forcing dance music into its next phase—both on the level of presentation and the level of exposure. And the EDM excesses that followed the pyramid show can hardly be their fault. But the next time someone talks about how impressive a DJ or festival's production is (and kudos to the artists, designers and technicians who create these immense spectacles) be sure to follow up and ask if the music is as worthy as the lights. Otherwise, the cart is before the horse.