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How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks [Paperback]

Dave Tompkins

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Book Description

Nov. 8 2011
The history of the vocoder: how popular music hijacked the Pentagon's speech scrambling weapon

The vocoder, invented by Bell Labs in 1928, once guarded phones from eavesdroppers during World War II; by the Vietnam War, it was repurposed as a voice-altering tool for musicians, and is now the ubiquitous voice of popular music.

In How to Wreck a Nice Beach—from a mis-hearing of the vocoder-rendered phrase “how to recognize speech”—music journalist Dave Tompkins traces the history of electronic voices from Nazi research labs to Stalin’s gulags, from the 1939 World’s Fair to Hiroshima, from artificial larynges to Auto-Tune.

We see the vocoder brush up against FDR, JFK, Stanley Kubrick, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, the Cylons, Henry Kissinger, and Winston Churchill, who boomed, when vocoderized on V-E Day, “We must go off!” And now vocoder technology is a cell phone standard, allowing a digital replica of your voice to sound human.

From T-Mobile to T-Pain, How to Wreck a Nice Beach is a riveting saga of technology and culture, illuminating the work of some of music’s most provocative innovators.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Review

"It’s unquestionably brilliant, not only one of the best music books of the year, but also one of the best music books ever written."
Los Angeles Times

"Dave Tompkins is seven steps ahead of science and several leagues outside of time."
—Sasha Frere-Jones, Pop Music Critic, The New Yorker

"The best hip hop writer ever born."
—Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, winner of the American Book Award

"One of the most bugged, brilliant guys I know." 
—Oliver Wang, NPR music critic 
 
"No one knows more about the vocoder than Dave Tompkins, not even the dude who invented it. [A]n awesome book about the vocoder and its cultural impact… read it immediately." 
—The Fader

How to Wreck a Nice Beach is much more than a labor of love: It’s an intergalactic vision quest fueled by several thousand gallons of high-octane spiritual-intellectual lust. Outside of, say, William Vollmann, it’s hard to think of an author so ravished by his subject... A hallucinatory stew of Rimbaud, Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, and Bootsy Collins.”
New York

"This one has cult audience written all over it."
Booklist


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Dave Tompkins, a former columnist for The Wire, writes frequently on about hip-hop and popular music. His work has appeared in Vibe, The Village Voice, Wax Poetics, and The Believer. Nearly a decade in the making, this is his first book.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vocoders at Work, Vocorders at Play April 21 2010
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I don't think that before I read _How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop: The Machine Speaks_ (Stop Smiling Books / Melville House Publishing) that I even knew what a vocoder was. After reading it, I am convinced vocoders must be everywhere. They seem to have been a foundation of Dave Tompkins's life. He has written this quirky book over a period spanning more than a decade, with some of the interviews going back more than ten years ago. Since he is an accomplished music columnist, mostly covering hip-hop and other popular music, most of the book is about the vocoder's use for entertainment, though it does cover the history of the device as a military tool. The vocoder helped win WWII, and even if you never appreciated it for that, and even if you aren't much of a pop music fan, you have probably heard its work when the movies needed a robot voice. _Colossus: The Forbin Project_ (1970) featured "the first paranoid supercomputer to speak through a vocoder." It has made cameo appearances in _Battlestar Galactica_ and _Tron_. It formed the words for the minimalist lyrics of Kraftwerk's _Autobahn_, and did the synthesized chorus for the electronic version of Beethoven's Ninth in _Clockwork Orange_. It was the basis for the vocals in the Christmas album _Zoot Zoot Zoot, Here Comes Santa in His New Space Suit_. OK, you don't know that one, and nobody is going to get all of Tompkins's astonishingly scattershot cultural references, but still, this hyper-illustrated, zingily-written historical tribute to Tompkins's favorite gadget is an amusing and in-depth examination of a particular and peculiar bit of technology and culture.

It is no surprise that the vocoder invented in 1928 is nothing like the vocoder now. It was invented for the purpose of cryptology, the brainchild of Homer Dudley working at Bell Labs. The ones used during WWII were as big as a three-bedroom home, but they were essential. Churchill had a vocoder installed in the basement of a London department store, and used it to discuss such things as D-Day with Roosevelt. President Johnson used it on Air Force One and flung the vocoder's headset in fury at an aide, yelling, "When I talk to the Secretary of State, he better _sound_ like the Secretary of State." Distortion was part of the security. Indeed, the peculiar title of Tompkins's book comes from a test of the vocoder, a bungled misunderstanding of the input phrase "how to recognize speech." The robotic distortion was what got the vocoder into pop music. It has become "the main machine of electro hip-hop, the black voice removed from itself, displaced by Reaganomics, recession, and urban renewal." Well, Tompkins is an expert on that sort of music, and presents the thoughts of many artists within hip-hop, but the vocoder has ranged widely. It sang "Barnacle Bill" in 1936 at Harvard. Ray Bradbury first encountered it at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and in 1977 his famous story about an automated house living on after a nuclear war had vocoder sound effects. Herbie Hancock, usually regarded as a jazz pianist, enraged some of his fans by using the vocoder in 1979. (Tompkins slyly notes, "Herbie Hancock did the unthinkable and used the vocoder to actually improve his voice.") Neil Young, faced with a disabled son who could not speak, made the album _Trans_ with a vocodered voice in 1983. This, too, bothered fans, and it also bothered his label, Geffen Records, which sued him, Tompkins summarizes, "for not being himself." Young countersued, and it was all settled out of court.

Tompkins juggles the two sides of the vocoder, cryptography and entertainment, adroitly. His prose is more subdued when discussing the technical and historical aspects of the instrument; when you read him on hip-hop, you are likely to get sentences like these, discussing "Clear," the first electro song he heard as a kid: "Music makes you hallucinate blue Lamborghinis airbrushed by a Ciara chorus while Fat Man Scoop, the drill sergeant of hype men, berates the freaks, freaking the club. It's all seizures and tracksuits, boneless and acrylic." If you are like me, and don't have much of a clue about artists like Jonzun Crew, Rammellzee, DJ Disk, or Grandmixer DXT, that part of the book will be a lively puzzle. What is truly interesting about the two different worlds, one trying to communicate secretly and the other trying to communicate openly, is that neither seems to know the other existed. Hip-hop artists were surprised to be told by Tompkins that their vocoders had a background of military service; WWII cryptologists were amazed to learn that their vocoders were being used in clubs and on records. Tompkins's book, full of personal reminiscences, visits with quirky artists and geeks, and analyses of the cultural zeitgeist of contented or befuddled vocoder users, is an important documentation of a tiny slice of the modern way of life.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars How to wreck a nice book... Dec 30 2010
By A. Davis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The writing, frankly, is indulgent beyond belief, and often diffuses what he is trying to say. You have to pick through unclear convolutions and winking references you either get or you don't (it's like a Simpsons episode, except more distracting than entertaining) to get at the meat. To boot, he often throws in fictional elements to further pursue our admiration for his "flash" style. For instance, in setting a scene, he mentions that a cow is yawning and a food cart worker is stealing money while someone is onstage at a state fair with their vocoder...in the eighties. Pretty sure that didn't turn up in his research. That would be fine for a novel, but this ain't that. The cow is a harmless enough detail, but the result of telling me someone stole money while the band played--because you think it reads cool--is I am often wondering if more ambiguous details are fact or fiction. Bad news for a history of anything, even the vocoder. There were a lot of things I took with a grain of salt; you certainly couldn't cite this book as a source for research! (If you were even completely sure of what was being said in the first place.) The style is basically what someone might use trying to get attention and look clever in a 100-word blurb review in a magazine, stretched out over a book. I finally packed it in and am just skimming now. Check this one out from the library if you want to read about the vocoder, don't buy. I generally don't review things on amazon...once every couple of years...but this book is so off-putting I wanted to warn people. Or as Dave Tomkins might say: "the throbbing migraine twisting around in my skull beamed in from the type-set nightmare spilling out across the pages of the book bound from another planet, one where editors snooze under liquor-filled palm trees, caused my fingers to do a spasmastic dance across the plastic keys of a 2002 Dell Keyboard (a friend once told me I looked like an eagle scout next to my Dell keyboard), shrieking with the culmination of their tapping: 'NO! This book is better off not bought, this book will bring you down until the carpet has found a permanent home on your face.'"
Honest to God, that's really what it's like.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag May 13 2010
By Karl Pallmeyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
On one hand, "How to Wreck a Nice Beach" is a frustrating read. Tompkins often takes off on tangents, offering irrelevant asides and allusions that are never fully explained or further explored. He mentions other devices and technology, but never illustrates how they are connected to the Vocodor and its development. Indeed, there's nothing technical at all in this book. We don't need a detailed examination of electric capacitors and sonic waveforms, but a little more scientific meat would have been nice.
That might seem a damning condemnation, but the other hand, the writing in this book is very enteraining. Tomkins' energetic stream-of-conscious style recalls the mix-master techniques of the hip hop music of which he is so fond. While annoyed at the lack of a chronological, coherent narrative, I love they way Tompkins puts words together. I continued to read just to see where he'd go next.
If you want a comprehensive history of the Vocodor and related technology, this is not the book for you. However, if you're looking for a fascinating, emotional tribute to this marriage of music, technology and culture, you should read "How to Wreck a Nice Beach."
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More culture than computation... April 12 2013
By William Yerazunis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
First off, this isn't a book about how a vocoder really works. There's no math. NONE. No pseudocode. Not even a deep discussion in plain English. Nor is it a book about how to use a vocoder, for secure speech or for putting an epic drop into your newest piece of music.

It's more a history of the Vocoder and the people who made it happen and who used it. The characters range from the steely-eyed guys who had security clearances higher than Churchill and Eisenhower, to rappers who spent as much time behind bars as at stagefront. And- it's told in a first-person mode; the author is telling of his experience in researching the book, who he's met, who he partied with, who he got to know, and (spoiler) who he became friends with who are no longer with us.

That said, it's fun and a good read. THAT said, remember it's limitations; it's a history, not an article in a maker magazine.
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ... you sing calm incense, and speak distinctly May 11 2010
By M. Bromberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a tech geek's wild ride through ten years of research and interviews, taking tangent at every opportunity to weave together the improbable uses and history of this one technological wonder. Like most of the inescapable gadgets that come to permeate popular culture the vocoder is unrecognizable from its original form.

Behind the fireworks on the page there is an obsessive's amount of information. Music fans of a certain tech bent will be interested in the scope of Tompkins' interviews from Afrika Bambaataa, to Laurie Anderson, to Holger Czukay of the group Can. These are not household names to casual pop listeners, and the book will have a built-in cult appeal, but it is surprising to discover a few major interview omissions. (Stevie Wonder is one.)

The book is fun, written in a dense style that could be called pop-baroque. Tompkins likes to scatter his literary references wide and drop time-space continuum non-sequiturs on the unsuspecting reader, in that disquieting way of the truly inspired -- or obsessed, depending on one's point of view. Over the long haul the book takes on exhausting dimensions. Ten years of research into one corner of pop culture is a long time; the writing may be fun, but the writer often loses focus in that "what was I saying?" style as he layers on the stories.

But the dedicated reader/gadget fan will hang in there. Like a spy novel there are unexpected connections throughout the book. If there are no real conspiracies, no unexpected dark secrets to discover about the vocoder or its uses, the facts themselves pile up to make an intriguing story. At the very least, having read "How To Wreck a Nice Beach" will bring a sly smile the next time I choose between Kathy or Alex, Bad News, Hysterical or Deranged as a text-reading voice option.

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