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- Published on Amazon.com
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.