How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks Paperback – Nov 8 2011
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"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."
“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.”
"This one has cult audience written all over it."
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.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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."
Honest to God, that's really what it's like.
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.
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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