Guided by Voices: Dave Tompkins's How To Wreck A Nice Beach

The curious history of the vocoder

Consider the vocoder. Invented at Bell Labs in 1928 to mimic the human voice, the hope was that the machine would better transmit speech underwater—say, across the Atlantic. Seventeen years later, Truman and Churchill would use the technology to discuss the terms of German surrender over a secure line. In between, the device would sing "Barnacle Bill" at a 1936 celebration at Harvard and capture the imagination of a young Ray Bradbury, who first encountered it at the 1939 New York World's Fair. When the '80s and rap hit, the vocoder would become "the main machine of electro hip-hop, the black voice removed from itself, displaced by Reaganomics, recession and urban renewal," according to Dave Tompkins's virtuoso new book on the gadget, How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Or as the downtown dance staple Man Parrish once put it: "Be naked and speak through a vocoder. That's my philosophy."

Tompkins is after far more than history here. Like the V-2 rocket of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, the vocoder is a vehicle, a proxy for forces bigger than the freaks—Egyptian Lover, JFK—who employ it. The same device that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn agonizes over building for Stalin in the First Circle surfaces again, decades later and thousands of miles away, in New York, where Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" is moving club kids to dance "to German records that spoke Japanese in voices manufactured by Texas Instruments."

How Churchill showed hip-hop the way
Siemens Corporate Archive, Munich
How Churchill showed hip-hop the way

Details

How to Wreck a Nice Beach
By Dave Tompkins
Melville House, 336 pp., $35

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In the course of his research, Tompkins talks to everyone from Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider to Donnie Wahlberg to the last living World War II cryptology experts. But it's not until late in the book that you realize that what's essentially being written here—in the same fluid, unexpected prose that has long made Tompkins every rap critic's favorite critic—is autobiography. The author first hears the vocoder at a youth basketball camp supervised by Michael Jordan, and the device will recur,as it does on the roller rink and in the Pentagon, in the strangest moments ever after. The vocoder is the sound of "what we can't see coming," Tompkins writes. "What we can't believe we hear."

 
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