Dave Tompkins has written a book that is far more than the history of a piece of equipment. While How to Wreck a Nice Beach is, as its subtitle says, the history of "The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop ," it is more accurately summed up in the subtitle to the subtitle: "The Machine Speaks."
Tompkins follows a linear path of the vocoder, with sidetracks into the Talk Box, Sun Ra's Outer Visual Communicator, the Speak 'n' Spell, and the Moog synthesizer. He traces it from its early development as a piece of equipment designed to break up communications and encrypt them in a wash of random noise onward, through a myriad of forms, all the up to where we know it today, which is as something that will take your voice and make it sound like a robot (the Cylons on the original Battlestar Galactica, most notably).
What's fascinating about Tompkins' book is the sheer breadth of material here. The fact that the vocoder was originally developed by Bell Laboratories for the United States government, and somehow went from that purpose to its appropriation by Kraftwerk to vocalize their performances, and then the subsequent use of Kraftwerk by African-American hip-hop pioneers is a bit hard to process: American government encryption device used by German electronic artists to make music eventually sampled by rappers in America's urban centers.
How to Wreck a Nice Beach is written in Bangs-ian prose, and it's difficult to tell where Tompkins is being literal or just overly expressive:
As one of earth's oldest speaking creatures, the frog has certainly earned thr gith to occupy our throats, and it is no coincidence that the human larynx is frog-shaped. True frog clearance is an act of speech itself, the "ahem of phlegm" that pronounces the air dead, the silence awkward, and the apparent obvious, a muscosal scramble of hint.
For all the oddity in the book, the stories of artists who dared take the risks associated with flanging their voice to oblivion make for fascinating reading, such as discovering that Peter Frampton's Talk Box tube was dipped in Remy champagne, or that Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" is the template for Miami bass.
When it comes right down to it, the book is two things: a history lesson, dipped in oddity and populated by "Freak-A-Zoid"s; and a playlist of funktastic jams that will rattle your windows and blow out your speakers.
How to Wreck a Nice Beach is out now from Melville House Publishing.
The Jonzun Crew - Pack Jam
Zapp - More Bounce To The Ounce
Africa Bambaataa - Planet Rock
Grandmaster Flash - Scorpio
Man Parrish - Hip Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop)
Fantasy Three - It's Your Rock
Garrett's Crew - Nasty Rock
Cybotron - Clear
Fab 5 Freddy - Change The Beat
Fearless Four - F-4000
Midnight Star - Freakazoid