Sunday, July 14, 2013

"How to Wreck a Nice Beach," Dave Tompkins: the vocoder speaks

"When I talk to the Secretary of State, he better soundlike the Secretary of State." 
(Lyndon Johnson)

That Presidential frustration with newfangled technology was understandable, way back in the 1960s. In the 21st century the vocoder -- that little black box on the cover, above -- has altered the way most of us regard recorded music and basic speech. As with many inventions gone far afield from their original purpose, the vocoder technology was first intended as a means of disguising the human voice for military purposes. Today we hear the altered human voice every day, and have grown accustomed to it in its million inflections.

The vocoder's alien-sounding tones have saturated music, telecommunications, and most of pop culture: we can all get an instant laugh duplicating the disembodied vocoder voice of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. FDR, JFK, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, Henry Kissinger, Walter/Wendy Carlos and Winston Churchill have all had their own close encounters with the machine, which Bell Labs invented in 1928.

How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop: The Machine Speaks (Stop Smiling Books/Melville House Publishing) is a tech geek's wild ride through Dave Tompkins's ten-year 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, much like the defense-industry origins of what became the internet which followed it in the 1940s.

How to Wreck a Nice Beach (the title is a phonetic play on the human ear's ability to recognize meaning in speech even in distorted form) is probably more history and detail than a casual reader might need, and Tompkins's writing style is that particular style of rock-music writing, the pop-baroque: Homer Dudley "invented the vocoder when he realized his mouth was a radio station while flat on his back in a Manhattan hospital bed, eyes on the ceiling, a goldfish as his witness."

Behind the fireworks on the page there is an obsessive's amount of research. 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 omissions. Stevie Wonder is one. Tompkins admits his inability to get an interview with Georgio Moroder gave him dreams.

And there were others: "The head of the A/V department at the Bavarian insane asylum that played whispering vocoder water drops for patients while they slept. Them, Solzhenitsyn, Roger Troutman, and the guy who intercepted those Allied transmissions who thought they were bee frequencies and sent them back into the ionosphere as a jamming frequency."

In interviews for the book, Tompkins (a writer for Vibe, the Village Voice and The Wire) 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):

"Yeah. Lovecraft's stuff was so unspeakably squishy to read when you're young. There are really crazy sentences in there. I remember my brother had his copy of The Necronomicon inside a black briefcase with the issue ofPenthouse where Kris Kristofferson's with this Cher look-alike in various positions. So I remember sneaking under my brother's bed, and there's thePenthouse and there's the Necronomicon, and there's Lovecraft's "Tale of the Cthulhu Mythos" and thinking, alright, when's mom coming home?
And I thought that was Cher all along, I believe, until I realized she just had the Cher hair."
The SIGSALY WW II vocoder system with turntables (1945).

"Oh, you had something to tell me about the U.S. Open ..." the interviewer then prompts weakly, maybe realizing it would be best to plunge ahead rather than attempt to parse these wobbly metaphysics. Reading the book is similarly fun and distracting at the same time, as Tompkins' style is something the reader accepts after a while -- or either puts away in frustration.

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. (Neil Young was sued by an unhappy Geffen Records after he delivered the album Trans, in which his vocals were vocoded; the record label claimed he didn't sound like himself.) 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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