The history of the vocoder: how popular music hijacked the Pentagon's speech scrambling weapon
The vocoder, invented by Bell Labs in 1928, once guarded phones from eavesdroppers during World War II; by the Vietnam War, it was repurposed as a voice-altering tool for musicians, and is now the ubiquitous voice of popular music.
In How to Wreck a Nice Beach—from a mis-hearing of the vocoder-rendered phrase “how to recognize speech”—music journalist Dave Tompkins traces the history of electronic voices from Nazi research labs to Stalin’s gulags, from the 1939 World’s Fair to Hiroshima, from artificial larynges to Auto-Tune.
We see the vocoder brush up against FDR, JFK, Stanley Kubrick, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, the Cylons, Henry Kissinger, and Winston Churchill, who boomed, when vocoderized on V-E Day, “We must go off!” And now vocoder technology is a cell phone standard, allowing a digital replica of your voice to sound human.
From T-Mobile to T-Pain, How to Wreck a Nice Beach is a riveting saga of technology and culture, illuminating the work of some of music’s most provocative innovators.
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.
"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."