Talking Heads

How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop: The Machine Speaks by Dave Tompkins isn’t just about a piece of gear called the Vocoder. It’s about separating and connecting the mind, the body, speech, and music. Anything that does that in full or in part—music, literature, movies, machines—is in Tompkins’ sights. To most people, the Vocoder might only mean Roger Troutman or Peter Frampton. Turns out it was invented in World War II and became part of an experiment in which the first use of turntables in tandem was by the Pentagon for spy games. The politics of the speech techno-sweepstakes get stranger—the inventor of the Vocoder was an avid supporter of Joseph McCarthy, Alexander Solzhenitsyn did research on it in the 1950s, JFK used one to talk to his British counterpart during the Cuban missile crisis, the technology behind detecting nuclear tests ultimately became the pitch-correcting software Auto-Tune. As the technology escaped from military roles, it became part of a pop culture explosion (“What guarded Winston Churchill’s phone against Teutonic math nerds would one day become the perky teabot that chimed in on Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.”).  Tompkins revels in it all, connecting dots between Supertramp and Stephen Hawking, pro wrestling and Michael Jordan, the Simpsons and NWA, police brutality and Patsy Cline, Roger Miller and Juan Atkins, Black Sabbath and The Electrifying Mojo. He writes about the time Sun Ra was in the studio with New Kids on the Block, about Archie Shepp working with Whitney Houston, about how the inventor of Jheri Curl played a vital role in the LA electro hip-hop scene, about deleted scenes from Cheech & Chong movies and how Charles Dickens dissed biters in Martin Chuzzlewit. Tompkins weaves all this into a compelling narrative as befits a guy who has a way with words (“Hi-hats were lisping rattlesnakes, keyboards were amulets, and hand-claps boxed your ears. The vocoder went: Do it, do it, so nasty, do it.”) And while nothing is more annoying than someone who is always trying to be funny and isn’t, Dave Tompkins is always trying to be funny and is. He perhaps laughs loudest at those who try to hold back the use of distortion in service of communication, as when he quotes Marge Simpson: “Bart! The larynx is not a plaything!” 

 

 

Rock & Rap Confidential / 2010