Book Review: Summertime Blues
Gonna raise a fuss, gonna raise a holler: rock & roll books
Reviewed by Audra Schroeder, Fri., June 11, 2010
How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaksby Dave Tompkins
Stop Smiling Books, 334 pp., $35
It's been a long, strange game of Telephone from the 1939 World's Fair to T-Pain, the latter being the artist most recently and erroneously associated with the vocoder, and the former being where the device was debuted to the public. Music writer Dave Tompkins will have us know T-Pain actually used Auto-Tune, a pitch-shifting program co-opted by Apple, turned into an app, and used on unsuspecting babies, and he does an admirable job retracing the history of the misunderstood machine with similar wit and style. The title of the book even makes a cosmic joke about a misinterpreted phrase, "How to recognize speech." Once upon a time, pre-World War II, the vocoder's original function was to intercept and scramble incoming German code, not as a human voice but "spectral description" of speech. Tompkins' way with words is the guiding light when connecting dots that seem galaxies away. In the late 1950s, Bell Labs' Manfred Schroeder, inventor of the voice-excited vocoder, later used by 1980s electro-funk trio Jonzun Crew, was trying to work out the kinks of his creation by using sci-fi writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's method of mentally disassembling a beach to encode speech. It's a dizzying trek, but Tompkins straightens it out, citing "the effervescent fizz of unvoiced surf." As the century progressed, so did the vocoder, falling into the hands of JFK, Afrika Bambaataa, Kraftwerk, and Vincent Price. It's a thick slab, but one that's painstakingly cut and, ironically, clearly communicated.