The vocoder is misunderstood. It gets name-dropped by music fans a lot but it often gets mistaken for a talk box, or autotune. People complain about its use in songs but then lionize lots of artists that swear by it. If you brought up a vocoder to a lot of people, they wouldn’t know what it is, but if you played a song with a vocoder in it, they’d recognize what it sounds like. In How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip Hop, The Machine Speaks (yes that is the full name) Dave Tompkins digs deep – real deep, it’s more than 300 pages – into the vocoder’s complicated and multifaceted history, from its initial use as a speech synthesis device and voice-masking tool by the U.S. military during WWII, to its use as a musical instrument in pop, rock, hip-hop and beyond. In a fractured music writing environment it’s rare to find a book that includes interviews with everyone from Afrika Bambaataa, Laurie Anderson, and Donnie Wahlberg from New Kids on The Block. Thoroughly (one might say obsessively) researched, the book serves as both a social history of a piece of technology and a defense of its use in music.
Because it covers so much ground, How to Wreck A Nice Beach is both a fun, fascinating read, and a dense, frustrating one. Tompkins is not-quite-linear in his storytelling, his focus both jumps and meanders across decades in a way that may irritate those who are looking for a straightforward history or are more interested in one element of the vocoder’s history than the other.
His stream-of-consciousness style both bothered me and fascinated me as a reader because we so rarely see this style anymore in non-fiction writing, which tends to be deliberate to a fault at times: “this is what I think and this is why I think it.” To be befuddled at times but still fascinated enough to keep reading was an interesting reaction for me. I honestly wish it was more common, to read a piece in anticipation of where it goes next, but not really knowing. What’s consistent (if you’re looking for consistency) is Tompkins’ understated, dry sense of humor throughout the book which is balanced by an seemingly incongruent sensitivity to the engineers and musicians whose own stories are indirectly told through the history of the device.
As it’s more of a historical/cultural history than a scientific exploration of the device, gear heads may not find the book as meaty as they would like, but great historical writing about technology is (or should be) as much about technologies evolving social meaning as much as it is about how it works. In this, How To Wreck A Nice Beach more than succeeds.
Summary: A dense, engrossing social and cultural history of a misunderstood piece of technology.