This week, our headspace became a party for audio scientists and frekazoids arrived from the pages of “How to Wreck a Nice Beach” (HTWANB), Dave Tompkin’s history of the vocoder, recommended to us by Optigram.
Thematically, this is the perfect 20JFG book: cryptography! futurism! breakdancing! science fiction! Can! Alan Turing! H.P. Lovecraft! Laurie Anderson! Vincent Price! Rammellzee!
It tells one of the greatest technology diffusion stories ever heard, the journey of the vocoder from Bell Labs, where it was developed by math nerds to encrypt radio communications between WWII Allied leaders, to the arsenal of weirdo musicians all over, and especially the electroid department of the Afro-space industry.
It shows how technology can be plied by artistic and cultural forces: a system created to vex German Turings became a tool to make humans fail the Turing Test, in a process driven by humanity’s fascination with its voice, the voices of possible machines and aliens, and the possibility that by changing our voice we may acquire super-powers, escape from a fucked-up world into alternative universes of zero-g funk.
The book is a combination of secret history, biography and exploration of conceptual and underground social networks in the style of Pynchon. It efficiently encodes in words the sheer “Sesame Street After the Singularity” craziness of so much vocoder music.
FFS, it contains the expression “I was a teenage beefcat at a pep rally in Compton”
Perhaps the most wonderful feature of HTWANB is that it isn’t a Borgesian review of an imaginary cultural movement (great as that would have been). No, it tells a true story. Its unlikely protagonists and artefacts mostly existed. The fantastic music existed. We can listen to it.
There is a great companion mixtape in the book’s website, and here you have some bonus tracks we particularly like.
An example of the otherworldliness of vocoder music: a synth epic about some FTL alien psychodeleans headed our way. It sounds like an early noughts Oneida ballad if you replace Barbarians with Cyborgs. Included in The Jonzun Crew’s Lost in Space.
An spectral locomotive beat, MC revenants and a whole grimoire of ectoplasmic sound effects (starting with that eerie droid music-box melody) soundtrack some wobbly chugging through New York streets empty and sad like a level in Dark Souls 2 after being depleted of its enemies.
This is the soundtrack for a documentary about California breakdancing. It collides The Egyptian Lover’s whiplash inducing martial electro beats with John Carpenter paranoid syntheses. Ice T is in there somewhere. If the gang dudes in Assault on Precinct 13 had shot lasers with their eyes and bled neon, it would have sounded a bit like this.