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  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
  • How to Wreck a Nice Beach
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How to Wreck a Nice Beach

The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop

Dave Tompkins

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Read Dave Tompkins’ Vocoder Blog

Stop Smiling Books, Chicago / Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn
Hardcover: Select color, 336 pages
Paperback: Full color, 352 pages


The vocoder, invented by Bell Labs in 1928, once guarded phones from codebreakers during World War II; by the Vietnam War, it had been repurposed as a voice-altering tool for musicians and soon became 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 the morning before 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.


Featured on NPR's Morning Edition. listen here

Selected by the Village Voice as one of the 10 Best Books of 2010

Chosen by Amazon as the ENTERTAINMENT BOOK OF THE YEAR (2010).

“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

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. ... [Tompkin's] biggest and most perilous adventure in How to Wreck a Nice Beach is the plunge deep into the throbbing radioactive heart of his own prose—a hallucinatory stew of Rimbaud, Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, and Bootsy Collins.”
New York Magazine

“We should be thankful that Tompkins sacrificed a decade to this unique and beautifully wrought book, in tribute to the brief cultural moment when a tool of militarism, secrets and destruction found itself transformed by music-makers into a zap-gun of heroic space-age liberation.”
— Andrew Male, Mojo

“ the military-entertainment-complex angle with admirable energy, piling up flash-frozen anecdotes of pilots and DJs in voice-critical moments; showing, in its drooling over antique military-signaling equipment, a musician's gear-lust; and striving incessantly to invoke sound: ‘It could sound like an articulate bag of dead leaves.’ Despite its dense payload of raw fact-bombs, the book remains, like the sound of the vocoder itself, suggestively ghostly.”
The Guardian

“...Achieves what the best music writing does--it opens doors, tears off tarps and digs in the dirt to reveal the stunning variety and potential in popular music.”
The Nation

“While the language of hip-hop has long seeped into the words of its critics, Tompkins goes further than simple slang-signifying. His work echoes the rhythm and structure of the genre’s more adventurous practitioners, spiraling down parentheses at an ultramagnetic speed of thought and mirroring the interconnected wordplay of De La Soul.”
— Andrew Noz, Washington City Paper

“From the atomic bomb to the band Zapp, from The Gulag Archipelago to Detroit’s ghettos, Tompkins rewires the connections between war, science, and art to give us a glimpse of ‘evolved’ man, an analog crooner seductively and jarringly alien.”
Oxford American

“A fascinating and entertaining debut.”

“Tompkins loves making disparate connections, and throughout his history of the voice-distorting machine, he slyly links seemingly unrelated people, places and moments in history like he’s unscrambling his own personal Da Vinci Code.”
The Fader

“With verve and humor, Dave Tompkins tells the remarkable story of the vocoder and its secret WWII offspring, which protected the very words of Roosevelt and Churchill as they flashed across the Atlantic. Nobody has ever related this before, and to have a technological tale related this well is a great gift to science and to history.”
— David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and Hitler’s Spies

About the Author

Dave Tompkins, a former columnist for The Wire, writes frequently about hip-hop and popular music. His work has appeared in Vibe, The Village Voice, The Believer and Wax Poetics. As a child growing up in North Carolina, he wrote stories about Mud Men, shot football cards with his dad’s .38, and was forced into speech therapy. His grandfather ate the microfilm, somewhere over Moscow.

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