Your kids can dance to it while it wins a war

Anyone interested in music, history, technology, and how all three sometimes converge will find Dave Tompkins’s recently published book How to Wreck a Nice Beach fascinating reading. It’s a history of the vocoder from its development in the 30s by Bell Labs as a voice encryptor for the US Military to its infiltration of techno and dance music in the 70s and 80s.

The at-first puzzling title comes from a mis-hearing of the words “how to recognize speech” as read through a vocoder. The book is a wild ride, and I really couldn’t put it down. At times the connections and transitions are a bit far-fetched, but any book that can plausibly string together Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt’s discussions of plans for D-Day; the Jonzun Crew’s “Pack Jam;” John Kennedy and British PM Harold MacMillan’s talks during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and Midnight Star’s “No Parking on the Dance Floor” is going to have to stretch now and then.

The vocoder was used by the Allies during WWII in a system called SIGSALY to encrypt high-level communications in real time, half a world away. SIGSALY also included two turntables on each end of the conversation. These would play records of electronic noise to help disguise the transmission. Apparently, the Germans actually detected these transmissions, but didn’t really figure out what they were because, without a vocoder and the rest of SIGSALY to decode them, they sounded like white noise.

Check out these proto dj’s: two turntables and a microphone, old school stylee!

When its developers were working on it, I’m almost certain they never envisioned the vocoder’s possibilities as a wicked cool musical instrument, but isn’t ours a richer world for this appropriation?





The book also touches on the talk box, used most famously by Peter Frampton on “Do You Feel Like We Do?”, and Auto-Tune, T-Pain’s claim to fame, which are different from the vocoder, apparently, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how or why. I think it has something to do with the fact that the vocoder actually electronically encodes and then decodes the voice, while the others simply alter the sound of the voice or instrument fed through them.

Ironically enough, vocoder technology is used in cell phones today to compress and then decompress the voice so that it sounds “more human”. Stranger still, there’s a vocoder app for the iPhone now, which makes you sound less human and more robotic.

Check out the dude in the shutter shades.


Anyhoozle, I certainly recommend the book to you music and technology fans out there. If nothing else, you’ll have a good reason to listen to some things you may not have heard in a while (or ever). Since reading HTWANB, for instance, I’ve been hooked on Zapp. RIP, Roger Troutman, the undisputed king of the talk box.


Bonus! Here’s a short playlist with some of the songs discussed in the book. Vocoder rock!

7 responses to “Your kids can dance to it while it wins a war”

  1. jeremy says:

    This is pretty fascinating, Tim–and I loved some of these videos (including the nostalgic/horrifying trip back to my childhood with that Midnight Star video)… What/who turned you on to this book?

  2. J-Man says:

    Tim’s reading of this book has inspired some pretty wild rides in the Amoeba dollar-bin section, too. Who knew there was so much vocoded music out there? I”ve been really enjoying the ride, btw, ironically and non-ironically. If anyone wants to borrow the book when I”m done with it, let us know; I’m sure it can be arranged.

  3. Tim says:

    I can’t remember where I first saw it reviewed, but it’s been in a few magazines and on line. Also, Tompkins used to write for one of my favorite music mags, The Wire.

    The songs on the playlist are much better than “No Parking,” I promise. I just thought it was such a goofy video. Those clothes! Those dance moves!

  4. Dave says:

    That Neil Young vid really shows how nobody escaped the ’80s unharmed, doesn’t it?

  5. Cynthia says:

    I take offense to all the dissing of “No Parking on the Dance Floor.” I still hear it almost every week (in kickboxing class, it’s on the soundtrack) and I have to say it never gets old. I look forward to viewing the rest of the videos–just got home from work and haven’t had a chance–but I doubt they can top it.

  6. Tim says:

    Cynthia, I didn’t know you were taking kickboxing. You wouldn’t be in the same class that another of our regular commenter-contributors attends? Sorry to have trod on your toes when it comes to Midnight Star. I don’t dislike the song, myself, but it’s no “More Bounce to the Ounce,” for instance. Amirite, people?

  7. Tim says:

    For those of you who enjoyed this post (and I know there were many, of course), Dave Tompkins put together a vocoder mix podcast that’s posted on Arthur magazine’s website.