Book review: A fascinating look at the vocoder, and musicians protest Arizona's demonization of "illegal" immigrants

June 8, 2010

Even if you aren't familiar with the name of this particular piece of odd electronic instrumentation, you've no doubt heard the vocoder in action: It's front and center, distorting the vocals to sounds like peculiarly funky robots from another world in "Trans Europe Express" by electronic gods Kraftwerk and "Planet Rock" by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa; "Intergalactic" by the Beastie Boys and "Word Up" by Cameo, and "I'm Not Moving" by Phil Collins and "Mr. Roboto" by Styx (though those two you might wish you could forget).

On one level, Dave Tompkins' new book, How to Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop: The Machine Speaks (Stop Smiling Books, $35), may tell you more than you ever thought you'd want to know about this collection of knobs, wires, and complicated circuitry. As a lavishly illustrated, in-depth history of a cult favorite instrument, it instantly earns its place on the shelves of musos, studio freaks, and gear-collecting geeks beside classics of the genre such as Mark Lewisohn's Beatles Recording Guide, Robert Moog and friends' Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer, and Albert Glinsky's Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. But it succeeds on a broader level as well, standing on its own as a plain great read.

A former columnist for The Wire who's also written for The Village Voice, among many other publications, Tompkins shows the tireless work ethic and eye for small but telling details seen in the most diligent historians as he traces the origins of the vocoder as a tool to compress and thereby expand transcontinental telephone communications, as well as to encode top-secret strategic talks between the Allies during World War II. (Churchill and FDR used to chat through one -- and ain't it a kick to think of those two sounding like the guys in Daft Punk?) He also has the breadth of vision and cultural insight of a fine sociologist as he examines how and why the vocoder came to be so beloved in the hip-hop community -- to the point where "vocoder" is now a generic term, like "Kleenex" for "tissue," with the machine often unjustly mistaken for the much more boring and ubiquitous digital auto-tuning software (see: T-Pain -- or save yourself the torture and don't).

Tompkins talked about this beloved gizmo with Greg Kot and me on the episode of "Sound Opinions" that aired last week (you can stream it or podcast it here), and the Stop Smiling brain trust of J.C. Gabel and the Hughes brothers brought a really swell Korg and EMS setup by the studio when their author visited (there's some video of us goofing around with it here). Tompkins also listed some of the best and worst vocoder songs of all time for Time Out Chicago during his local sojourn, and Stop Smiling did a Q&A with Tompikins for "Chicago Amplified." But trust me: While all of the above are fun, they're just appetizers for a fantastic book that's a must-read for any curious music lover.

RIMSHOTS


The proud men of Los Lobos.

Though they were preceded by several hip-hop and world beat acts, last week, American roots-rock treasures Los Lobos became the highest-profile band yet to cancel a gig in Arizona because of that state's controversial new law designed to identify, prosecute, and deport illegal immigrants.

Rage Against the Machine also has urged a boycott of the state, and it's recruiting like-minded musicians on its Sound Strike Web site. But Libertyville native Tom Morello and his bandmates boycott everything, and most of the acts who've joined them (including hometown hero Kanye West) didn't have any gigs booked in the Grand Canyon State, anyway -- in contrast to Los Lobos, which was set to perform at the Talking Stick Resort on Thursday (June 10), and which is at a stage in its career where the payday of every gig counts.

"We support the boycott of Arizona," the group said in a statement issued through its publicist. "The new law will inevitably lead to unfair racial profiling and possible abuse of people who just happen to look Latino. As a result, in good conscience, we could not see ourselves performing in Arizona. We regret the inconvenience this may have caused the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, Casino Arizona, Talking Stick Resort and our fans, but we feel strongly that it is the right thing to do."

Los Lobos' anger is easy to feel. But is the band really doing the right thing by avoiding Arizona? Some in the punk underground are arguing that that state needs to hear music in opposition now more than ever. Among the underground acts advocating that bands play more gigs in Arizona in order to protest is art-punk provocateurs F---ed Up. The group's singer Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham argues:

"I think instead of boycotting Arizona, bands should make a point of going there now more then ever. They should use whatever profile they have to address the issues around this law by talking about it in the local press. Bands should also engage the people at the show to get involved. "¦ There are organizations throughout Arizona that have been working for years on the behalf of immigrants both "Ëœlegal' and "Ëœillegal.' "¦ I think that by supporting and encouraging these people, the opportunity for producing change is far greater than with any sort of music embargo."

Abraham (who plays the Empty Bottle here on July 9) makes some solid points. And I for one would love to see him body slam Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer while F---ed Up performs outside the state house.


Arizona Governor Jan Brewer

 


Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham

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