, Dave Tompkins’ fascinating, recently published history of the vocoder, begins with the author seated alongside Afrika Bambaataa. They’re leafing through a National Security Agency leaflet about SIGSALY, a once-classified system which employed vocoder technology for secure-speech transmissions in World War II. If it weren’t for a photo that appears a few chapters later — featuring Manfred Schoeder, an unfunky-looking, 1950s Bell Labs inventor, posing with a copy of Jonzun Crew’s classic electro LP Lost in Space — you couldn’t ask for a better snapshot of the vocoder’s extraordinary and unlikely odyssey: a military instrument turned musical.
Like a gadget Zelig, the vocoder seems to touch everything: Solzhenitsyn and Stevie Wonder, Kraftwerk and Stanley Kubrick, heads of state and heralds of hip-hop. This instrument with such a strange and incredible history has a hand in some pretty strange and incredible music, of course. We asked Tompkins to suggest the ten greatest weird vocoder tracks. His list reaches from 1980 to the present and includes everything from noisy indie and classic rock to Stones Throw synth jams and robo-funk ultra-rarities.
“Mr. Groove” — One Way (MCA, 1984) ytaudio(4nr_9-hAhgM)
“Comin At Ya” — Pyramid Plus (Lifeworld, 1983) ytaudio(tXZivs7oZeE)
“Footnotes” — James Blake (Not yet released, 2010) Listen to a preview here.
“B Beat Classic” — B+ (West End, 1983) ytaudio(IWd5J9tg_l0)
“I Love Acid” — Luke Vibert (Warp, 2003) ytaudio(cmoFNya6P4Q)
All You Have Is Your Teeth — Sistrunk II (Unreleased, 2008) [Ed. note: We’re pretty sure this one doesn’t actually exist — but if someone can prove us wrong, leave your link in the comments.]
“Yellow Pearl” — Phil Lynott (Phonogram, 1980) ytaudio(tqk_rKcn-5M)
“Girls (Instrumental)” — B Boys (Vintertainment, 1985) ytaudio(2eFUT1bb09I)
“King Wasp” — Add N To (X) (Satellite, 1997) ytaudio(jaWGdjSbTpQ)
“Let’s Take Off” — Dam Funk (Stone’s Throw, 2009) ytaudio(tZMxz510qUE)
For additional modulated must-hear tracks, check out Tompkins’ book and catch his slideshow and discussion at Stop Smiling in Chicago on May 6.