originally published May 11, 2014
I was fifteen years old when my dad utilized his extensive technological prowess to produce a cassette recording for me of all the Beatles’ so-called backward messages. By “prowess” I mean he played a reel-to-reel tape backwards. It wasn’t tricky.
Playing music backwards is a phenomenon that has existed since the advent of recorded music. Occultist and all-around weird cat Aleister Crowley suggested in 1913 that anyone who was wishing to become fluent in the language of magic should listen to phonograph records backwards in order to train their brains. The realm of avant-garde music has experimented with backwards music for decades. But apart from the occasional squonked-brain traipse through the Beatles “Revolution 9” (forward or backward – there’s very little difference), I don’t care much for the avant-garde.
Luckily, the more ear-friendly genres under the canopy of rock music have toyed with stashing backwards lyrics – known as backmasking – within the folds of some well-known songs. Sometimes it’s done as a joke, and other times it’s because rock musicians are clearly in league with Satan and have devised a way to plant subliminal backwards messages in their music in order to corrupt our children and get them to take up smoking. Or something.
One evening whilst under the strictly medicinal effects of marijuana, John Lennon accidentally played the vocal track for “Rain”, his band’s new single, backwards. He loved the effect, and within a few short months the track was released with a snippet of lyrics at the end played backwards, sounding a little like John had picked up a foreign language during Ringo’s extended drum fill. Their accompanying album, Revolver, featured two backwards guitar solos, but it was the vocal message that really weirded people out.
I’m sure it didn’t take long for the public to realize the garbled words in the coda section of “Rain” was backwards singing, though the lack of internet probably made the truth flow slowly. As experimental as bands became throughout the late 1960’s, few made the effort to slip backwards messages into their works. Many played with instruments turned around, like the iconic drumming that forms the groove of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced”, but vocals? Not so much.
We have been over this nonsense before – backwards messages in Beatles’ songs were a big part of the “Paul Is Dead” myth. Again, I’ve studied these at length, and while I’ll admit that “Number nine” sounds strangely like “Turn me on dead man” (actually more like “-urn me on dedmun”) when flipped around, there’s no reason to read anything into it. Just like the lengthy tribute to “sad Satan” when you reverse the “bustle in your hedgerow” part of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” – it’s a combination of coincidence, inflection and the listener’s imagination.
But just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean that the freakishly zealous won’t grab hold of it and wave it about in a panic. A self-proclaimed neuroscientist (which would be a terrific title to have under one’s name in a documentary) named William Yarroll showed up on the Trinity Broadcasting Network in 1982 to explain how rock musicians were working with the Church of Satan to embed secret evil messages in their music. Because everything rock musicians do involves elaborate and meticulous deception.
The early 80’s is really when backmasking became a concern in some circles. A group of 30 students from North Carolina (under the supervision of their pastor, of course) claimed that rock music’s hidden backwards messages had led them to be possessed by Satan. They later comforted themselves with an ol’ fashioned record burning. California passed a bill in 1983 that could result in a distributor of music with backmasking to be sued. The term “turn us into disciples of the Antichrist” was actually used in the tabling of this bill. In Arkansas another bill requiring backmasking warning stickers was passed unanimously that same year – though governor Bill Clinton killed it.
In Texas another bill was considered; yet another was brought to the table in Canada. Things might have kept building but the sudden emergence of CD technology, which elbowed records out of record stores and made it significantly tougher to play music backwards, helped the madness die down. People stopped fretting that Queen was trying to tell us how it’s fun to smoke marijuana in the chorus of “Another One Bites The Dust”.
The public curiosity over backmasking was once again in style when Windows 95 introduced the Sound Recorder utility, allowing people to reverse a song file with a single click. Once again detection of a possible message was easy and imaginations were encouraged to flourish. While classic rock songs were the ones being nit-picked for their alleged connections to Satanism, it was in the world of heavy metal music that backmasking was being employed for deliberate effect. Slayer slipped some ominous “Join us” chanting in the intro to their Hell Awaits album.
Cradle of Filth (that’s another metal band for those who aren’t in the know) slipped a backwards reading of the Lord’s Prayer into the song “Dinner At Deviant’s Place”. It was a fun way to add a little extra texture to a genre that’s already supposed to make good Christian parents freak out, even with the stuff they play forward. The grunge band Soundgarden even slipped their own hidden backwards song onto their Ultramega OK album in 1989, though instead of singing about Satan the song is actually about Santa.
Serial killer Richard Ramirez claimed that backwards Satanic messages on AC/DC’s Highway To Hell album helped push him to murder. Angus Young dismissed the ridiculous claim, pointing out that the album quite obviously discussed the concept of hell when played forwards. Hence the damn title.
Two families of teens who had fulfilled a suicide pact in 1990 sued Judas Priest, asserting that the band pushed the boys to the brink with their backwards messages. The case was dismissed. The band stated that if they’d wanted to slip subliminal messages to their fans, they’d say “buy more records.” As far as their bottom line is concerned, that makes more sense than encouraging their fans to kill themselves.
In 1985 a pair of psychologists at the University of Lethbridge ran a test using backmasking, and found that people couldn’t tell if the backwards messages in the music they were hearing was Christian, Satanic or commercial. This led them to conclude that, even if rock musicians were trying to slip a little message between the notes this way, it was a thoroughly ineffective way to do it.
But then why spoil a perfectly good Christian panic?