‘Turn me on dead man. Turn me on dead man’…
Nothing quite says that you’re as mad as a bag of frogs with party hats on like hearing a coded message in a songs does. Like some strange, Truman Show-esque fantasy land, we know of course that the world of pop music has been an asylum for the unhinged. Good morning, Mr Manson and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.
The tenuous world of backmasking is too no stranger to solipsistic fantasies, albeit somewhat collective. Zeppelin, ELO, Queen, the Beatles, right up to real musicians like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, it seems that backmasking is the drunk uncle at the family party — a phenomenon that’s outstaying its welcome.
From the tinfoil hat brigade insisting that McCartney in an imposter, to the equally unbalanced fundamentalist Christians; it seems that there’s no middle ground. And why would there be? Whatever your leanings, one thing that’s certain is that backmasking has had us all talking about backmasking — see the correlation?
But hey, sometimes the frogs are right. For every flat-earther, Trump is a human being-er and birds are surveillance drones — er, there’s a Galileo or a Darwin or some other crackpot theorist just waiting to get their best smug face on and say: “I told you so!”
In the Beginning
Though Charles Cros might’ve best described Edison as a natalrahc, the earliest experimentation of playing speech and sounds in reverse is very much credited to Edison — this one Edison can have, sorry Cros.
In 1917, Thomas Edison was interviewed by the New York Sun.
There is no melodic invention in “Debussy,” not a single note that is related to its predecessor. Why, I can turn the phonograph backward and make better music than that. We get curious effects by reversing the phonograph — strange and interesting and sometimes delightful effects.
It wasn’t just the intermittent dementia of an ageing man either. In a letter to an associate Edison noted,
…by turning the cylinder backwards the song is still melodious in many cases, and some of the strains are sweet and novel, but altogether different from the song reproduced in the right way. Wagner hasn’t the monopoly of the music of the future — I’m going in to the machine composing business. Just think of it, “Faustus backwards by Edison in 56.”
Sure, it’s far cry away from Satan’s bidding in reverse, or “Tomorrow Never Knows” — it’s not clear whether Edison was a Beatles fan — but the seeds of music in reverse were being sown.
By the 1940s, tape recording had made life much easier for the reverse music enthusiasts. ‘Musique concrète’ was an avant-garde phenomenon developed by one of the pioneers behind sampling, Pierre Schaeffer.
Musique concrète was the musical equivalent of toilet golf — it sounds interesting on paper, but in practice it’s jarring and it makes you question your life choices. This was all intentional of course; Schaeffer wanted to purposefully subvert music and draw attention to the “in-itself-ness of the sound”. Planes, trains and automobiles were all fair game for Schaeffer’s, musique concrète. With the samples he would then loop, distort, speed them up, slow them down and of course, play them in reverse.
When I proposed the term ‘musique concrète,’ I intended … to point out an opposition with the way musical work usually goes. Instead of notating musical ideas on paper with the symbols of solfege and entrusting their realization to well-known instruments, the question was to collect concrete sounds, wherever they came from, and to abstract the musical values they were potentially containing.
Schaeffer set the groundwork for the future of backmasking. Despite his compositions being somewhat challenging any satanic ramblings or coded messages were notably absent from his recordings.
Maybe there was a 1940s equivalent of the ‘Paul is dead’ theory for Schaeffer, but it has certainly been played down if there was…
Backmasking in the 1960s
Frankly, music in reverse was a tried and tested medium by the time the Beatles got a hold of it. Like everything in life however, the evolution of man, the splitting of the atom and both world wars, it started with the Beatles without actually starting with the Beatles. In fact, it really did start with the Beatles without starting with them. The tall tale of Lennon’s stoned stumbling across the tape for the song,”Rain” in reverse wasn’t entirely accurate.
We’d done the main thing at EMI and the habit was then to take the songs home and see what you thought a little extra gimmick or what the guitar piece would be. So I got home about five in the morning, stoned out of my head, I staggered up to my tape recorder and I put it on, but it came out backwards, and I was in a trance in the earphones, what is it — what is it? It’s too much, you know, and I really wanted the whole song backwards almost, and that was it. So we tagged it on the end.
According to producer George Martin, John’s account was a load of old t**sllub. The technique of backmasking was very much already a staple of Martin’s many production techniques.
I was always playing around with tapes, and I thought it might be fun to do something extra with John’s voice. So I lifted a bit of his main vocal off the four‐track, put it onto another spool, turned it around and then slid it back and forth until it fitted. John was out at the time but when he came back he was amazed. Again, it was backwards forever after that.
Ever after the session for “Rain” the Beatles were keen devotees of backmasking as it cropped up in songs aplenty like “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Sun King”.
It wasn’t just the Beatles who were using the technique in ’60s; among others, Frank Zappa used the trick on “Hot Poop” and Jimi Hendrix too on “And the Gods Made Love”.
All these songs were above aboard and hunky dory — the effects were intentional. But that’s where backmasking gets somewhat murky…
The ‘reverse tape effect’ or backmasking is entirely deliberate — play a musical or vocal phrase backwards then overdub it to the existing track, and Bob’s your non-Satanist uncle! That’s obviously a gross simplification of the process; in the ’60s with analogue recording equipment it wasn’t nearly as simple as it is in the digital world, but the results were the same. It wasn’t a ghost in the machine; it was a painstaking process carried out by an audio engineer who knew exactly what they were doing.
With the advent of backmasking in ’60s music, fans went out looking for these messages and then the ugly sibling of backmasking was born: backmasking.
There’s backmasking and backmasking, intentional and unintentional, astronomy and astrology. One is quantifiable, and the other is… well, less quantifiable…
When fans who had far too much time on their hands started to look for more nuggets of backmasked lyrics, lo and behold, they found some more — the problem was that, ostensibly, nobody had intentionally put them there…spooky.
The ‘Paul is dead’ theory went hand in hand with these perceived backmasked messages. The aforementioned “Revolution 9” of ‘turn me on dead man’, and the equally sandwich short of a picnic, though indeed unnerving, backmasked message in “I’m So Tired” of ‘Paul is dead man, miss him, miss him’ both apparently pointed to the truth about Paul.
As you can probably imagine, Paul denied the rumour — funny that. In 1974 Paul told the Rolling Stone,
Someone from the office rang me up and said, ‘Look, Paul, you’re dead.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t agree with that.’
The backmasking theories in the 1960s were all relatively innocuous save for poor Paul… But by the 1970s and 1980s, the once stingy-eyed college conspiracies evolved into something far more malicious.
Outside of music, subliminal messages were very much on the tip of the 1950s and onwards collective tongue.
In 1957, the storm in a teacup story of James Vicary experimenting with movie-goers by repeatedly flashing subliminal messages of ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ and ‘Eat popcorn’ went public. Vicary had successfully manipulated audiences into buying more cola and popcorn without their knowledge. If this all sounds far too Orwellian for you, don’t worry, it was a complete falsehood. In 1962, after probably being sick of wiping rotten tomato of his face, Vicary revealed that the story was just a clever if not unscrupulous marketing campaign.
Despite the hoax, the idea of companies using subliminal messages or brainwashing was reaching the mainstream.
To further the brainwashing rhetoric, the 1973 book, Subliminal Selections by Wilson Bryan Key detailed the shady world of subliminal messages in advertising. Whether his claims were true or not, the book inevitably served to fan the growing flame of unconscious manipulation.
That was advertising and this is music, one is out-and-out Jabez Balfour, the other is maybe 50–50, but nothing happens overnight — if these backmasked messages weren’t put there by someone, it was begging the question, why were they there, or who put them there?
For the Beatles, the notion of Paul being an imposter was endemic only to the conspiracy nuts. But by the 1970s, with more and more bands using Satanist iconography, a bridging of the gap was being made.
If subliminal messages were now a part of the collective conscious who was there to help bridge the gap? Why your friendly neighbourhood fundamentalist Christians were.
Enter Mr Satan.
The Satanic Connection
Like the many steam trains Schaeffer recorded, the idea of the untoward reality of subliminal messages in music perhaps wouldn’t have gathered as much steam if it had not been for the particularly sensitive fundamentalist Christians.
After the crusades, another was launched, one against rock and roll.
The devil in rock and roll was by no means anything new. The granddaddy of rock and roll, the blues was a constant reminder to the vocal minority of Christians that anything good in life must be evil. With the legend of Robert Johnson, blues’ unholy themes and juke joints, the blues was always in the crosshairs for perceived anti-Christian values.
Rock and roll wouldn’t have been born if not for the blues, and so these themes continued through the long-haired anti-Christ’s. Sexual liberation, hedonism, “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus”, you know, rock and roll; fundamentalist Christians saw it as nothing shy of a middle finger.
Continuing the trend was Jimmy Page and his fascination with all things Aleister Crowley, Black Sabbath and metal in general — the ‘Satanic Panic’ was coming to a head by the late 1970s. It wasn’t long before the religious zealotry reached the sandy shores of backmasking.
There is a weird and no less wonderful relationship with Christianity and the satanic act of doing things in reverse. It’s often credited to Aleister Crowley with his book, Liber ThIShARB.
First Method. Let the Exempt Adept first train himself to think backwards by external means, as set forth here following.
(“a”) Let him learn to write backwards, with either hand.
(“b”) Let him learn to walk backwards.
(“c”) Let him constantly watch, if convenient, cinematograph films, and listen to phonograph records, reversed, and let him so accustom himself to these that they appear natural, and appreciable as a whole.
(“d”) Let him practise speaking backwards; thus for “I am He” let him say, “Eh ma I”.
(“e”) Let him learn to read backwards. In this it is difficult to avoid cheating one’s self, as an expert reader sees a sentence at a glance. Let his disciple read aloud to him backwards, slowly at first, then more quickly.
(“f”) Of his own ingenium, let him devise other methods.
There’s no smoke without fire, except for smoke machines, and there are no allegations of Satanism without Aleister Crowley. Because of its references to reversing ‘phonographs’ Liber ThIShARB has been target practice for the backmasking Satanism cabal, though in truth, like eating peanuts on a plane, Crowley represents a kind of grey area in Satanism. He was an occultist and not necessarily a Satanist, though to the fundamentalist Christians, they are one and the same.
If you’re not up on the vicissitudes of occultism — a phrase that’s seldom uttered — Liber ThIShARB is a book on the occult practice of magickal memory. Granted, it’s no Pride and Prejudice, but it’s an occult book rather than a Satanist call to arms. In other words, absolutely nothing to do with your favourite rock bands goading you into a life of servitude to our lord and saviour, Satan.
The idea of ‘reversal’ should more appropriately be termed ‘inversion’. Black masses, are the bogeyman of Catholic Masses — a blasphemous inversion of a holy rite. Oh, you’ve not attended your local black mass? Sharon from accounting runs them bi-weekly. In these black masses, participants reputedly do the opposite of Catholic Mass — black candles instead of white, upside down crosses, walking on your hands; if it’s there it will be inverted, so sayeth the old wives’ tales. For the fundamentalist Christians black masses were what cocaine was to the ’80s — an accepted truth that nonetheless blurred the lines of reality. It too begs the question of how they ever reverse in cars.
Despite the grey area, the next logical step for reversal, inversion and Satanism was towards rock and roll.
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, a fundamentalist Christian movement began with a bag a full of LPs and a consecrated quest; meanwhile rock and roll was footing the bill.
Among others, Gary Greenwald, Don Hutchings, Michael Mills and the famed televangelist Paul Crouch were on a higher mission: to show the world that these rock and roll groups they had long suspected were indeed agents of the Devil — backmasking was finally the evidence they needed.
Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is perhaps the most well-known example of the Devil in reverse. If you play the song backwards the words, ‘Here’s to my sweet Satan’, can be heard… kind of.
If played in reverse, the Eagles classic, “Hotel California” sings, ‘Satan he hears this. He had me believe in him’ can be heard… again, kind of.
It’s not all about Satan, but too the Devil’s basil… In the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust”, ‘It’s fun to smoke marijuana. It’s fun to smoke marijuana’ can be heard.
The list is endless for these backmasked messages. And of course, none of them were put there on purpose…
Much ado about nothing?
Perhaps there’s a case to be made here; once you hear it, you hear it. However, many psychologists have been quick to point out that that is exactly the underlying issue — the brain searches for recognisable patterns among gibberish especially when previously being told what to listen out for. And the efficacy of these ‘messages’ is nominal at best anyway.
Mark D. Allen, a psychology professor, said that,
The short answer is that delivering subliminal messages via backward masking is totally and ridiculously impossible… The brain just doesn’t work that way.
Don Sinex, another psychology professor, also stated,
Speech played backwards is unintelligible, even in the absence of a competing sound. It’s simply not plausible to think that backward speech could be understandable when embedded in music.
‘Pareidolia’ — seeing or hearing something recognisable in an arbitrary image or sound, might ring true, and there’s even evidence to suggest that believers experience it more than non-believers, but far be it from me to call them a bunch of delusional kooks…erm…maybe I did…
The furore even led to a few satirical responses.
Often the figurehead of pointy nun fingers, Ozzy Osbourne, planted a backmasked message in “Bloodbath in Paradise” in a hilarious reimagining of the Exorcist: ‘Your mother sells whelks in Hull’.
ELO too planted a tongue in cheek message to the backmasking fanatics in, “Fire on High”: ‘The music is reversible but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.’
Clearly the severity of backmasking was lost on them…
In 1990, backmasking certainly wasn’t a joke for Judas Priest after they were taken to court for being subliminally complicit in the suicide of a young boy. The Stained Glass album allegedly had the phrase ‘Do it’ backmasked throughout thus the alleged impetus for the boy’s suicide. Thankfully, sanity ruled in favour of Judas Priest and the case was quashed.
Although the fundamentalist Christian movement has had its moment in the sun, backmasking still rears its ugly head in pop music today. In the form of the Illuminati and other such classics, countless theories have surfaced that the practice of backmasking is still very much alive. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and many more, backmasking is having a post-’80s resurgence.
Despite evidence pointing to the inefficacy of backmasking, nobody seems to have told the music industry that as they ride that sweet publicity wave — and as Robert Johnson is testament to: myths sell records.