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The Truth About Hidden Messages in Music

“Our turntables only play in one direction”- The Truth About Hidden Messages in Music

The controversy started in the 1960’s with the growing popularity of rock music and the increase in sales of vinyl records. From its infancy, rock music was considered a bad influence on children, teens and young adults. It was music from the Devil, corrupting their minds. This was according to overly concerned parents, fundamentalist Christian groups and people with no taste in music. So, when people starting finding messages when playing records backwards, they came to their own conclusions, these must be subliminal messages from Satan himself. These controversies continued into the 1990’s and only really died down with the introduction of cassette tapes and cd’s. With the resurgence in the sales of vinyl records, could we see a return of the controversy that surrounded hidden messages in music?

There are a few reasons you might be able to hear a hidden message in a song when it is played backwards. The first is a technique called “backmasking,” which is a recording technique that involves recoding sound or words backwards onto a track that is meant to be played forward. This is a very deliberate approach to leaving a hidden message on a song and was popularised by The Beatles in the 1960’s.

Sometimes these ‘satanic’ messages were simply just a case of pareidolia, when your brain tries to make sense of meaningless patterns and data. Rock’s association with rebellion and the Devil meant that those who opposed it were looking for words, patterns and phrases that simply weren’t there. If you look hard enough you can find examples of this in any song played backwards. The Barney & Friends theme tune played backwards sounds like it contains the words “then we slay a Christian while you look so fat,” and I find it hard to believe that the friendly purple dinosaur is acting as an agent for the dark lord. These words and phrases could also simply just be examples of unintentional phonetic reversal.

The Beatles first used backmasking on their 1965 album ‘Rubber Soul’ but it was a song on ‘The White Album’ that really got people talking and led to one the biggest urban legends in music. ‘Revolution 9’ is a weird song to listen to when played forward but when played backwards you can hear the words “Turn me on, dead man,” which people claim was proof that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a lookalike. Both the band and their record label categorically denied the rumours of Paul’s demise. Paul McCartney (or somebody that looks a lot like him) turned 77 this year.

One of the most famous examples of alleged satanic messages in music can be found on ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by rock legends Led Zeppelin. Supposedly when played backwards you can hear “Here’s to my sweet Satan” and “He will give those with him 666.” While it does sound like those phrases are hidden in the song you can only really make out the words once someone has told you what they think it says, it really is just a muffled sound and you could easily be told it said anything. Such were the persistence of the allegations about the song’s connections to the Devil that Swan Song Records were forced into releasing a statement saying “Our turntables only play in one direction – forwards.” The band still deny putting any subliminal messages in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ but it’s hard to know who to trust, ‘cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.

When serial killer Richard Ramirez was on trial, he spoke about the music of AC/DC. Specifically, the album ‘Highway to Hell’, claiming it had inspired him to commit murder. It has been reported that “I am the law,” “my name is Lucifer” and “she belongs in hell” are hidden on the album. This was according to reverse speech advocate David John Oates.  Guitarist Angus Young responded to these ridiculous acquisitions of hiding Satanic messages by saying “You didn’t need to play [the album] backwards, because we never hid [the messages]. We’d call an album ‘Highway to Hell’, there it was right in front of them.”

In 1990 British heavy-metal band Judas Priest were taken to court after the death of two young fans who cited their music as the reason they killed themselves. Frontman Rob Halford told the court that the supposed backmasked messages were just the sound of him exhaling during the song. But the families of the victims claimed that “try suicide,” “do it” and “let’s be dead” could be heard when the song ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’ was played backwards. The case was dismissed by the judge. He ruled that any subliminal messages, should they actually exist, were not responsible for the death of the two young men. In a documentary about the trial Halford said that telling fans to commit suicide would not be a good way to build a fanbase and if they could insert subliminal messages it would be “Buy more of our records.”

One of the best and oddest examples of backmasking can be found on ‘Empty Spaces’ by Pink Floyd. When played in reverse you can hear Roger Waters saying “Congratulations, you have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answers to old pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont” and then someone interrupts with “Roger! Carolyne’s on the phone” and then his response of “Okay.” It is believed that this was a reference to former lead singer Syd Barrett who had left the band due to his deteriorating mental health.

It seemed that the more controversy that surrounded subliminal messages the more artists decided to use the backmasking technique on their songs. Rarely was it a code for fans to decipher or a set of instructions. Generally, it was to make a unique sound or create atmosphere. When Slayer released ‘Hell Awaits’ in 1985, they recorded chants of “join us” over the introduction, just before a demonic voice utters the phrase “welcome back.” Such was the hullabaloo over subliminal messages at the time, Slayer frontman, Tom Araya, had to clarify that the “join us” chant was to create atmosphere and not an actual invitation from the Devil.

Because of the ridiculous nature of the accusations of subliminal messages and their association with the Devil many musicians would use backmasking to hide jokes or make fun of the whole controversy. Ozzy Osbourne, the Prince of Darkness, was obviously going to have some fun with backmasking. When played backwards his song ‘Bloodbath in Paradise’ contains the line “Your mother sells whelks in Hull,” paraphrasing a much cruder line from the film The Exorcist. ‘Detour Thru Your Mind’ by the B-52’s has “I buried my parakeet in the backyard. Oh no, you’re playing the record backwards. Watch out, you might ruin your needle” hidden in the song. And “Weird Al” Yankovic, famous for his song parodies, was never going to miss an opportunity to make fun of a situation like this and he included hidden phrases like  “Wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands” and “Satan eats Cheez Whiz” on his songs.

When Electric Light Orchestra got caught up in the backmasking controversy, lead singer Jeff Lynne responded to accusations of Devil worshipping with a not so subtle backwards message, “skcollob.” This really summed up the music industries feelings about alleged satanic messages. While bands did use backmasking, it was for effect, atmosphere, comedy and to create different sounds. Not, as some would have you believe, to corrupt the minds of the young. The idea of subliminal messages was introduced by James Vicary in 1957 as a way of selling more snacks at the cinema. He had claimed that flashing messages of “Drink Coca Cola” and “Hungry? Eat popcorn” had significantly increased their sales, although Vicary later admitted that he had faked the results. There is no evidence to suggest that subliminal advertising actually works.

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