By Fiona Macdonald
Conspiracy theorists often find ‘secret’ lyrics by playing records backwards. BBC Culture picks apart the myths to find the best subliminal meanings.
In 1878, a year after he created the phonograph, US inventor Thomas Edison noted that the cylinder could be rotated backwards to pleasing effect: “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”. Since avant-garde musicians in the 1950s first experimented with tape recorders, editing together sound fragments in a style called ‘musique concrète’, messages have been inserted into songs that only become clear once they are played backwards. But which are the best, and which are just myths?
Pop will eat itself
Death metal bands don’t hold the monopoly on hidden messages: one pop group has been at the centre of rumours for nearly five decades. The Beatles first stumbled across what is called ‘backmasking’ – recording a message backwards onto a track – when they were making their Rubber Soul album in 1965. Influenced by the techniques of musique concrète, they featured a backmasked line in Rain, a single released in 1966.
Featuring in the fade-out, the reversed vocal is the first line of the song. “On the end of Rain you hear me singing it backwards,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in 1968. “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.”
Right to reply
After popularising backmasking, The Beatles became embroiled in one of pop’s stranger urban legends. In 1969, rumours began spreading among American college students that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and had been replaced by a lookalike; they claimed that clues about his ‘death’ could be found in the group’s lyrics and album artwork.
In October 1969, a caller to a Detroit radio station argued that the phrase “turn me on, dead man” could be heard when the White Album’s Revolution 9 was played backwards. Other theories suggested that, when played backwards, ‘mumbling’ by John Lennon between the songs I’m So Tired and Blackbird sounds like “Paul is a dead man. Miss him.” The band’s press office rebutted the rumour on 21 October, calling it “a load of old rubbish”, and an interview with McCartney in LIFE magazine’s November edition – featuring the headline ‘Paul is still with us’ – helped to kill it off.
The group created a backmasked message for the 1995 recording of John Lennon’s 1977 demo Free as a Bird: released as a studio version 15 years after his death, it featured a clip of Lennon saying “turned out nice again” at the end of the song. McCartney told The Observer: “We even put one of those spoof backwards recordings on the end of the single for a laugh, to give all those Beatles nuts something to do.”
Accusations of demonic backmasking began in the early 1980s, perhaps inspired by a scene from the 1973 film The Exorcist, in which a tape of garbled speech by the possessed victim was found to be English when played in reverse. (Ozzy Osborne referenced a famous phrase from the film when he recorded the line ‘Your mother sells whelks in Hull’ backwards in his 1988 song Bloodbath in Paradise.) Fundamentalist Christians in America were joined by concerned parents after the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was formed in 1985; bands like Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest and even The Eagles were accused of spreading satanic messages subliminally.
After Christian fundamentalists claimed that a line in the title track of their 1974 album Eldorado sounded like “He is the nasty one – Christ you’re infernal” when reversed, the Electric Light Orchestra inserted a deliberately backmasked segment into their next album. Denying that Eldorado contained any subliminal messages, ELO went on to record Fire on High with an opening line that, when played backwards, says: “The music is reversible but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.” They released an entire album full of reversed vocals in 1983, called Secret Messages: the final track contains the backmasked message “thank you for listening”.
Many apparently innocent pop songs – including hits by Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber – have been accused of peddling evil when played backwards: it has been suggested that Bieber sings ‘We’re going to bomb these banks/Satanic new world order/Soon, bro!’ The claims are foundless, and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic parodied backmasking hysteria with the reversed line “Satan eats Cheese Whiz” in his 1983 song Nature Trail to Hell.
Back to front
Some hidden messages still make little sense once their words are clear. In Pink Floyd’s song Empty Spaces from their 1979 rock opera The Wall, Roger Waters can be heard saying “Congratulations. You’ve just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont…” A voice in the background shouts “Roger! Carolyne is on the phone!” before he can reveal the location. Some believe ‘Old Pink’ refers to the band’s former lead singer Syd Barrett, who suffered a breakdown in 1968.
In their 1991 song Christian Rock Concert, the UK group Half Man Half Biscuit included the vocal: “The body of Shane Fenton is in the laundry chute of the New Ambassadors Hotel near Euston Station”. Yet possibly the strangest reversed line came from King Crimson founder Robert Fripp, who featured part of Monty Python’s flying sheep sketch in his 1979 song Haaden Two. Played backwards, it reveals the following wisdom: “One thing is for sure – the sheep is not a creature of the air. Baaaaaaaah!”