Backmasking

Paul is dead

Backmasking is a recording technique in which a sound or message is recorded backward on to a track that is meant to be played forward. Backmasking is a deliberate process, whereas a message found through ‘phonetic reversal’ may be unintentional. Backmasking was popularized by The Beatles who used backward instrumentation on their 1966 album ‘Revolver.’ Artists have since used backmasking for artistic, comedic and satiric effect, on both analogue and digital recordings.

The technique has also been used to censor words or phrases for ‘clean’ releases of rap songs. Backmasking has been a controversial topic in the United States since the 1980s, when allegations from Christian groups of its use for Satanic purposes were made against prominent rock musicians, leading to record-burning protests and proposed anti-backmasking legislation by state and federal governments.

In 1877 Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a device allowing sound to be recorded and reproduced on a rotating cylinder with a stylus (or ‘needle’) attached to a diaphragm mounted at the narrow end of a horn. Emile Berliner invented the familiar lateral-cut disc phonograph record in 1888. His design overtook the Edison phonograph in the 1920s, partly because Berliner’s patent expired in 1918, leaving others free to use his invention. In addition to recreating recorded sounds by placing the stylus on the cylinder or disc and rotating it in the same direction as during the recording, one could hear different sounds by rotating the cylinder or disc backwards. In 1878 Edison noted that, when played 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.’ The backwards playing of records was advised as training for magicians by occultist Aleister Crowley, who suggested in his 1913 book ‘Magick’ that an adept ‘train himself to think backwards by external means,’ one of which was to ‘listen to phonograph records, reversed.’

The 1950s saw two new developments in audio technology: the development of musique concrète, an avant-garde form of electronic music which involves editing together fragments of natural and industrial sounds; and the concurrent spread of the use of tape recorders in recording studios. These two trends led to tape music compositions, composed on tape using techniques including reverse tape effects. The Beatles, who incorporated the techniques of concrète into their recordings, were responsible for popularizing the concept of backmasking. Singer John Lennon and producer George Martin both claimed they discovered the backward recording technique during the recording of 1966’s ‘Revolver’; Lennon stated that, while under the influence of marijuana, he accidentally played the tapes for ‘Rain’ in reverse, and enjoyed the sound. The following day he shared the results with the other Beatles, and the effect was used first in the guitar solo for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ and later in the coda of ‘Rain.’ According to Martin, the band had been experimenting with changing the speeds of and reversing the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ tapes, and Martin got the idea of reversing Lennon’s vocals and guitar, which he did with a clip from ‘Rain.’ Lennon then liked the effect and kept it. Regardless, ‘Rain’ was the first song to feature a backmasked message: ‘Sunshine … Rain … When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads.’

The Beatles were involved in the spread of backmasking both as a recording technique and as the center of a controversy. The latter has its roots in an event in 1969, when WKNR-FM DJ Russ Gibb received a phone call from a student at Eastern Michigan University who identified himself as ‘Tom.’ The caller asked Gibb about a rumor that Beatle Paul McCartney had died, and claimed that the Beatles song ‘Revolution 9’ contained a backward message confirming the rumor. Gibb played the song backwards on his turntable, and heard ‘Turn me on, dead man … turn me on, dead man … turn me on, dead man…’ Gibb began telling his listeners about what he called ‘The Great Cover-up,’ and to the original clue were added various others, including the alleged backmasked message ‘Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him,’ in ‘I’m So Tired.’ The ‘Paul is dead’ rumor popularized the idea of backmasking in popular music.

After Gibb’s show, many more songs were found to contain phrases that sounded like known spoken languages when reversed. Initially, the search was done mostly by fans of rock music; but, in the late 1970s, during the rise of the Christian right in the United States, fundamentalist Christian groups began to claim that backmasked messages could bypass the conscious mind and reach the subconscious, where they would be unknowingly accepted by the listener. In 1981, Christian DJ Michael Mills began stating on Christian radio programs that Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ contained hidden messages that were heard by the subconscious. In early 1982, the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Paul Crouch hosted a show with self-described neuroscientist William Yarroll, who argued that rock stars were cooperating with the Church of Satan to place hidden subliminal messages on records. Also in 1982, fundamentalist Christian pastor Gary Greenwald held public lectures on dangers of backmasking, along with at least one mass record-smashing. During the same year, thirty North Carolina teenagers, led by their pastor, claimed that singers had been possessed by Satan, who used their voices to create backward messages, and held a record-burning at their church. Allegations of demonic backmasking were also made by social psychologists, parents and critics of rock music, as well as the ‘Parents Music Resource Center’ (formed in 1985), which accused Led Zeppelin of using backmasking to promote Satanism.

One result of the furor was the firing of five radio DJs who had encouraged listeners to search for backward messages in their record collections. A more serious consequence was legislation by the state governments of Arkansas and California. The 1983 California bill was introduced to prevent backmasking that ‘can manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.’ Involved in the discussion on the bill was a California State Assembly ‘Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee’ hearing, during which ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was played backwards, and William Yaroll testified. The successful bill made the distribution of records with undeclared backmasking an invasion of privacy for which the distributor could be sued. The Arkansas law passed unanimously in 1983, referenced albums by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, Queen, and Styx, and mandated that records with backmasking include a warning sticker: ‘Warning: This record contains backward masking which may be perceptible at a subliminal level when the record is played forward.’

With the advent of compact discs in the 1980s, but prior to the advent of sound editing technology for personal computers in the 1990s, it became more difficult to listen to recordings backwards, and the controversy died down. Though the backmasking controversy peaked in the 1980s, the general belief in subliminal manipulation became more widespread in the United States during the following decade, with belief in Satanic backmasking on records persisting into the 1990s. At the same time, the development of sound editing software with audio reversal features simplified the process of reversing audio, which previously could only be done with full fidelity using a professional tape recorder. The ‘Sound Recorder’ utility, included with Microsoft ‘Windows’, allows one-click audio reversal, as does popular open source sound editing software ‘Audacity.’ Following the growth of the Internet, backmasked message searchers used such software to create websites featuring backward music samples, which became a widely-used method of exploring backmasking in popular music.

In the 1973 film ‘The Exorcist’ a tape of noises from the possessed victim was discovered to contain a message when the tape was played backwards. This scene might have inspired subsequent copycat musical effects. Although the Satanic backmasking controversy involved mainly classic rock songs whose authors denied any intent to promote Satanism, backmasking has been used by heavy metal bands to deliberately insert messages in their lyrics or imagery. Bands have utilized Satanic imagery for commercial reasons. For example, thrash metal band Slayer included at the start of the band’s 1985 album ‘Hell Awaits’ a deep backmasked voice chanting ‘Join Us’ over and over. However, Slayer vocalist Tom Araya states that the band’s use of Satanic imagery was ‘solely for effect.’

Backmasking is often used for aesthetics, i.e., to enhance the meaning or sound of a track. During the Judas Priest subliminal message trial, lead singer Rob Halford admitted to recording the words ‘In the dead of the night, love bites’ backwards into the track ‘Love Bites,’ from the 1984 album ‘Defenders of the Faith.’ Asked why he recorded the message, Halford stated that ‘When you’re composing songs, you’re always looking for new ideas, new sounds.’ Stanley Kubrick used ‘Masked Ball,’ an adaptation by Jocelyn Pook of her earlier work ‘Backwards Priests’ (from the album ‘Flood’) featuring reversed Romanian chanting, as the background music for the masquerade ball scene in ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’

One backmasking technique is to reverse an earlier part of a song. Missy Elliott used this technique in one of her songs, ‘Work It.’ A related technique is to reverse an entire instrumental track. John Lennon originally wanted to do so with ‘Rain,’ but objections by producer George Martin and bandmate Paul McCartney cut the backward section to 30 seconds. The Stone Roses have made heavy use of this technique in songs including ‘Don’t Stop,’ ‘Guernica,’ and ‘Simone,’ which are all backwards versions of other Stone Roses tracks, sometimes overdubbed with new vocals.

Artists often use backmasking of sounds or instrumental audio to produce interesting sound effects. One such sound effect is the ‘reverse echo.’ When done on tape, such use of backmasking is known as ‘reverse tape effects.’ One example is Matthew Sweet’s 1999 album ‘In Reverse,’ which includes reversed guitar parts which were played directly onto a tape running in reverse. For live concerts, the guitar parts were played live on stage using a backward emulator. The French House group Daft Punk released a song called ‘Funk Ad,’ which is a section of their single, ‘Da Funk,’ played backwards.

A common use of backmasking is hiding a comedic or parodical message backwards in a song. Pink Floyd dropped a backmasked message into ‘Empty Spaces’: ‘… Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont… Roger! Carolyne’s on the phone! Okay.’ The first line may refer to former lead singer Syd Barrett, who is thought to have suffered a nervous breakdown years earlier.

Backmasking has also been used to record statements perhaps too critical or explicit to be used forwards. Frank Zappa used backmasking to avoid censorship of the track ‘Hot Poop,’ from ‘We’re Only in It for the Money’ (1968). The released version contains at the end of its side ‘A’ the backmasked message ‘Better look around before you say you don’t care. / Shut your f…ing mouth ’bout the length of my hair. / How would you survive / If you were alive / shitty little person?’ This profanity-laced verse, originally from the song ‘Mother People,’ was censored by Verve Records, so Zappa edited the verse out, reversed it, and inserted it elsewhere in the album as ‘Hot Poop’ (though even in the backward message the word ‘fucking’ is censored). Another example is found in Roger Waters’ 1991 album ‘Amused to Death,’ on which Waters recorded a backward message, possibly critical of film director Stanley Kubrick, who had refused to let Waters sample a breathing sound from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ The message appears in the song ‘Perfect Sense Part 1,’ in which Waters’ backmasked voice says, ‘Julia, however, in light and visions of the issues of Stanley, we have changed our minds. We have decided to include a backward message, Stanley, for you and all the other book burners.’

Skeptic Michael Shermer claims that the emergence of the ‘Paul is dead’ phenomenon, including the alleged message at the end of ‘I’m So Tired,’ was caused by faulty perception of a pattern. Shermer argues that the human brain evolved with a strong pattern recognition ability that was necessary to process the large amount of noise in man’s environment, but that today this ability leads to false positives. Stanford University psychology professor Brian Wandell postulates that the observance of backward messages is a mistake arising from this pattern recognition facility, and argues that subliminal persuasion theories are ‘bizarre’ and ‘implausible.’ Rumors of backmasking in popular music have been described as auditory pareidolia (random noise being perceived as significant). James Walker, president of Christian research group ‘Watchman Fellowship,’ states that ‘You could take a Christian hymn, and if you played it backwards long enough at different speeds, you could make that hymn say anything you want to’; Led Zeppelin publicist BP Fallon concurs, saying ‘Play anything backwards, and you’ll find something.’

Audio engineer Evan Olcott claims that messages by artists including Queen and Led Zeppelin are coincidental phonetic reversals, in which the spoken or sung phonemes form new combinations of words when listened to backwards. Olcott states that ‘Actually engineering or planning a phonetic reversal is next to impossible, and even more difficult when trying to design it with words that fit into a song.’

In 1985, University of Lethbridge psychologists John Vokey and J. Don Read conducted a study using ‘Psalm 23’ from the Bible, Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ and other sound passages made up for the experiment. Vokey and Read concluded that if backmasking does exist, it is ineffective. Participants had trouble noticing backmasked phrases when the samples were played forwards, were unable to judge the types of messages (Christian, Satanic, or commercial), and were not led to behave in a certain way as a result of being exposed to the backmasked phrases. Vokey concluded that ‘we could find no effect of the meaning of engineered, backward messages on listeners’ behavior, either consciously or unconsciously.’

The finding of backward Satanic messages has been explained as caused by the ‘observer-expectancy effect.’ The Skeptic’s Dictionary states that ‘you probably won’t hear [backmasked] messages until somebody first points them out to you. Perception is influenced by expectation and expectation is affected by what others prime you for.’ In 1984, S. B. Thorne and P. Himelstein found that ‘when vague and unfamiliar stimuli are presented, [test subjects] are highly likely to accept suggestions, particularly when the suggestions are presented by someone with prestige and authority.’ Vokey and Read concluded from their 1985 experiment that ‘the apparent presence of backward messages in popular music is a function more of active construction on the part of the perceiver than of the existence of the messages themselves.’

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