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Backward masking, also known as backmasking, was a moral panic promoted by a number of Christian evangelists during the early 1980s. Its most notable promoters included Jacob Aranza, the author of books such as Backward Masking Unmasked; Gary Greenwald; the Peters Brothers, who held antirock "crusades"; and Paul Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network. Allegedly, several rock songs had messages that could be heard if the record was played backwards, glorifying Satan, drug abuse, or the occult. The scare was part of the Satanic Panic.
The backward masking scare alleged that a large number of songs contained backwards messages, and that most of them promoted Devil-worship. Another concern was that the brain could grok backward-masked speech, thus making this a form of subliminal messages. These songs did not, in fact, contain any deliberately placed backward vocals at all — usually these loons were referring to a *forward vocal* which simply sounded vaguely like another phrase when played backwards: there was no additional backwards-recorded sound "underneath". When played backward the result was gibberish that could be interpreted as a backward message by somebody letting their imagination run away with them. Among the songs alleged to contain such messages:
- "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin. Allegedly contained long passages of Satanic stream of consciousness drivel if played backwards, along the lines of: "here's to my sweet Satan", "he will give you 666", and "happy is the man who makes me sad whose power is Satan"[note 1]
- "A Child Is Coming" by Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship. Allegedly, "Son of Satan" repeated over and over when played backwards.
- "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen. Allegedly, the hook line "another one bites the dust" sounded like "Start to smoke marijuana" (or "It's fun to smoke marijuana") when played backwards. It was further rumored that if you again reversed the reversed song (for double the Satanism), the song actually glorified mass shootings.
- "Eldorado" by Electric Light Orchestra. Allegedly, "He is the nasty one, Christ, you're infernal, It is said we're dead men, Everyone who has the mark will live" when played backwards.
- "Snowblind" by Styx. Allegedly, "Satan move through our voices" when played backwards. The song is actually about cocaine addiction, so it's probably not the best medium for promoting Satan.
- "When Electricity Came To Arkansas" by Black Oak Arkansas. Allegedly, "Satan Satan Satan, He is God, He is God, He is God" when played backwards.
- Some people are taken to reversing the Pledge of Allegiance to find hidden messages.
William Poundstone's 1983 book Big Secrets investigated these and many other alleged backward messages and found them nothing but unintentional gibberish.
Backward masking even got a day in court when the band Judas Priest was sued in 1990 over their 1978 song "Better By You, Better Than Me". The song allegedly contained a subliminally recorded "Do it!" The lawsuit alleged that the subliminal message in the song led two Nevada teens to enter into a suicide pact. The court dismissed the lawsuit.
Ben Minnotte, for an episode of his YouTube show Oddity Archive about the alleged phenomenon, listened to 36 random songs backwards searching for what vaguely sounded like discernible words buried in the gibberish (not necessarily coherent phrases, as the object was to find decipherable words even if the combination was word salad; one of the "messages" he highlighted was "buried up in the Salisbury elf", and one partial phrase he featured was "play the [indecipherable] push knee back"). During this experiment, he noticed that the word "and", especially when poorly enunciated, tended to sound like the second syllable of Satan when played backwards. This means that almost any given English-language song is likely to have alleged Satanic messages when played backwards, especially in a lyric that starts with "and" then quickly follows it up with a word containing an "S" sound. And this sort of word combination is common even in normal speech; this sentence starts with such a word combination. Minnotte demonstrated this with the line "And guess who sighs his lullabies?" in Frank Sinatra's song "Summer Wind", part of which he interpreted as "Hey, I'll sue Satan" during the experiment. In short, it's an ordinary sentence structure that idiots mistook for brainwashing, leading to a perfect storm of paranoia and confirmation bias that sent their imaginations spiralling out of control.
Naturally, the idea that hearing a message played backwards in a song will influence one's behavior is utter bullshit. Your ears and brain will interpret it as nothing but gibberish. Minnotte featured 17 of the 36 songs he listened to during his experiment — 12 that vaguely resembled actual phrases, some of which were stretches and one of which was completely nonsensical, and 5 interesting failures — meaning that in most cases, he couldn't decipher anything even when listening carefully for vague word sounds. If a man specifically listening for phrases struggles to find anything decipherable even when the phrase doesn't have to make sense, how's a teenager going to hear Satanic phrases when they're too busy rocking out to notice them? Even if you could make out phrases, the idea of these being messages is preposterous, for the simple reason that they were never intended to be played backwards and any discernible phrase when played like this is an accident. "Stairway to Heaven" is not an ode to Satan, "Another One Bites the Dust" is not about weed, and there's no evidence that Frank Sinatra ever contemplated taking legal action against the Prince of Darkness.
Some fundamentalist Christians were skeptical of the whole backward masking craze; for example, Mike Warnke (whose own career was largely made on fraudulent tall tales of having once been a Satanist priest) dismissed backward masking as an issue (while revealing his homophobia at the same time) by saying, "when you have songs being played on the radio asking Johnny if he's queer, you don't need to play them backward to find out what's wrong with them".
So many Black Oak Arkansas songs were accused of having Satanic backward messages that the scare is probably responsible for most of the post-"Jim Dandy" album sales of that obscure one hit wonder.
The Simpsons used the term "yvan eht nioj", backwards for "join the navy", in one of their episodes where Bart joins a boyband which is actually indoctrinating Americans to join the US Navy. The plot is foiled by Lisa Simpson.
Real backward "masking"
Even though much of the panic was over non-existent or unintentional maskings, there have been real instances of artists deliberately placing backward vocals and sounds in their recordings. Early examples include the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Firesign Theatre and the band Bloodrock, who placed such a message in "Gotta Find A Way" on their 1969 debut album. These messages were either humorous or done for artistic effect, and not "Satanic" in nature at all. The Beatles, for example, recorded several songs with various tracks, including vocals, running backwards. They tend not to contain Satanic lyrics, however. Usually they are repeats of things already sung forwards.
On the triple-disc[note 2] set Sandinista!, by the Clash, the master backing track of "Something About England" is also used for "Mensforth Hill" — but played backwards.
The Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Styx, and the Canadian band Klaatu reacted to the backward masking scare in a snarky way by putting dozens of deliberate backward messages in their music, often garbled pseudo-religious sentence fragments. (ELO did an entire album called Secret Messages.[note 3]) The B-52s included a backwards "watch out, you might ruin your needle" in one song, and the aforementioned Bloodrock put a backwards "anyone who is stupid enough to play this record backwards deserves what he is about to hear". The Christian Rock band Petra even pulled a funny on their own evangelical audience with "What are you looking for the devil for when you oughta be looking for the Lord?"
Prince put a deliberate Christian message backwards in "Darling Nikki", the controversial song about masturbation and sex which set off the censorship campaign in the late 1980s that led to "Parental Advisory" labelling of music: "Hello, how are you? I'm fine, because I know that the Lord is coming soon."[note 4]
Released in 1966, the 45rpm record for "Yellow Balloon" by the band of the same name has the forwards version on side 1, and the same song played backwards in its entirety (called "Noollab Wolley") on side 2. The same year, Jerry Samuels, under the name Napoleon XIV, released the single "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!". The b-side of the single was the same track, played backwards, and entitled "!aaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er'yehT".
Pink Floyd included the message "Congratulations, you have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont" at the start of "Empty Spaces" on their classic album "The Wall". Another Pink Floyd song that had backward masking was "Bike". In fact the lyrics are entirely different when played backwards.
Former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters also included a message in the song Perfect Sense on his album Amused to Death. The message is "Julia, however, in the light and visions of the issues of Stanley, we changed our minds. We have decided to include a backward message. Stanley, for you, and for all the other book burners..." followed by incoherent shouting. Apparently, Waters had asked Stanley Kubrick for permission to include some dialogue and effects from 2001 on the album and was refused. This was his response. The album does include sampling of Hal, however, so maybe that's not the real explanation.
"P5hng Me A*wy", from Linkin Park's first remix album Reanimation, features a backmasked version of one of the song's verses. "Somewhere I Belong", from Linkin Park's second album is based around an acoustic guitar part played backwards to give the sample its distinctive sound envelope. Although this latter example didn't include reversing lyrics, it's a good example of why running sounds backwards can produce interesting and unusual effects.
"Weird Al" Yankovic has included backmasked segments at least thrice:
- "Nature Trail to Hell" includes the words "Satan eats Cheez Whiz".
- "I Remember Larry" includes the words "Wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands."
- The six-second 'song' "Bite Me", a hidden track on the Off The Deep End album, is a reversed sample of the song "Tears of the Earth" by David Hallyday.
- This song is claimed to have a message from the Illuminati.[note 5] (In reality it could easily be just satire)
They Might Be Giants have several songs that involve reversed lyrics, but this is on purpose. A specific instance in a more well-known song is the end of the song "Subliminal".
On the other hand, however, punk band Choking Victim placed a backward mask on their song "Hate Yer State" where vocalist Stza Sturgeon sarcastically promoted, amongst other things, Satan worship and suicide.
Marilyn Manson, on a few of their songs, actually did use backwards vocals or audio samples, including the start of the song Tourniquet and on several other songs from the album Antichrist Superstar, as well as a little on Smells Like Children and Portrait of An American Family.
The 1980's "funny punk" band Adrenalin O.D. had an untitled track on their 1984 album "The Wacky Hijinks of Adrenalin OD". The band members can be clearly heard chanting something. When played backwards, they are saying "God is very, very nice. Be kind to animals. Satan sucks."
In 1982, the punk band Plasmatics released their album "Coup d'Etat". The final track ends with reverse speech. When played backwards, it is lead vocalist Wendy O. Williams saying, "Consensus programming is dangerous to your health. The brainwashed do not know they are brainwashed."
Most radio stations (in the United States) will reverse swears in order to allow songs to be played on air without having to constantly edit the songs "live" (aka cut the sound channel on the board for the swear) during safe harbor hours (6 am - 10 pm local time). The Beastie Boys did this on their 1983 "Cookypuss" with uncensored, and censored radio versions, the latter reversing all the nasty language. This has to be done frequently with hip-hop and modern dance music, along with several late 1970s/early 1980s rock songs, and tihs ekil sdnuos[note 6]. It also had the unintended effect of actually coining "ish" as a euphemism for "shit".
There are several notable instances of recording something that has already been spoken or acted backwards, and then played in reverse so it sounds and/or looks like it is actually forwards, creating a sensical but somewhat creepy effect:
- The song "Dinner Bell" by They Might Be Giants features lyrics (body parts)
- A scene in the movie Top Secret! starring
Michael KeatonVal Kilmer
- Dream sequences from the television show and movie sequel Twin Peaks
- The song "Like Spinning Plates" by Radiohead; a backwards bassline, overlaid with Thom Yorke singing the words forwards. Or rather, the sound of Thom Yorke singing the song forwards, reversing it, learning how to sing it backwards, then reversing that to produce the effect of singing it forwards.
In the Cheap Trick song How Are You? from the album Heaven Tonight, after a lyric that says roughly "What you said, I know you're lying", there is a speeded-up bit of vocal tracking that, when slowed down, is revealed to be a recital of the "Lord's Prayer". Pretty damning, no excuses there.
Why backwards masking
Out of hundreds of possible maskings for a song, why did the religions choose backwards masking? Why not a flanger, stutter or AM modulation on 666MHz? The answer is as simple as it is stupid (cheap). Back in the days, when music was on LP records, or worse, on tapes, digital and analog effects tended to be pretty expensive. A decent AM modulator could cost several hundreds of dollars, which is not productive when you try to alarm the sheeple. Reproduction of the evil sound must be easy and cheap so that everyone can become scared.
With a tape recorder, it is rather simple to backmask by simply spooling the tape in reverse on the reel, although this will not work with the most common domestic formats, quarter inch four-track two-channel stereo and two-track mono. LP players, being mechanical devices, can be easily tricked to spin the other way around. With a band-driven player one can loop the band in a figure-8 and voila, backmasking for dummies was born[note 7]. Given the human mind's tendency to recognize patterns, and notoriously bad quality of hacked mechanical LP players, it's not difficult to force any song into producing satanic lyrics if you prep someone to hear satanic lyrics beforehand and tell them what to listen for.
- OMG, you've gotta see this, here is the smoking gun that backward masking is real!!!!!
- Film about the Judas Priest trial
- Christian backward masking
- Although occultist Aleister Crowley's dictum "Do what thou wilt" was inscribed on the groove of the original vinyl releases of Led Zeppelin III.
- On vinyl, it sprawled over three twelve inch records. It's a two-disc set on the CD release. Or, for today's generation, it's 36 mp3s.
- They also used musical segments in reverse. On their album Face the Music, the end of "Waterfall" was reversed and used as the start of "Down Home Town", and "Evil Woman" contains a reversed string crescendo from "Nightrider".
- Yes, I'm cumming soon too.
- The actual song isn't on Youtube anymore.
- For this we can thank Janet Jackson and her "wardrobe malfunction" along with numerous other shock jocks who irked the FCC one too many times.
- And in this epoch of everything being digital, things are far easier if you've both the MP3/FLAC/whatever file of the song and a sound editing program as Audacity.
- The 10 Wildest Led Zeppelin Legends, Fact-Checked: The mud shark, the hermit and the stairway to hell – we fact-check the rumors by Andy Greene (November 21, 2012 12:00PM ET) Rolling Stone.
- See the Wikipedia article on Snowblind.
- Big Secrets by William Poundstone (1983) William Morrow (reprinted as The Big Book of Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth About All Sorts of Stuff You are Never Supposed to Know, ISBN 0760727074).
- Oddity Archive: Episode 18 – gniksaM sdrawkcaB (Backwards Masking) (2015 RE-EDIT)
- Firesign Theatre: How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All by Michael Tatum (May 30, 20140 Tom Hull — on the Web
- Empty Spaces forwards and backwards
- Backwards message in Perfect Sense
- Songfacts.com — Somewhere I Belong
- Backwards stuff on TMBW.net
- Hate Yer State backmask