Backmasking was popularized by The Beatles, who used backward vocals and instrumentation on their 1966 album Revolver. Artists have since used backmasking for artistic, comedic, and satiric effect, on both analog and digital recordings. The technique has also been used to censor words or phrases for "clean" releases of 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. Whether backmasked messages exist is in debate, as is whether backmasking can be used subliminally to affect listeners.
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 (Book 4) that an adept "train himself to think backwards by external means", one of which was to "listen to phonograph records, reversed.
The 1950s saw 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 claim they discovered the backward recording technique during the recording of 1966's Revolver; specifically the album tracks "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "I'm Only Sleeping," and the single "Rain". 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 last line is the reversed first verse of the song).
Following Gibb's show, many more songs were found to contain audible phrases 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 Praise the Lord 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. On 1982-04-28's CBS Evening News, Dan Rather discussed the finding of possible backmasked messages, and played reversed sections of songs by Led Zeppelin, Electric Light Orchestra and Styx.
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.
Backmasking has been used as a recording technique since the 1960s. In the era of magnetic tape sound recording, backmasking required that the source reel-to-reel tape actually be played backwards, which was achieved by first being wound onto the original takeup reel, then reversing the reels so as to use that reel as the source (this would reverse the stereo channels as well). Digital audio recording has greatly simplified the process.
Backmasked words are unintelligible noise when played forward, but when played backwards are clear speech. Listening to backmasked audio with most turntables requires disengaging the drive and rotating the album by hand in reverse (though some can play records backwards). With magnetic tape, the tape must be reversed and spliced back in to the cassette. Compact discs were difficult to reverse when first introduced, but digital audio editors, which were first introduced in the late 1980s and became popular during the next decade, allow easy reversal of audio from digital sources.
A well-known example of a hidden message is recorded backwards into Pink Floyd's 1979 song "Empty Spaces": "…congratulations. You've just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont." (voice in background) "Roger! Carolyn is on the phone!" This line may refer to former lead singer Syd Barrett, who is thought to have suffered a nervous breakdown years earlier.
One backmasking technique is to reverse an earlier part of a song. Missy Elliott used this technique in one of her songs, "Work It", as did Jay Chou ("You Can Hear", from Ye Hui Mei), At the Drive-In ("300 MHz", from Vaya), and Lacuna Coil ("Self Deception", from Comalies). 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 Canadian band Klaatu used the vocal track, reversed, from their song "Anus From Uranus" as the vocal track to the song "Silly Boys", and even included a lyrics sheet that attempted to translate the backwards vocal sounds into actual words, however the result was mostly nonsensical non sequiturs or imaginative license.
A common use of backmasking is hiding a comedic or parodical message backwards in a song. The B-side of the 1966 Napoleon XIV single "They're Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!" is a reversed version of the entire forwards record, entitled "!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er'yehT". It reached #3 in the US charts, and #4 in the UK.
In "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Nature Trail to Hell", from 1984's "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D, Yankovic's backmasked voice declares that "Satan eats Cheez Whiz" ().. Another early example can be found on the J. Geils Band track "No Anchovies, Please", from 1980s album Love Stinks. The message, disguised as a foreign-sounding language spoken under the narration, is, "It doesn't take a genius to tell the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad."
Electric Light Orchestra and Styx, following their involvement in the 1980s backmasking controversy, released songs that parody the allegations made against them. ELO, after being accused of Satanic backmasking on their 1974 album Eldorado, included backmasked messages in two songs on their next album, 1975's Face The Music. "Down Home Town" begins with a voice twice repeating (in reverse) "Pass the mighty waterfall". And the opening instrumental "Fire On High" contains the backmasked message "The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!" (). In 1983 ELO released an entire album, Secret Messages, in response to the controversy. Among the many backmasked messages on the album are: "Welcome to the big show" (2x); "Thank you for listening"; "Look out there's danger ahead"; "Hup two three four"; "Time After Time"; and "You're playing me backwards". Styx also released an album in response to allegations of Satanic backmasking: 1983's Kilroy Was Here, which deals with an allegorical group called the "Majority for Musical Morality" that outlaws rock music. A sticker on the album cover contains the message, "By order of the Majority for Musical Morality, this album contains secret backward messages", and the song "Heavy Metal Poisoning" does in fact contain the backmasked Latin words "Annuit Cœptis, Novus Ordo Seclorum" ("God has favored our undertakings; a new order for the ages")—part of the Great Seal which encircles the pyramid on the back of the American dollar bill.
Iron Maiden's 1983 album Piece of Mind features a short backwards message, included by the band in response to allegations of Satanism that were surrounding them at the time. Between the songs "The Trooper" and "Still Life" is inebriated drummer Nicko McBrain doing an impression of Idi Amin Dada: "'What ho', sed de t'ing wid de t'ree bonce [said the thing with the three heads]. Don't meddle wid t'ings you don't understand," followed by a belch.
British band Act of Faith included in their track Angels in Exile (1988) the reversed phrase "Satan is bored", parodying the repetitive reports from the United States that "Satan is Lord" and similar phrases were backmasked into recordings. The message was recorded out of phase so that it is not heard if played on monophonic equipment.
Some messages chastise or poke fun at the listener who is playing the song backwards. One such message was included by "Weird Al" Yankovic in "I Remember Larry", from the 1996 album Bad Hair Day, on which Yankovic lightly chastises the listener with the backmasked remark, "Wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands" (). Similarly, the B-52's song "Detour Through your Mind", from the 1986 LP Bouncing off the Satellites, contains the message, "I buried my parakeet in the backyard. Oh no, you're playing the record backwards. Watch out, you might ruin your needle." Meanwhile, Christian rock group Petra included in their song "Judas Kiss", from the 1982 album More Power To Ya, the message, "What are you looking for the devil for, when you ought to be looking for the Lord?" The band Mindless Self Indulgence released a song titled "Backmask", which contains the forward lyrics "Play that record backwards / Here's a message yo for the suckas / Play that record backwards / And go fuck yourself". The backwards messages in the song include, "respect your parents", "clean your room", and "do your homework".
The song "Backward Message" on Steven Brust's filk album "A Rose for Iconoclastes" pokes fun at the concept of backmasking, with lines such as "Hidden in the masking are the clues // That Satan, he can really sing the blues!"
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.
Electric Light Orchestra was accused of hiding a backward Satanic message in their 1974 album Eldorado. The title track, "Eldorado", was said to contain the message "He is the nasty one / Christ, you're infernal / It is said we're dead men / Everyone who has the mark will live." ELO singer and songwriter Jeff Lynne responded by calling this accusation (and the related charge of being "devil-worshippers") "skcollob", and stating that the message "is absolutely manufactured by whoever said, 'That's what it said.' It doesn't say anything of the sort." The group included several backward messages in later albums in response to the accusations.
In 1981, Styx was accused of putting the backward message "Satan move through our voices" on the song "Snowblind", from Paradise Theatre. Guitarist James Young called these charges "rubbish", and responded, "If we want to make a statement, we'll do it in a way that people can understand us and not in a way where you have to go out and buy a $400 tape player to understand us." In 1983, the band released a concept album, Kilroy Was Here, satirizing the Moral Majority.
A well-known alleged message is found in rock group Led Zeppelin's 1971 song "Stairway to Heaven". The backwards playing of a portion of the song purportedly results in words beginning with "Here's to my sweet Satan" (). But Swan Song Records issued a statement to the contrary: "Our turntables only play in one direction—forwards". And Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant denied the accusations in an interview: "To me it's very sad, because 'Stairway To Heaven' was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that's not my idea of making music. Another widely-known alleged message, "It's fun to smoke marijuana", in Queen's song "Another One Bites the Dust", is similarly disclaimed by the group's spokesperson.
Accusations have been made by various groups that backmasking can be used to create subliminal messages.
Some Christian websites have claimed that backmasking is widely used for Satanic purposes. The web page for Alabama group Dial-the-Truth Ministries argues for the existence of Satanic backmasking in "Stairway to Heaven", saying that the song contains the backward message, "It's my sweet Satan … Oh I will sing because I live with Satan." The website of Australian group Bible Believers quotes from Jacob Aranza's Backward Masking Unmasked regarding William Yarroll's proposed physiology of the mechanism by which messages in music reach the subconscious:
[A]t the base of the brain there is a "check valve", the Reticular Activating System. Based on prior programmed values, emotional responses, and our conditioning, a message will be accepted or rejected … If this interpretive process fails to match the message to the logical, conscious brain hemisphere, it is passed on into the next hemisphere for further evaluation. If the left conscious brain can find no known matching information, the creative right takes over the decoding process. As the right hemisphere mirrors the strange message … the message is acknowledged and stored.The Bible Believers website also quotes from a 1983 Psychology Today issue in which a Dr. Silverman writes that "the perception of stimuli too weak to be consciously recognized … is a real phenomenon that has been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt.
The message [of a piece of heavy metal music] may also be covert or subliminal. Sometimes subaudible tracks are mixed in underneath other, louder tracks. These are heard by the subconscious but not the conscious mind. Sometimes the messages are audible but are backward, called backmasking. There is disagreement among experts regarding the effectiveness of subliminals. We need more research on that.Stuessy's written testimony stated that:
Some messages are presented to the listener backwards. While listening to a normal forward message (often somewhat nonsensical), one is simultaneously being treated to a backwards message (in other words, the lyric sounds like one set of words going forward, and a different set of words going backwards). Some experts believe that while the conscious mind is absorbing the forward lyric, the subconscious is working overtime to decipher the backwards message.
In 1990, British heavy metal band Judas Priest was sued over a suicide pact made by two Nevada schoolboys. The lawsuit by their families claimed that the 1978 Judas Priest album Stained Class contained hidden messages, including the forward subliminal words "Do it" in the song "Better By You, Better Than Me" , and various backward subliminal messages. The case was dismissed by the judge for insufficient evidence of Judas Priest's placement of subliminal messages on the record, and the judge's ruling stated that "The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude. There exist other factors which explain the conduct of the deceased independent of the subliminal stimuli. Judas Priest members commented that if they wanted to insert subliminal commands in their music, messages leading to the deaths of their fans would be counterproductive, and they would prefer to insert the command "Buy more of our records.
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’ behaviour, either consciously or unconsciously. Similar results to Vokey and Read's were obtained by D. Averill in 1982. A 1988 experiment by T.E. Moore found "no evidence that listeners were influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the content of the backward messages." In 1992, an experiment found that exposure to backward messages did not lead to significant changes in attitude. Psychology professor Mark D. Allen says that "delivering subliminal messages via backward masking is totally and ridiculously impossible".
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."