As any vinyl aficionado will tell you, a good turntable can change the way you listen to music . . . especially if you remove the drive belt and start playing your records backwards.
Thomas Edison did it with his phonograph in 1878 to hear the melody differently, and almost a century later The Beatles catapulted the practice into popular culture. Due to aggressive fundamentalist Christian paranoia in the US from the late 1960s through the 80s, the word “backmasking” became synonymous with Satanism and/or drug use. Of course, attempts at demonisation by the Christian right meant that right-thinking young rock’n’roll record buyers went batshit for backmasking from the get-go.
The (thankfully temporary) decline of vinyl meant backmasking took a backseat for a while in the CD era, but the resurgence of records and freely available advanced digital audio software mean the game is back on for young and old, if you have the inclination and the patience.
The Beatles put backwards guitar solos on songs like “Rain” to great effect, popularising reverse reel-to-reel listening among musicians in search of elusive psychedelic sounds. But in an era when garbologists sifted through Bob Dylan’s rubbish, it was only a matter of time until obsessive stoners spun the Fab Four’s vinyl counter-clockwise. The apparent line “Turn me on dead man” from ‘Revolution No.9’ on The White Album – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/54/Revolution_9_backwards.ogg – caused a considerable stir and led to music enthusiasts (many of whom were taking acid, let’s face it) to look for hidden reversed messages in almost every record.
The Rutles – the tremendous Beatles parody band/film led by Monty Python’s Eric Idle – slipped in a backmasking reference on their song “Piggy in the Middle” – around 1:13 a brief backwards sentence is heard which it turns out is “this little piggy went to maaaaaarket”:
Not to be outdone, those merry Norwegian japesters Darkthrone threw a backmasked line into “As Flittermice As Satan’s Spys” on their 1994 album Transilvanian Hunger. At the end of the track, what sounds like the album’s most sensible lyric is in fact backwards! Oh, what can it be? “In the name of God, let the churches burn” . . . oh my sides! That’s funnier than The Rutles!
Much of what we think of as backmasking is just phonetic reversal, as in the case of “turn me on dead man”. With the sheer number of words and different pronunciations involved in the English language – not to mention lyrical contortions in the name of rhyme and rhythm in rock’n’roll – simple probability dictates that a handful of lines or phrases that sound normal played forwards are going to sound almost coherent but very different when played backwards. There is debate as to how much of it is intentional – English monsters of metal Judas Priest had been known to use the technique deliberately, and were taken to court in the US in 1990 over a suicide pact between two fans. The band very sensibly said that if they were able to influence listeners directly with backmasking their instructions would have been to “buy more of our records”.
Of the well-known unintentional variety – though some Jesus freaks would have you believe otherwise – are songs such as “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen – skip to 1:24 for the highly debatable occurrence of “it’s fun to smoke marijuana”:
Or there’s “In Between Days” by The Cure, where from 1:12-1:15 a gullible individual with an ear for strange accents might hear “Power, power, in Satan”:
Meanwhile, back to the subject of Bob Dylan’s trash, which offers a rare insight into a prominent musician’s reaction to allegations of intentional phonetic reversal. In 1971 there was a recorded exchange between Dylan and a batshit-crazy stalker named AJ Weberman, who used to comb through the singer’s rubbish in Greenwich Village in search of telltale signs. Dylan tried to reason with Weberman, and had a couple of long phone conversations with him, which Weberman taped without Dylan’s knowledge. In one, Weberman mentions that spinning Dylan’s 1970 album New Morning backwards brings up the phrase “Don’t expose me” at one point. Dylan’s astonished and appalled reaction is pretty conclusive proof that backmasking wasn’t at play.
Dylan: “What did you just say man? . . . I never said ‘Don’t expose me’ in New Morning, what’s that?”
Weberman: “Backwards, backwards. You need to play a part of it backwards.”
Dylan: “And it says ‘Don’t expose me’?”
Dylan: “Oh FUCK man. Jesus! . . . Shit, why don’t you play an Andy Williams record backwards, man, see what it says.”
You can listen to this part of the conversation from 3:03 here:
Last but certainly not least, there are the artists whose curiosity – or sheer enjoyment of getting two for the price of one – lead them to examine their own songs in reverse. Perhaps the most notable of these is the eclectic Californian outfit Camper Van Beethoven, best known for the straight-ahead classic “Take The Skinheads Bowling”. CVB would play every song they recorded backwards in search of new riffs and melodies (and perhaps even their own unconscious devilish warblings). On their third self-titled album they took the reversed vocals of “Ambiguity Song” from their first album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, worked out the chords in reverse and recorded the instrumental tracks “normally”, while retaining the backwards vocals all the way through, calling it “Five Sticks” and making it an easy one to spot. Just how much backwards stuff they managed to appropriate from their faithful re-recording of Fleetwood Mac’s double album Tusk in 2002 is a matter of conjecture. Anyway, here’s versions of “Ambiguity Song” and “Five Sticks” almost every which way:
“Five Sticks” backwards
In a similar vein, Martin Phillipps – the singer-songwriter and only constant member of The Chills from New Zealand – often listens to his newly recorded material backwards, even if it might not seem like an obvious candidate for backmasking. On the near-perfect 1990 album Submarine Bells, the 11th track is a stirring 42-second oceanscape called “Sweet Times”. I’d often wondered why the song was so short, and wondered if there was a longer version in existence. I recently contacted Phillipps to ask about it, and got the following reply: “I once recorded a version of “Happy Birthday” for Shayne Carter [of the Doublehappys, Straitjacket Fits, Dimmer] on my four-track cassette portastudio and when I played it backwards I heard this song. So, if you play “Sweet Times” backwards you should hear “Happy Birthday”. That’s why it’s so short.
You have to be quick to spot the “Happy Birthday” melody in the first few vocal lines, but it’s there:
“Sweet Times” backwards
Most decent examples of backmasking or unintentional phonetic reversal can simply be found on Youtube. However, if you haven’t got a steady hand and a turntable, and you want to try it yourself with an .mp3 or an .m4a file or similar, it’s quite simple – convert it to a .wav file using the very simple http://media.io/ Once it’s a .wav file, open Sound Recorder (a standard accessory on Windows PCs – sorry, I don’t speak Mac) then use effects>reverse and “save as”.
. . . and enjoy the devil’s music!