by William Poundstone 1986 There really are backward messages on rock albums. And the cont

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

by William Poundstone 1986 There really are backward messages on rock albums. And the controversy over "backward masking" and "porn rock" has inspired a whole new spate of messages. There may have been more genuine backward messages in the past few years than ever before. The backward message controversy is usually traced to the 1960s and John Lennon's avant-garde sound mixing on such tracks as "Revolution 9" on the Beatles' WHITE ALBUM. Lennon probably wasn't trying to conceal a message so much as create an interesting sound. The matter might have ended right there had it not been for the Paul McCartney death rumor. College kids tried playing Beatles records forward, backward, and at various speeds to find "clues" to McCartney's fate. In the process they found snippets of speech from Lennon's experiments. Even after McCartney was found safe and sound in Scotland, some listeners continued to look for hidden messages. Somehow, fundamentalist Christian groups became convinced (ca. 1982) that the alleged messages were commercials for devil worship. Not a single indisputable satanic message has turned up, but there were scattered attempts to ban or label certain albums. In 1986 one fundamentalist group announced that the theme song for the old MR. ED TV show contains the word "Satan" when played backward.) Ironically, the publicity accorded nonexistent messages has inspired several artists -- among them porn rock hearing witness Frank Zappa -- to hide real background messages in their music. It's easy to do. The performer speaks or sings the message normally, then reverses the tape, which is mixed into the soundtrack. This is all accomplished simply enough at any recording studio. What's not so simple is playing it back. More home record, cassette, and compact disk players won't play backward. You can turn a record backward with a pencil eraser, but it's not good for the needle or the turntable. The only way to reproduce the message with full fidelity is to use a professional-quality reel-to-reel tape player and splice the tape in backward. We used the facilities of KLOS radio in Los Angeles to reverse some recent records containing true backward messages. "Secret Messages" Electric Light Orchestra, SECRET MESSAGES ELO's ELDORADO album was among those alleged to contain satanic backward masked messages. A patient listening to ELDORADO played backward reveals no such messages. You hear only what you ought to hear -- the reversed lyrics of the songs, which sound nothing like the "messages" claimed to be there. In the wake of such allegations, ELO did put an (innocuous) backward message on their FACE THE MUSIC album. Perhaps they thought this would show how silly the allegations were. Instead, the backward-masking people seized on this as proof that the other "messages" were real. In the latest volley, ELO has named an album after the controversy. In Britain (where the backward-masking issue is viewed as an American eccentricity), the cover of SECRET MESSAGES has a mock warning label to youth about the hidden label. Word of the albums' impending release in the United States caused enough of a furor to chill CBS Records into deleting the cover blurb. The reversed message is easy to find. It's at the beginning of the first song, which is itself called "Secret Messages." You can hear reversed speech when you play the record normally. A voice intones "secret messages" -- forward -- in the middle of the reversed speech, lest anyone dare be so unhip as to not know what's going on. We transferred a new copy of SECRET MESSAGES to reel-to-reel tapes and played it backward. The backward message goes: "WELCOME TO THE BIG SHOW/ WELCOME TO THE BIG SHOW." That's it. "Ya Hozna" Frank Zappa, THEM OR US "Ya Hozna," a six-minute composition on the first record of the THEM OR US double album, is ENTIRELY backward. The albums' inner cover, which includes lyrics for the other songs, says, "backwards vocal -- you figure it out" of this cut. It credits Frank and Moon Zappa, George Duke, and Napoleon Murphy Brock as vocalists. Played forward, "Ya Howza" sounds like a record played backward -- reasonably so. The vocals are prominent and unintelligible. Moon Zappa's voice is curiously recognizable, even in reverse. It is hard to tell whether the music was recorded forward or backward. When "Ya Howza" is played in reverse, you discover that the music is virtually a palindrome -- it sounds about the same forward and backward. The voices are all backward. In some cases they have been modified electronically. Many of the words are muffled. Even after repeated careful listening on both stereo tracks, it is difficult to make out many of the lyrics. It doesn't help that some of the words seem to be stream-of-consciousness nonsense. Some of the unintelligible stuff sounds like opera. Starting at the beginning of the reversed tape -- the end of the forward tape -- the clearer vocals go like this: "I am the heaven, I am the water." This is in a hymnlike register. "You are a lonely little girl./ But your mommy and your daddy hold you." A singsong synthesizer voice. The most interesting part of the lyrics is an intermittently orgasmic rap in Moon Zappa's Valley Girl voice. There are three short monologues: I'm like green! I'm like squat! I'm like soul! Repeat, like soul! I'm like pull, push, Okay, like slow, slow. You're never too old Like slow, like slow, like slow Okay, I like it. All right, faster, faster, Go, do it, do it twice, Yeah, that feels good, I'm looking great, Yeah, fer shure! Like, no way! "No Anchovies, Please" J. Geils Band, LOVE STINKS "No Anchovies, Please" is a novelty song, really a narration with sound effects, about a woman who is kidnapped after eating anchovies. She is taken to a "foreign-speaking" country. The sound effect of the foreign tongue seems reversed. When you do play it in reverse, it becomes: "It doesn't take a genius to know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad." "Darling Nikki" Prince, PURPLE RAIN "Darling Nikki," cited as porn rock before Congress, is about a dominatrix in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine. In part, the complaint was that the album cover (flowers, and Prince on a motorcycle) wasn't explicit enough to warn kids of the suggestive lyrics. Senator Paula Hawkins apparently was not aware of a backward message hidden in "Darling Nikki." The last thirty-five seconds of the song is gibberish. The music changes abruptly and becomes a repeated glottal sound. Then a two-syllable sound is repeated twice, something like "heaven, heaven." Unintelligible speech follows. At the end is a sound reminiscent of rain or bacon frying , and wind sounds. Played backward, the message becomes: Hello, how are you? I'm fine 'cause I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon. It is clearly Prince and the Revolution singing this. The words are clear but the intonation is funny -- the linger on some words. Perhaps this is to make the reversed message you hear playing the record normally a little less conspicuous. This is a weird reversal of the supposed secret message menace. Raunchy forward lyrics conceal a religious secret message. "Judas Kiss" Petra, MORE POWER TO YOU Petra is an obscure group that sings religious songs to a rock beat. As further proof that things have gone full circle, the backward-masking controversy prompted Petra to include a wholesome backward message on their MORE POWER TO YOU album. It is in the transition between two songs, just before "Judas Kiss." Clearly audible gibberish reverses to this (the husky voice a cross between George Beverly Shea and Dee Snider): "What are you looking for the Devil for, when you ought to be looking for the Lord?"

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank