by William Poundstone
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
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
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
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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?"