Did Any Musicians Actually Put Backwards Satanic Messages in Their Songs?
These are the disturbing words which appear when the 1971 Led Zeppelin masterpiece “Stairway to Heaven” is played in reverse – or so it is widely claimed. In the 1970s and 80s, a moral panic spread among American Evangelical groups about rock bands hiding satanic and other subversive messages in their music. These messages, they claimed, were subliminally inserted by recording them backwards, a technique known as back masking. This panic reached such hysterical heights that churches across the United States held record smashing and burnings, several bands found themselves in court over corrupting lyrics, and the legend of backwards satanic messages became an indelible part of music culture. But did any artists actually hide backwards messages in their music? Well, yes, but not for the reasons their Evangelical critics believed.
The practice of back masking is as old as sound recording itself. Shortly after patenting the phonograph in 1877, Thomas Edison experimented with playing recorded music backwards, noting that the result sounded “novel and sweet but altogether different.” The first association between back masking and satanism came in 1913, when British occultist Aleister Crowley, in his treatise Magick: Book 4, recommended that those interested in black magic listen to phonographic records in reverse in order to learn how to think and speak backwards. Coincidentally, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page would later purchase Crowley’s former mansion, giving plenty of ammunition to the evangelical satanic panic crowd. Over the following decades, avant-garde composers like John Cage and Edgard Varèse experimented with reversed recordings to create bold new soundscapes, a technique which was later adopted by various rock ‘n’ roll groups starting in the 1960s – including the Beatles. According to John Lennon, after coming home from a party in 1966, he accidentally played a take of the song “Rain” backwards. Lennon, a fan of avant-garde music, was so enamoured by the sound that he included a reversed version of the song’s opening line in the fadeout. This is widely considered the first use of back masking in a pop song. The technique was also heavily featured in the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” from the band’s 1966 album Revolver, as well as throughout 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Unfortunately for the Fab Four, this experimentation would lead to the first great back masking controversy, as the technique formed a cornerstone of the infamous “Paul is Dead” urban legend. For the uninitiated, “Paul is Dead” was a popular conspiracy theory started in 1967 which held that Paul McCartney had in fact died in a car crash on November 9, 1966, and was subsequently replaced with an impostor. The theory further held that the remaining Beatles attempted to reveal Paul’s fate by planting subtle clues in their songs and album covers. Among these supposed clues are the lyric“the walrus was Paul” from the 1968 song “Glass Onion” and the cover of 1969’s Abbey Road, on which Paul is barefoot and walking out of step with the rest of the band. But the most definitive clues, the theorists claimed, were revealed by playing Beatles records backwards – particularly the 1968 White Album. For example, “Revolution 9” supposedly contains the message “turn me on, dead man,” while “I’m so Tired” yields “Paul is dead. Miss him, miss him.” Of course, the entire “Paul is Dead” rumour is complete nonsense, and while the Beatles did pioneer the use of back masking, none of the aforementioned examples were intentional uses of the technique. Rather, these supposed “secret messages” are merely cases of pareidolia – the tendency of the human brain to perceive patterns in otherwise random data. Other famous examples pareidolia include the “face” on the surface of Mars seen by the Viking 1 spacecraft in 1976, the face of the Devil seen in the smoke billowing from the World Trade Centre on 9/11, and the endless reports of Jesus and the Virgin Mary appearing on slices of toast and other objects. Research has also shown the strong influence of the observer-expectancy effect, as few listeners will perceive the supposed hidden messages unless they have already been primed to do so. Nonetheless, the fact that the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and other musicians did intentionally use back masking for fun or artistic effect was enough to convince moral guardians that the technique could also be used for nefarious purposes.
The idea of back-masked satanic messages being intentionally hidden in rock music first emerged among American Evangelical Christian groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as part of a nation-wide hysteria known as the “Satanic Panic.” This panic was kicked off by the 1972 publication of The Satan Seller by author Mike Warnke, who claimed to have been inducted into and sexually abused by a satanic cult as a child. This was followed in 1980 by Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith, who made similar accusations of ritual abuse. While both accounts were later exposed as frauds, they nonetheless birthed a widespread conspiracy theory that the Church of Satan and other occult groups were secretly controlling the government and the media and abducting or breeding thousands of children for use in orgies, human sacrifices, and other rituals. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, nearly 12,000 cases of satanic ritual abuse were reported nationwide, not one of which could be substantiated by the police.
According to Evangelical groups, the Church of Satan spread its influence by hiding subliminal messages in popular media, particularly rock music – long considered by Christian fundamentalists to be the “Devil’s music.” As claimed by evangelical figures like self-described neuroscientist William Yarroll,
such messages could bypass conscious perception entirely, directly penetrating the unconscious mind where they could be unknowingly accepted by the listener. Among the first to popularize this notion was Christian radio host Michael Mills, who in 1981 targeted the aforementioned Stairway to Heaven for its allegedly satanic content. Other leading Evangelical pastors soon followed suit, including Paul Crouch, whose Trinity Broadcasting Network did much to spread the Satanic Panic. In 1982 pastor Gary Greenwald began holding public lectures on the dangers of back masking, while churches in North Carolina, Minnesota, and other states held public record smashing and burnings. The definitive authority on back masking, however, was Jacob Aranza, whose 1983 book Backward Masking Unmasked claimed that effectively every rock song ever recorded contained some kind of hidden satanic message. The book was widely read in churches across the country as part of a crusade to stop the youth of America from listening to rock music.
In addition to Led Zeppelin, Aranza’s book accused dozens of other acts of hiding back-masked satanic messages in their music. One popular culprit was The Eagles’ 1976 classic “Hotel California”, which when played backwards allegedly reveals the message:
“Satan had ‘em; he organized his own religion. Yeah, Satan hears this, he had me believe in him.”
Similarly, Cheap Trick’s 1979 song “Gonna Raise Hell” yields the message“Satan holds the keys to the lock,” Styx’s 1981 “Snowblind” the words“Satan moves through our voices”, and the aptly-titled “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” from Electric Light Orchestra’s 1974 album Eldorado the slightly more cryptic:
“He is the nasty one. Christ you’re infernal. It is said we’re dead men. Everyone who has the mark will live.”
Not all back masked messages were in praise of the Price of Darkness. For instance, Queen’s 1980 hit “Another One Bites the Dust” allegedly conceals the message “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” Other bands accused of hiding back masked messages included Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Slayer, and Mötorhead.
Inevitably, many artists responded to these ludicrous allegations by deliberately hiding humorous messages in their songs. For example, the song “Heavy Metal Poisoning” from Styx’s 1983 album Kilroy Was Here, contains the back masked Latin phrases Annuit Coeptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum. Translating as “Providence Favours Our Undertakings” and “New World Order,” both mottoes have appeared on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States since 1782 and are popularly associated with conspiracy theories involving the Freemasons and the Illuminati. More on-the-nose is ELO’s 1975 song “Fire on High”, which when played backwards yields the words:
“The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.”
A similarly mocking message appears at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Empty Spaces” from their 1980 album The Wall:
“Congratulations, you have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont.”
…while the song “I Remember Larry” from Weird Al Yankovic’s 1996 album Bad Hair Day contains the gem “Wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands”.
Yet despite the absurd and baseless nature of the back-masking panic, it was taken seriously enough by the authorities that in 1990 the band Judas Priest found themselves in court over supposedly harmful subliminal messages in their music. On December 23, 1985, 18-year-old Raymond Belknap and 20-year-old James Vance of Reno, Nevada ended a night of drinking, smoking marijuana, and listening to Judas Priest’s album Stained Class by heading to a local playground and shooting themselves. Vance, who survived his suicide attempt, went on to claim that he and Belknap had been driven to kill themselves by lyrics such as “let’s be dead” and “do it” in the song “Better by You, Better Than Me.” Earlier that year, a similar suit was filed against Ozzy Osborne and CBS Records over Osborne’s song “Suicide Solution,” whose lyrics had allegedly driven 19-year-old California resident John Daniel McCollum to kill himself. But while that case was ultimately dismissed, absolving Osborne of all responsibility for McCollum’s death, Jerry Whitehead, the judge presiding over the Judas Priest lawsuit, ruled that subliminal messages did not count as speech and were thus not protected under the First Amendment. And so, five years after Belknap and Vance’s attempted suicide, the case went to trial.
Testifying in their own defence, the band attempted to demonstrate that any supposed subliminal messages in their work were completely accidental, with Guitarist Glenn Tipton later recalling:
“It’s a fact that if you play speech backwards, some of it will seem to make sense. So, I asked permission to go into a studio and find some perfectly innocent phonetic flukes. The lawyers didn’t want to do it, but I insisted. We bought a copy of the Stained Class album in a local record shop, went into the studio, recorded it to tape, turned it over and played it backwards. Right away we found ‘Hey ma, my chair’s broken’ and ‘Give me a peppermint’ and ‘Help me keep a job.’”
Bill Curbishley, Judas Priest’s manager, also questioned what motivation the band could have for including harmful subliminal messages, stating:
“If we were going to do that, I’d be saying, ‘Buy seven copies,’ not telling a couple of screwed-up kids to kill themselves.”
Meanwhile, the prosecution was firmly convinced that Judas Priest and other bands deliberately placed harmful messages in their music and that these messages were capable of subconsciously influencing the thoughts of vulnerable youths. As the attorney for the Belknap family stated during the trial:
“I believe that alcohol and heavy-metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized. Judas Priest and CBS pander this stuff to alienated teenagers. The members of the chess club, the math and science majors don’t listen to this stuff. It’s the dropouts, the drug and alcohol abusers. So, our argument is you have a duty to be more cautious when you’re dealing with a population susceptible to this stuff.”
Much of the prosecution’s case was based on the theories of David John Oates, who claimed that when people speak, they subconsciously produce hidden back masked messages that, when played in reverse, reveal their innermost thoughts. Oates’ theories, however, have been roundly dismissed as pseudoscience, and none of the prosecution’s expert witnesses were able to provide convincing evidence for subliminal messaging and subconscious manipulation. Nonetheless, the bizarre trial dragged on for nearly a month, with singer Rob Halford later recalling:
“We had to sit in this courtroom in Reno for six weeks. It was like Disney World. We had no idea what a subliminal message was – it was just a combination of some weird guitar sounds, and the way I exhaled between lyrics. I had to sing ‘Better by You, Better Than Me’ in court, a cappella. I think that was when the judge thought, ‘What am I doing here? No band goes out of its way to kill its fans.’”
Indeed, Judge Whitehead ultimately dismissed the case, ruling that:
“The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude. … The strongest evidence presented at the trial showed no behavioral effects other than anxiety, distress or tension.”
But while this verdict was a victory for Judas Priest and musicians everywhere, it still left a dark cloud over the music industry, with Rob Halford lamenting:
“It tore us up emotionally hearing someone say to the judge and the cameras that this is a band that creates music that kills young people. We accept that some people don’t like heavy metal, but we can’t let them convince us that it’s negative and destructive. Heavy metal is a friend that gives people great pleasure and enjoyment and helps them through hard times.”
In the end, the advent of the Compact Disc and the increased difficulty of playing songs in reverse led to the decline of back masking and the controversy surrounding the practice. Yet purported examples of hidden messages in music continue to pop up from time to time. For example, the 2009 Justin Bieber hit “Baby” allegedly contains the following message:
“Acknowledge my lord, lord. He’s here. I’m the evil one. Satanic new world, new world, new world. I want it. Let me in, let me in, yay war. Let me in, let me in, let me in, yay war.”
While playing Beyoncé’s 2008 song “Sweet Dreams” backwards purportedly reveals:
“Hail Satan, hail Satan. I am worthy. I am worthy. Satan. I am sorry for the end of your sins ‘cause they’re going to live in hell, ‘cause they’re going to live in hell. Hail Satan. I am worthy. I am worthy. I follow Lucifer. Hail Satan, ‘cause they’re going to live in Hell. I follow Lucifer.”
But just like in the 1970s and 1980s, these supposedly satanic rants are nothing more than strange coincidences and in some cases a lot of generous interpretation of what one is hearing. Or as recent research has revealed, it is nearly impossible to write lyrics which are comprehensible when played both forwards and backwards – except by complete accident or through laborious trial and error. Nor is there any evidence that such reversed messages can be consciously or unconsciously understood – let alone influence the listener’s behaviour. In the end, back masking remains what it has always been: a mere case of pareidolia – of hearing what we want to hear. But if at this point you are still convinced that hidden nefarious messages are everywhere, then all I can say is:
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Smith, Rob, Unmasking Backmasking: Classic Rockers’ ‘Secret’ Messages, Ultimate Classic Rock, July 13, 2018, https://ultimateclassicrock.com/backward-message-songs/
Giles, Jeff, Nick Mason Discusses the Secret Message in Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall,’ Ultimate Classic Rock, May 12, 2014, https://ultimateclassicrock.com/nick-mason-pink-floyd-secret-message/
Giles, Jeff, When Parents Blames Judas Priest’s Lyrics After Two Fans Attempted Suicide, Ultimate Classic Rock, December 23, 2015, https://ultimateclassicrock.com/judas-priest-suicide/
6 Satanic Songs That Aren’t – the Backmasking Panic! Ledger Note, August 18, 2021, https://ledgernote.com/blog/interesting/backmasking-satanic-songs/
Partridge, Emma, Backward Masking: a Cultural Phenomenon, The Signal, October 22, 2019, https://georgiastatesignal.com/backward-masking-a-cultural-phenomenon/
C, Andrew, Top 10 Famous Cases of Backmasking, ListVerse, August 28, 2011, https://listverse.com/2011/08/28/top-10-famous-cases-of-backmasking/
Demain, Bill, The Devil Wears Headphones: a Brief History of Backmasking, Mental Floss, August 18, 2011, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/28548/devil-wears-headphones-brief-history-backmasking
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