“Here’s to my sweet Satan. I sing because I live with Satan. He will give those with him 666. There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”
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.