Is The Devil In Your Earbuds? In 1877, Thomas Edison recorded this popular verse on his new invention, the phonograph: ‘Mary had a little lamb.” When he played the hand-cranked rotating cylinder backwards, it sounded a bit like “Bal eltil a dah yram.”, which was CLEARLY different from the original, he noticed.
No one really capitalized on this idea until the 1950s until studio engineers looking for new sounds recorded music on tape, then reversed the tape and fed it backwards into the player, creating a sound known as the reverse tape effect. An early example of this is heard in the theme song of the British sci-fi series, Doctor Who. The progressive rock band Yes used the technique in the song “Roundabout,” playing the sound of a grand piano backwards. But the group that really popularized it was the Beatles.
In “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the sounds of Ringo Starr’s drums and cymbals are reversed to create a swooshing sound. The song “Tomorrow Never Knows” contains a reverse guitar solo by John Lennon and Lennon’s own voice played backwards, which is a variation of the reverse tape effect called backmasking. The Beatles used it frequently on Revolver and other albums to create unusual as well as, arguably, beautiful sounds.
Everything was fine and dandy until one day in 1969 when Russ Gibb, a DJ in Detroit, received a call from a college student who heard a rumor that Beatle Paul McCartney was dead and that the song “Revolution Number 9” played backwards contained a message confirming it.
Gibb played the song backwards on a turntable and claimed he heard a voice saying, “Turn me on, dead man.” He then played the song “I’m So tired” backwards and thought he heard someone say, “Paul is a dead man, miss him,” thus adding to the rumor that McCartney was in fact dead, which he wasnt.
And so the search for backmasking in other songs entered a new era with listeners, propagated by the vague trickery of musicians. Backmasking sleuths found that some artists even used the techniques to avoid censorship by reversing four-letter words and profanities. More recently, The Fugees, for example, backmasked offensive lyrics on their album, The Score, and Britney Spears did it in the song “Till The World Ends.” Frank Zappa was censored (which is no easy task) for using the F-ing-word in the song Mother People, so he reversed the entire song and put it on another album under the name Hot Poop. Ironically, the censors also censored the F-ing-word in reverse.
The search for backmasked lyrics took a different turn in the early 1980s when religious broadcasters tried it. And when religious broadcasters go looking for hidden messages, whose voice do they always seem to hear? You guessed it: Satan.
Or at least ads endorsing the Prince of Darkness. In 1982, the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Paul Crouch claimed he played Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven backwards and heard a voice say “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan” and “He will give those with him 666.” The band’s record company denied any satanic messages but that didn’t stop the turntables from spinning even more.
The Eagles Hotel California reportedly contains the words “Satan, oh he came, and organized his own religion.” when played backwards. And in Deep Purple’s song, Black Knight, they thought they heard, “Oh demon that’s leading from hell, we believe.”
Other groups suspected of satanic backmasking include Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, Styx, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Starship, AC/DC and Rush, to name but just a few.
The accusation of backmasking however is not all fun and games. In 1990, the band Judas Priest was sued for allegedly causing two young men to commit suicide by backmasking messages, including the words “Do it” in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me.” The case was eventually dismissed.
Not all backmasked messages are satanic. In Another One Bites The Dust, Queen was accused of hiding this message: “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.”
And back to the fun and games, play Weird Al Yankovic’s “I Love Larry” backwards and you can hear him say, “Wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands.”