If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the hysteria propagated by religious types about backmasking, the alleged hiding of hidden satanic and sexual messages in rock songs. While plenty of artists ranging from the Beatles to Pink Floyd deliberately placed backward messages on their records, the hysterical evangelicals were positive that dozens, hundreds of songs contained subliminal messages designed to corrupt the morals and spirituality of the youth.
And yes, if you listened closely with an agenda in mind, you could hear…something.
But these weren’t deliberately placed messages. The hystericals exploited something called “reverse phonetics” where the brain tries to make sense of gibberish by looking for patterns. With the right about of suggestion, you can hear almost anything.
Salon takes up the “Stairway to Heaven” thread.
The darkest supernatural myth about Zeppelin’s most mythic song is that if you play the recording backwards, you will hear Satanic messages encoded in Plant’s vocals. The idea that some rock records contain “backmasked” messages goes back to the Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” which was rumored to contain the reversed announcement that “Paul’s a dead man.” As far as I can tell, Christian anti-rock crusaders got into the act in 1981, when a Michigan minister named Michael Mills hit Christian radio with the news that phrases like “master Satan,” “serve me,” and “there’s no escaping it” were hidden in the grooves of the Zeppelin hit. Noting wryly that words “certainly do have two meanings,” Mills argued on one program that the “subconscious mind” could hear these phrases, which is why sinful rock musicians put them there in the first place. Soon backmasking became the Satanic panic du jour, giving paranoid Christians technological proof that rock bands like Queen, Kiss, and Styx (!) did indeed play the devil’s music. While most people, Christian or otherwise, found all this rather silly, these fears did reflect more pervasive fears that the media had become a subliminal master of puppets—fears that would themselves come to inspire some 1980s metal.
In retrospect, what stands out most in the backmasking controversy is the marvelous image of all these preachers screwing around with turntables. Though one doubts that Minister Mills was chillin’ with Grandmaster Flash or DJ Kool Herc, rap musicians and Christian evangelicals both recognized that popular music is a material inscription, one that can be physically manipulated in order to open up new vectors of sense and expression. For both evangelicals and rap DJs, the vinyl LP was not a transparent vehicle of an originally live performance, but a source of musical meaning itself, a material site of potential codes, messages, and deformations of time. Alongside the more kinetic and rhythmic innovations introduced by scratch artists like DJ Grand Wizard Theodore, we must also speak of a “Christian turntablism”: slow, profoundly unfunky, obsessed with linguistic “messages.” Some evangelical TV broadcasts from the early 80s even include top-down shots of the minister’s DJ decks so that viewers can admire the technique of squeezing sense from sound. However, while rap and all the sampled music that follows it treats the vinyl LP as an open form capable of multiple meanings and uses, Christian turntablists remained literalists, convinced that they were revealing a single “fundamental” message intentionally implanted in the grooves by a diabolical author. Unfortunately, when it came to “Stairway to Heaven,” these DJs for Jesus could not agree on the exact wording of Led Zeppelin’s insidious messages. Once again, ambiguity trumps.