by William Poundstone 1983 Two mentalities are at work here 1960s rock fans and 1980s fund

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by William Poundstone 1983 Two mentalities are at work here: 1960s rock fans and 1980s fundamentalist Christians. The idea of phonographically concealed messages dates from the Paul McCartney death scare of 1969. For hard-core types, the secret-message rumors never really died. Avid rock fans have auditioned ever album release since the late 1960s for hidden nuances. Backward messages, barely audible messages, and messages on one stereo track only have been alleged. At the other end of the sociosensual spectrum, fundamentalist Christians have gotten into the act. TV programs such as PRAISE THE LORD and THE 700 CLUB have propagated rumors of a satanic plot in the recording industry, no less, in which various albums conceal "backward-masked" demonic murmurings. If THAT sounds too spacey to be taken seriously, consider that it was the fundamentalist groups who were behind House Resolution 6363, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Robert K. Dornan (R., Calif.) in 1982 to label all suspect records: "WARNING: THIS RECORD CONTAINS BACKWARD MASKING THAT MAKES A VERBAL STATEMENT WHICH IS AUDIBLE WHEN THIS RECORD IS PLAYED BACKWARD AND WHICH MAY BE PERCEPTIBLE AT A SUBLIMINAL LEVEL WHEN THIS RECORD IS PLAYED FORWARD." In February 1983, the Arkansas State Senate passed a similar record- labeling bill by a vote of 86 to 0. Contributing to the quasi-occult status of these rumors is the difficulty of checking them out on home audio equipment. You pretty much have to take someone else's word for it, or dismiss the rumors out of hand. From a technical standpoint, there are four simple ways to conceal a verbal message on a recording. The most obvious is to record the message at a very low volume. The message may then be recovered by turning the volume up while playing the record or tape. If the message is faint enough, though, noise levels of home equipment may garble it. If the accompanying music or lyrics are loud enough, or if the message itself is indistinct or electronically modified, it may be hard to hear on any equipment. A second gimmick is to record a message on one stereo track only. Records and tapes have two independent recordings, of course, normally played simultaneously for stereo effect. On a record, each stereo track occupies on one side of the V-shaped groove for the needle. On a tape, the tracks are recorded in parallel lanes of the magnetic material. The two tracks are called "right" and "left" after the stereo speakers they will play on. Otherwise, the tracks are interchangeable -- the sound mixer can put anything he or she wants on each track. A message on one track can be masked by simultaneous loud music or lyrics on the opposite track. With normal stereo balance (or mono equipment) the loud track drowns out the message track. At home, single-track messages can be recovered by adjusting the stereo balance so that only the desired track plays. Sometimes this trick also makes indistinct words clearer. Even if the words are not exclusively on one track, they may happen to be more audible on one track. A message could be recorded at a speed different from the rest of the record. Then the record would have to be played faster or slower than usual to recover the message. Unless the message was at one of the standard speeds (say, 45 rpm on a 33 1/3 rpm record), it could not be played normally on home equipment. The fourth and most commonly alleged trick is to record a verbal message backward. Reversed speech has several unexpected features. One is that syllables are not a constant in the reversal process. A one-syllable word can have two or three syllables when played backward. Thus "number nine" in the Beatles' REVOLUTION 9 reverses to "Turn me on, dead man" (or something like it), a jump from three to five syllables. There is no simple way to predict what a word or phrase will sound like reversed. Obviously, you can't just reverse the letters. Reversed messages are difficult to recover at home. Record turntables are not built to go backwards. Some have a neutral setting, in which the pickup and amplifier remain active and you can turn the record backward by hand. But hardly anyone has a stead enough hand to produce satisfactory results. With patience, it is possible to reverse a cassette recording. Transfer the music from the original record or tape onto a blank tape cassette. Place the cassette flat on a table. Draw our the part of the tape with the suspected message and snip it off at both ends. Hold the tape segment horizontally. Rotate it 180 degrees, keep it horizontal at all times. This turns the tape end for end. Splice the reversed tape segment back onto the two loose ends of the cassette with strong adhesive tape. Reel the tape back inside the cassette. The sliced segment will play backward on an ordinary cassette player. I rented a recording studio to test the secret-message rumors. New copiies of the records in question were transcribed on a quarter-inch master tape. Where rumor alleged that a single stereo track contained a message, right and left stereo tracks were transcribed separately. Records with alleged inaudible messages were treated similarly. To test claims of reversed messages, recordings on the master tape were edited out and spliced in backward. Twenty cuts or portions of cuts from sixteen albums were tested. "Another One Bites the Dust" Queen, THE GAME Rumor: When played backward, the lyrics say, "It's fun to smoke marijuana." Findings: There is something that sounds like "It's fun to smoke marijuana" in the reversed music. It is repeated over and over. It might be rendered no less faithfully, however, as "sfun to scout mare wanna." This "message" is the reversal of the song title, which is repeated as a line in the song. Let's make a distinction between engineered and phonetic reversals. When an artist records a verbal statement, reverses it by turning the tape end for end, mixes the reversed statement onto a master tape, and has records and tapes produced from the master, that is an engineered reversal. When the phonetic properties of song lyrics are such that they can be reversed to sound like something else, that is a phonetic reversal. "It's fun to smoke marijuna" is clearly a phonetic reversal. The lyrics are perfectly plain played forward ("Another one bites the dust"), no so plain played backward ("sfun to scout mare wanna"). With an engineered reversal, the opposite should hold true: gibberish forward, clear as a bell backward. Some are prepared to believe that phonetic reversals are just as intentional as engineered reversals -- that the songwriter painstakinginly planned the phonetic double-entendre. In the absence of confirming evidence, that just doesn't wash. It's too easy to find coincidences. If, for example, the letters of the alphabet are recited in conventional fashion (Ay, Bee, Cee, etc.) and reversed, at least five sound like English language words. D reverses to "eden," F becomes "pray," S becomes "say," V becomes "even," and Z becomes "easy." "It's fun to smoke marijuana" is likewise a coincidence. "A Child is Coming" Jefferson Starship, BLOWS AGAINST THE EMPIRE Rumor: When played backward, "son of Satan." Findings: Another phonetic coincidence. The repeated "It's getting better" reverses to an iffy "son of Satan," the "of" drawn out and the "Satan" strongly accented on the first syllable. "Eldorado" Electric Light Orchestra, ELDORADO Rumor: When played backward, "He is the nasty one/ Christ, you're infernal/ It is said we're dead men/ Everyone who has the mark will live." Findings: Coincidence. The supposed message lurks around the line "On a voyage of no return to see." Reversed, this passage becomes the expected syllable salad -- no one hearing it would describe it as anything but reversed music. Only if you listen while reading along with what you're supposed to hear will you get anything. The rumored version of the message is somewhat fudged. The passage sounds more like "He's to nasty one/ Christ you are, Christ, you're fernal/ There wiss uh, we're dead men..." There is no "in" in what is taken to be "infernal." The line that is supposed to be "Everyone who has the mark will live" isn't even close, though the syllable count is right. "Shoo Be Doo" The Cars, CANDY-O Rumor: When played backward, the word "Satan" repeated approximately eleven times. Findings: Coincidence. The rumor refers to the reversal of the "Shoo be doo, shoo be doo, shoo be doo..." near the end of the song. Given the mysterious logic of reversed phonemes, these three-syllable units can be hard as a repeated two-syllable word. The word sounds a little like "Satan." "Snowblind" Styx, PARADISE THEATER Rumor: According to a mimeographed list of suspect records distributed by Congressman Dornan, the words "Satan move through our voices" when played backwards. Findings: Negative. Despite repeated listenings, it was not even possible to identify the part of the reversed track that Dornan et al. are talking about. "Stairway to Heaven" Led Zeppelin, untitled, a.k.a. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN Rumor: In reverse, "I live for Satan... The Lord turns me off... There's no escaping it... Here's to my sweet Satan... There's power in Satan... He will give you 666." Findings: Coincidence. If you listen very carefully to the "And it makes me wonder" lines in reverse, you'll hear something approaching "There's no escaping it." A better description is "There's no escape do." Knock of the last syllable, and you have "There's no escape," a complete, intelligible sentence in reverse. It's there, all right, but it's not an unlikely enough coincidence to -- well, make you wonder. The "Satan" in "I live for Satan" is good and clear. The "I live for" part isn't. The other alleged lines are unremarkable. All are phonetic reversals of the entirely lucid forward lyrics and obviously just accidents. "When Electricity Came to Arkansas" Black Oak Arkansas, BLACK OAK ARKANSAS and RONCH AND ROLL Rumor: In reverse, "Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan. He is God. He is God." Findings: The BLACK OAK ARKANSAS cut was reversed. Again, pairs of reversed syllables are being freely interpreted as "Satan." "He is God" was not identifiable. "Rain" The Beatles, HEY JUDE Rumor: Unintelligible lyrics at the end are reversed. Findings: A true engineered reversal and not really a secret. "Rain" seems to have been the first popular recording to incorporate an obviously reversed lyric. The story is that John Lennon accidentally spliced the last part of the song in backward and liked the effect. When reversed, the strange-sounding vocals at the end become intelligible as a reprise starting with the drawn-out word "sunshine." The reversal is less apparent to the casual listener than it might be because the accompanying music is not reversed. The ending fits in smoothly with the rest of the song, the vocals suggesting a foreign language. "Fire on High" Electric Light Orchestra, FACE THE MUSIC Rumor: When played backward, "The music is reversible, but time -- turn back!" Findings: "Fire on High" is instrumental. About twenty-six seconds into the music, scrambled speech is heard. It is mostly louder than the accompanying music and begins with a two-syllable unit repeated several times. The seeming speech lasts for about fourteen seconds. Reversing the music confirms that there is a true, engineered message. In reverse, a voice (Jeff Lynne's?) says, "The music is reversible, but time -- turn back! Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!" All the words are clear and unambiguous. Anyone comparing this to the alleged reversal on ELO's "Eldorado" will have no trouble telling which is genuine. "Goodbye Blue Sky" Pink Floyd, THE WALL Rumor: In reverse, "You have discovered the secret message." Findings: The "secret message" is at the very end of the instrumental passage following the "Goodbye Blue Sky" vocals. It comes just before the words "What shall we do" at the start of the song that is identified as "Empty Spaces" on the record label and as "What shall we do now?" on the record sleeve. Played forward, the message is less apparent than the FACE THE MUSIC reversal: A reasonably attentive listener might play THE WALL through and not catch it. It suggests speech not quite close enough to be overheard. In context this is not unusual because the "Goodbye Blue Sky" instrumental passage includes "airport noises" and other sound effects. A loud climax in the music further masks the unintelligible voice. When played backward, the voice (Roger Waters?) plainly intones, "Congratulations, you have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to old Pink, care of the funny farm..." As the voice fades out, there may be another word -- perhaps "Chalfonte or "Chelsea" -- after "funny farm." "Heavy Metal Poisoning" Styx, KILROY WAS HERE Rumor: A red sticker on the KILROY WAS HERE cover warns, "By order of the Majority for Musical Morality, this album contains secret backward messages..." Findings: This is a case of second-generation backward-masking. Styx' PARADISE THEATER did not contain a backward message, though a lot of people said it did. So Styx has included a sure enough backward message on KILROY WAS HERE. It is at the very beginning of "Heavy Metal Poisoning." The reversed speech last about three seconds. There is no musical background. The words reverse to "Annuit coeptis. Novus ordo seclorum." This is the Latin motto encircling the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill. The usual translation: "God has favored our undertakings. A new order of the ages." The cover sticker's "Majority for Musical Morality" is a fictitious Falwellesque group in the KILROY WAS HERE video. Although the sticker suggests a plurality of "messages," only one was found. Space between "I'm So Tired" and "Blackbird" The Beatles, untitled, a.k.a. THE WHITE ALBUM Rumor: A reversed message. At the time of the Paul-is-dead stories, the segue from "I'm So Tired" to "Blackbird" was offered as evidence. It was held to contain John Lennon's voice, reveresed, saying "Paul is dead, miss him, miss him, miss him." That interpretation seems unlikely now, but there is a mysterious low muttering between the songs. Findings: The mumbling is actually just to the "I'm So Tired" side of the shiny "space" between cuts on the record. Each of the stereo tracks was recorded separately, twice, and a copy of each track was reversed. This produced four versions of the two-second passage: right forward, left forward, right reversed, and left reversed. All were equally unintelligible. It was not even apparent whether the voice is forward or reversed. Nor could John Lennon be identified as the speaker. There are nine or ten syllables. The first six (when played forward) are a two-syllable unit repeated three times. There is little or no difference betwen the stereo tracks. Any claimed interpretation of the sounds seems doubtful. "Strawberry Fields Forever" The Beatles, MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR Rumor: It was, of course, claimed that John Lennon says "I buried Paul" at the end. (It's forward, at the very end after the music fades to complete silence, returns, and starts to fade out again.) But Lennon told ROLLING STONE that the words are "cranberry sauce." Findings: They are "cranberry sauce." The "sauce"/"Paul" part is indistinct, but the first syllable sounds a lot more like "cran" than "I." "Baby You're a Rich Man" The Beatles, MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR Rumor: On one of the tracks the line "Baby you're a rich man too" is sung as "Baby you're a rich fag Jew," a dig at Brian Epstein. Or some think it's "rich fat Jew" and claim it as evidence of Beatle anti-Semitism. Findings: Negative. The two stereo tracks are nearly identical. It's always possible to hear words as similar-sounding words, but basically, the lyrics jibe with the published version. "Revolution 9" The Beatles, untitled, a.k.a. THE WHITE ALBUM Rumor: Various reversed and/or one-track speech. The reversal of "Number nine" to "Turn me on, dead man" has pretty much been discounted as coincidence (though it appears on Congressman Dornan's list). Findings: Distinction between lyrics and any hidden message blurs on "Revolution 9." The eight-minute cut is a montage of sounds collected by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It includes discordant music, radio broadcasts, sirens, applause, gunfights, sports cheers, the crackling of a fire, screams, a baby gurgling, a choir singing, and much that cannot be identified. For this investigation, "Revolution 9" was transcribed four times, twice on each stereo channel. One copy of each of the tracks was reversed. The four resulting versions were compared with each other and against the original two-channel version. "Revolution 9" contains a lot of talking. Played in stereo, forward, the longest stretch of understandable speech is probably an announcer saying, "...every one of them knew that as time went by they'd get a little bit older and a little bit slower..." One believable instance of reversed speech occurs: someone saying "Let me out! Let me out!" (once held to represent McCartney in his totaled Aston-Martin). Two iffy reversals occur on the backward recording of the right stereo track:"She used to be assistant" and "There were two men..." Neither is clear enough or long enough to be convincing. Some of the music, including the recurring theme, sounds more natural in reverse. "Turn me on, dead man" is a typical phonetic reversal. The forward "number nine" (repeated throughout the cut) is clear; the reversal is slurred -- something like "turn me on dedmun." It has been claimed that "number nine" must be pronounced with a British accent or with some careful inflection in order to reverse to "Turn me on, dead man." This seems not to be so. As an experiment, three American-accent renderings of "number nine" were reversed. All sound about as much like "Turn me on, dead man" as the record did. Like the other phonetic reversals, "Turn me on, dead man" must be considered a coincidence. Much of "Revolution 9" is on one stereo track only. Near the end a voice says "A fine natural imbalance...the Watusi...the twist...Eldorado...Eldorado." "A fine natural imbalance" is on the right track only, though the words that follow are in stereo. One of the longer bits of speech -- "Who could tell what he was saying? His voice was low and his [unintelligible] was high and his eyes were low" -- is clear on the left track, a bare whisper on the right. There is a stereophonically concealed "secret message" on "Revolution 9." The words are on the right track. They begin about four minutes, fifty-eight seconds into the cut and run for about twenty-two seconds. They are not likely to be noticed in stereo because of the much louder left track. The sound of applause begins on the left track at about five minutes, one second into the cut. Deafening noises -- the clapping, sirens, music -- continue on the left track until five minutes, forty seconds. It may or may not have been Lennon's and Ono's intention to conceal the spoken passage. Given the haphazard quality of "Revolution 9," the concealment may have been accidental. To recover the passage, the left track must be switched off. The right track can then be heard to contain a sound like a stopwatch ticking, behind these words: So the wife called, and we better go to see a surgeon....[A SCREAM MUFFLES A LINE THAT SOUNDS LIKE Well, what with the prices, the prices have snowballed, no wonder it's closed.] ...So any and all, we went to see the dentist instead, who gave him a pair of teeth, which wasn't any good at all. So instead of that he joined the bloody navy and went to sea. by William Poundstone 1986 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 sound. 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 messages. 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 backward.) 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. "Secret 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." That's it. "Ya Hozna" 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 short monologues: 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." "Darling Nikki" 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. "Judas Kiss" 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?"


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