by William Poundstone
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
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
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.
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
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
Styx, PARADISE THEATER
Rumor: According to a mimeographed list of suspect records distributed
by Congressman Dornan, the words "Satan move through our voices" when
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
"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
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.
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
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
"Fire on High"
Electric Light Orchestra, FACE THE MUSIC
Rumor: When played backward, "The music is reversible, but time --
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
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
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
Findings: They are "cranberry sauce." The "sauce"/"Paul" part is
indistinct, but the first syllable sounds a lot more like "cran"
"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
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.
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
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
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.