We’ve all heard the rumour that playing Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven backwards produces satanic messages, or that the Beatles’ music in reverse will tell you that the real Paul McCartney died in 1966. Machinations like these have mostly mystified the real art of musical “backmasking”, which is really just a simple and interesting technique in music production.
Any spoken word in reverse could be construed as saying something it isn’t. That’s just how the brain works. But careful listeners can distinguish between a jumbled mess of reversed phonemes that might happen to sound like real words, and an actual coherent message that appears in reverse in a musical production. While the Beatles certainly did their fair share of backmasking, the “Paul is Dead” conspiracy is little more than the demented intrigue of obsessive Beatles fans, and — sorry folks — Led Zeppelin isn’t channeling Satan in 'Stairway'.
Chances are you can probably “discover” hidden messages in any song reversed. That doesn’t make it a real example of backmasking. Much in the same way that parrots can't actually speak English, a message requires intent. So listen to these 10 real examples of backwards messages and fall no longer for the claptrap claims of backmasking conspiracists. But as is so often the case, the truth is often more bizarre, more belligerent, and even creepier than the alleged fictions, and many come from your favourite artists.
10 Electric Light Orchestra – Fire on High: 0:25
“The music is reversible but time is not. Turn back…turn back…turn back!...turn back!”
Within the first few seconds of ELO’s 1975 album Face the Music it’s clear you’re entering a world of musical witchery. To the learned backmasker, that hideous moaning that swells in around the 25 second mark is a surefire provocative message in reverse. ELO experimented with backmasking quite a bit in their time, but what exactly they meant by “turning back” is, as always, for listeners to decide. Listen to the last 35 seconds below:
9 Boards of Canada – You Could Feel the Sky: 2:14
“A god with hooves, a god with horns.”
Sound wizards Boards of Canada built a career on some of the most bizarre, intoxicating and mysterious electronic music ever conceived. Reversing sound became a reoccurring theme in their early work, from drums to synth melodies to entire compositions appearing backwards in their final productions. Coupled with constant subliminal messaging and abstruse references to cults, philosophy and psychedelia, this subtle satanic allusion is just one dark piece of the group’s enigmatic sophomore album. Listen from 2.55 below:
8 Nelly Furtado – Big Hoops (Bigger the Better): 3:10
“Oh my god, descending to the 13th floor, 14th, the 11th floor, descending to the 12th floor.”
This one’s just baffling. On one hand: Nelly Furtado, really? And on another: What the hell is she talking about? We were skeptical when we first heard about this, but if you listen very, very closely around the 3:10 mark, you can just barely make out some unintelligible singing beneath the main vocal mix. Even in reverse the volume is too low to pick up anything beyond “oh my god” with certainty. But if you get your hands dirty with an a cappella version, you can’t deny the curious elevator spiel. That's at 0.42 here:
7 Darkthrone – As Flittermice as Satans Spys: 5:40
“In the name of God, let the churches burn.”
If it’s a backwards message in Norwegian black metal, you can bet your bones it has to do with the devil and/or church burning. With shrieking vocals, rapid-fire blast beats, and thick lo-fi distortion, Darkthrone’ early music is a textbook example of the black metal sound. It’s beyond us how anyone could ever make out what vocalist Nocturno Culto is saying, but we have a hunch the unreversed lyrics in this 1994 track are no less controversial than the hidden message at the end. You can hear it at the very beginning of the reversed version here:
6 Eminem – Stimulate: 4:00
“I’m not here to save you I’m only here for the ride, so let me entertain you and everything will be fine.”
Fervent Marshall Mathers fans might remember this track on the limited edition soundtrack for the movie 8 Mile. But unless they did a little digging, they probably didn’t know that closing gibberish after the final verse is actually, still, the final verse—a message to the fans, rhymed in reverse, yo.
5 The B-52’s – Detour Thru Your Mind: 4:45
“I buried my parakeet in the backyard. Oh no, you’re playing the record backwards. Watch out, you might ruin your needle.”
Good old B-52’s. You can always count on their kooky quips to lighten up your listening, but this one triples as an admission of vocalist Fred Schneider’s late parakeet, and some good-humoured advice to vinyl enthusiasts. Luckily we’re in the digital age now and you don’t need to hunt down a record player to dig up hidden messages. A moment of silence for the bird. Listen below from around 0.23:
4 Half Man Half Biscuit – Christian Rock Concert: 1:59
“The body of Shane Fenton is in the laundry chute of the New Ambassadors Hotel near Euston Station.”
UK Indie rockers Half Man Half Biscuit are really pulling our chains with this one. Shane Fenton, as far as we can tell, fronted an undiscovered teenage rock band in the early 1960s called Shane Fenton and the Fentones. He did die, but of rheumatic fever at the age of 17. The weird thing is, rather than break up,the band replaced Shane Fenton with one Alvin Stardust who took the stage name Shane Fenton. The new “Shane Fenton” seems to be alive and well, and we doubt the real one is stashed in a laundry chute.
3 Plasmatics – The Damned: 4:10
“Consensus Programming is dangerous to your health. The brainwashed do not know they are being brainwashed.”
Including an edgy reverse message at the end of a song is definitely on the more kosher side of Plasmatic’s repertoire. Fronted by the late “Queen of Shock Rock” Wendy O. Williams, the band’s aggressive anti-establishment crusade included chain sawing guitars, exploding speakers, bashing in television sets with sledgehammers and detonating automobiles on stage while being all-around publicly indecent before their breakup in ’83.
2 Tool – Intension: 0:59
“Work hard…stay in school…listen to your mother…your father is right.”
For a band that conjures themes of free-thinking, philosophical awakening and mysticism, this feels pretty humdrum for a hidden message. But maybe that’s what Tool’s getting at? Simple maxims make for infinite truths, or something? We don’t know. But as the music develops, pay close attention to that creepy ambient noise: The washy swells contain whispers in reverse. You can hear it from 5.58, below:
1 Roger Waters – Perfect Sense part I: 0:14
“Julia, however, in the light and visions of the issues of Stanley, we changed our minds. We have decided to include a backward message. Stanley, for you, and for all the other book burners…”
An excellent story lies behind this message by former bassist, vocalist and songwriter of legendary rock group Pink Floyd. While specifics of the memo vary (some say “burners” is “partners” instead), the consensus seems to be that unlike the others on this list, this mysterious little sequence entails a big “screw you” from one legendary artist to another. The Stanley in question is none other than groundbreaking filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. The story goes that Waters sought permission from Kubrick to sample breathing sounds from his seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Kubrick denied, Waters fired back in true low-key style.