The Devil Wears Headphones: A Brief History of Backmasking


A while back, I was browsing at a favorite used book shop and found a paperback called Backward Masking Unmasked. Written in 1983 by a youth minister named Jacob Aranza, it’s an unintentionally hilarious attempt to expose the alleged backward Satanic messages in rock music.

For example, in the chapter called “Which Way Are The Eagles Flying?” Aranza condemns the southern California group as “occultic” [sic] and as “having had dealings with members of the Satanic church.” He claims their song “Hotel California,” an ode to devil worship, contains this startlingly formal backward message: “Yes, Satan organized his own religion.”

As Aranza denounces subliminal messages that encourage everything from homosexuality to marijuana use, he cites the usual suspects – Zeppelin, Stones, Sabbath – as well as such unlikely ones as Hall & Oates (“They often impersonate women and attempt to come across to their audiences as women”) and the Bee Gees (“Robin Gibb confesses to the hobby of pornographic drawing”).

His book made me curious about the history of not only backmasking, but backwards recorded sound in general.

It began, as many things do, with Thomas Edison. After inventing the phonograph in 1877, old Tom noticed that music in reverse sounded “novel and sweet but altogether different.” In the early 1950s, avant-garde musicians began incorporating that difference into their compositions. They ran reel-to-reel tape recorders backwards, and presto - the unsettling sound of a hundred little Hoovers sucking up a melody and lyric.

A decade later, The Beatles pushed backward sounds into the mainstream with such songs as “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Later, their audio reversals came back to haunt them with the Paul Is Dead rumors. But that’s a topic for another day.

The backmasking-Satanism connection can be traced to a 1913 book by mystic Aleister Crowley, who recommended that those interested in black magic would do well to “learn how to think and speak backwards.” Sixty years later, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page moved into Crowley’s old mansion. To borrow one of Aranza’s pet phrases: “Coincidence?”

As Aranza points out in the “Stairway To Heaven?” chapter, Zep’s classic tune is full of backward messages like: “So here’s to my sweet Satan.” And such words corrupt impressionable minds.

Backmasking on the Brain

Let’s pause here to ask two questions. Can any songwriter actually write lyrics that scan forwards and backwards? And does the brain even comprehend backward messages? No to the first. And despite claims by pseudo-scientists like David John Oates that the subconscious mind can decipher phonetic reversals, there is no proof that it can, or that a person’s behavior would be influenced in any way, if it could.

That said, the brain will search for recognizable patterns in noise or gibberish. A song played backwards offers many possibilities, especially when you’re told what to listen for. As an experiment, I played Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” backwards. As unlikely a song for evil messages as I could think of. I braced myself for Satchmo getting Satanic, but the only line that leapt out from the gibberish was this: “Where’s the sandwich, dear Dolly?” A sly reference to one of his earlier hits? Coincidence?

After a decade of government attempts to legislate against backmasking (remember the PMRC?), the phenomenon peaked in 1990, when a civil action against Judas Priest alleged that they were responsible for the suicide of a teenage fan. Apparently, in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me,” they’d planted a backwards subliminal message of “Do it.” The case was dismissed.

What makes backmasking – especially the Satanic-related stuff - seem quaint today is the plethora of malevolent songs by death metal bands who put their messages front and center. To see what I mean, click around at random on the death metal archive site Yikes.

In tribute to the golden age of backmasking, here are three of Aranza’s top offenders:

Led Zeppelin – “Stairway To Heaven”

The Eagles – “Hotel California”

E.L.O – “Fire On High”

Feel free to weigh in with your own favorite backmasked songs.

Kcor evil gnol.