Simon Whistler of Today I Found Out took a look at claims that musicians inserted subversive messages in songs that revealed themselves when played backward. This practice of hiding such messages is known as backmasking.
The Beatles were among the first to actually utilize back-masking in their songs.
According to John Lennon, after coming home from a party in 1966, he accidentally played a take of the song “Rain” backwards. Lennon … was so enamored by the sound that he included a reversed version of the song’s opening line in the fade out. This is widely considered to be the first use of back basking in a pop song.
Unfortunately, Lennon’s use of backmasking backfired a bit with the promulgation of the widely-spread “Paul is Dead” rumor.
Unfortunately for the Fab 4 this experimentation would lead to the first great back-masking controversy as the technique formed a cornerstone at the infamous Paul is Dead urban legend.
This question again came to light in 1971 when the iconic Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” was claimed to have been made with a hidden message to Satan when the record was played backward. Although experts account for many of these interpretations as the human brain searching for something recognizable, the so-called “satanic-panic” took shape around the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.
According to evangelical groups, the Church of Satan spread its influence by hiding subliminal messages in popular media, particularly rock music, long considered by christian fundamentalists to be the devil’s music as claimed by Evangelical figures…such messages could bypass conscious perception entirely directly penetrating the unconscious mind where they could be unknowingly accepted by the listener.
While backmasking was made a target, not all songs revealed Satanic messages, some of them were downright humorous.
Not all backmasked messages were in praise of the Prince of Darkness. For instance Queen’s 1980 hit “Another One Bites the Dust” allegedly conceals the message “It’s fun to smoke marijuana”. Other bands accused of hiding back-masked messages included Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Slayer, and Motörhead. Inevitably many artists responded to these ludicrous allegations by deliberately hiding humorous messages in their songs.
This issue no longer seems pertinent with the rise of CDs and digital music, however, how this all came about is still quite fascinating.
In the end, back-masking remains what it has always been a mere case of paranoia. Hearing what we want to hear.