Backmasking: The Devil’s in the Details

Secret messages from Arcade Fire, Beck, Radiohead, and more

In the 1950s, producing reversed audio (the technical term is backmasking) became a favoured effect of the avant-garde musique concrète movement, and – like many things – in 1966, the technique was popularized by the Beatles, who used it throughout Revolver and released the first song containing a backmasked “hidden” message with the single “Rain.” After a Beatles fan called into a radio station inquiring about a message backmasked onto “Revolution 9” that proposed Paul McCartney had died, real and perceived backwards messages in music quickly became (and have long remained) a source of curiosity and obsession for fans, critics, censors, alarmists, and social psychologists alike.

“Revolution 9” Backwards

Interest in backmasked music reached its height perhaps in the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S., when fundamentalist Christians and groups like Tipper Gore’s PMRC proposed anti-backmasking legislation that attacked rock music for allegedly conveying Satanic messages and corrupting the youth (some claimed backmasking could bypass the conscious mind and infect the subconscious). Although backmasking is most often used for artistic, comedic, and satirical effect, it’s a rare treat when the artists committing to backmasking rival the obsessive commitment of the most fervent fun killers.

Here are 10 obsessive applications of backmasking:
 

ARCADE FIRE – UNTITLED BONUS TRACK FROM REFLEKTOR


In keeping with Reflektor’s title theme, on the CD release, Arcade Fire hid 10 minutes of reversed samples of the album proper in the gap preceding the first track.
 

BECK – “LOSER”


Self-parodic and meta critical to its core, “Loser” is a nonsensical index of the nonsensical. So it makes some kind of sense that two-and-a-half minutes in, the song’s chorus is backmasked into the mix. An amusing theory taking cues from the song’s sitars also claims that, played backwards, Beck’s song is an ode to Krishna…
 

RADIOHEAD – “SPINNING LIKE PLATES”


This is the epitome of backmasked recording endeavours. The instrumentals are the reversed product of rejected instrumentals for what later became “I Will. (No Man’s Land.),” and the vocals are even more meticulous. Thom Yorke learned how to voice the lyrics backwards, recorded them as the first verse, and then the band backmasked them so they sounded “forwards” in the second.
 

BOARDS OF CANADA – “1969”


Boards of Canada have long bated the conspiracy-minded, planting misdirecting references in their music and favouring backmasking as a means of doing so. On Geogaddi, a voice referencing the Branch Davidian religious sect and its claimed prophet repeats, “Although not a follower of David Koresh, she’s a devoted Branch Davidian” on “1969,” where “David Koresh” is backmasked throughout. Following backmask-brainwash theory, that isn’t unlike a double negative.
 

TEENAGE FANCLUB – “SATAN”


“God bless my cotton socks. I am wearing a blue shirt.” See? Teenage Fanclub aren’t Satanic. They proved it with that backmasked laundry lyric. Sure, they probably could’ve shown that by not naming the track after Lucifer, but that also would’ve been less fun.
 

BUTTHOLE SURFERS – “PEPPER”


“Pepper” rewards overindulgence variably with death and enlightenment; unmasking the backmasked message two minutes in rewards listeners with just the first and last lines of the chorus.
 

MEW – “NEW TERRAIN” / “NERVOUS”


In what must have been an exhausting undertaking of balanced songwriting, with “New Terrain,” Mew actually delivered two three-minute songs: “New Terrain,” and a second, backmasked track titled “Nervous.”
 

(Main photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr)