In 1959, The Eligibles released a record “Car Trouble,” which contained two nonsense passages to the awe of its fans. Beyond the fandom, there were several questions and attempts to unlock the meaning of the content. So, it was to the surprise of many when it took a simple reversal of recording to gain access to the song’s real content. In part, it meant, “Now, lookit here, cats, stop running these records backward!”
At that point, it became clear that the recording was possible through song backmasking. Although this represents the modern emergence of the idea, it is interesting to note that the song backmasking has existed long before 1959. In this article, we examine the history of song backmasking.
This is a taping technique where the message or sound in a piece of music is taped backward and stored on a track. However, when played, it is done typically, that is, forward. Noteworthy, song backmasking differs from phonetic reversal. This is because, unlike phonetic reversal, which can be unintentional, it is an intentional process.
Furthermore, song backmasking is a tool or means usually employed by musicians to pass across coded messages. It received extensive media attention in 1966 when The Beatles utilized backward instrumentation to record their album Revolver.
Ever since, it has been used for artistic, satiric, and comedic effects. What is more, it has been utilized to censor phrases or words which may contain uncouth expressions. Needless to say, this technique has attracted different use even as many famous musicians continue to suffer severe criticism for utilizing backmasking in their songs.
In 1877, T. Edison – one of the world’s greatest inventors - created a phonograph, a piece of machinery that allowed individuals to tape sound and reproduce them using a cylinder (rotating). Subsequently, Edison observed that the cylinder could be rotated backward, and when played backward, each song still relayed its intrinsic melody and message, though distinct from the earlier song produced.
Subsequently, the 1950s ushered in two main developments in audio technology, which significantly impacted song backmasking. These are the surge in the use of tape recorders in recording workshop and the emergence of musique concrete, and an experimental type of electronic melody that involved editing together industrial and natural sounds. Notably, these significant developments led to music compositions, composed and recorded on tape utilizing approaches including reversal tape effects.
Later on, in the early 20th century, many people discovered that it might have been possible to influence peoples’ opinions, thought patterns, and lifestyles through external means, stimuli, and conditioning. These techniques are called brainwashing and were extensively used in World War II. In light of this, backmasking also sought to influence peoples’ opinions through the use of hidden messages the listener is exposed to unconsciously.
For example, in 1913, Aleister Crowley, in his writing Magick (Book 4), suggested backward playing of recordings as a medium for training magicians. In a 1935 film, Gold Diggers, the ending part of “The Words are in My Heart” was recorded in reverse in sync with the concomitant score being reversed incidentally. (Olison, 2012)
However, the popularization of song backmasking would be impossible without the help of The Beatles. Noteworthy, The Beatles first encountered song backmasking when they made their 1965 Rubber Soul album. The techniques of musique concrete influenced them, and, in turn, it informed their decision to feature a backmasked line in 1966 released single, Rain, which was one of the eleven tracks on the Revolver album.
Noteworthy, while the role of The Beatles also takes more prominence thanks to the famous interview, which brought more facts to light. Notably, in an interview granted to Rolling Stone magazine on 18th September 1968, John Lennon¬- founder, co-lead vocalist, and the rhythm guitarist of The Beatles- revealed that he accidentally discovered backmasking when he put on his tape recorder, but it came out backward.
Similarly, George Martin, a producer, also claimed to have discovered backmasking (backward taping technique) when he was recording The Beetles’ 1966 album, Revolver; precisely, for the following record: “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I am only sleeping,” including the track “Rain.” (Olison, 2012)
Later on, Lennon revealed that his discovery of backmasking was predicated on the fact that he was under the strong impact of marijuana when he unintentionally played “Rain” backward. He enjoyed the melody even though it was different from the other. Eventually, this back and forth significantly revved up the traction for song backmasking in those days. (Olison, 2012)
However, it was not until the end of the 1970s before the mainstream of American culture was exposed to this new style. Generally, the 1970s was a season of political, religious, and cultural uncertainty in the United States of America. During the 1970s to the 1990s, various Christian communities in the US claimed that influential rock musicians were utilizing backmasking for a satanic and demonic purpose(s). This controversy led to record-burning protests and proposed anti-backmasking legislation by both the state and federal governments. There were also instances of radio DJ’s being fired at their jobs for playing backmasked songs and encouraging people to listen to them. (Olison, 2012)
Several Christian organizations denounced backmasking alleging that it is extensively used to promote Satanism. Also, the Parent Music Resource Center, a committee formed by the American Government in 1985, regarded backmasking as an attempt to possess children’s’ minds with violent music and music replete with sexual innuendos. (Olison, 2012). However, regardless of these attacks today, the use of song backmasking is witnessed in different walks of life.
The history of song backmasking significantly influenced its usage today. Today, song backmasking is regularly used for aesthetics, for example, to improve the meaning or sound of a track. Musicians also use song backmasking to convey a humorous or parodical message by hiding it backward in a song. Even more, musicians use it to record statements that are too critical or explicit beyond direct expression. Without a doubt, song backmasking – if we must attempt to simplify it – is a song recorded in reverse and is of high relevance.
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