Sunday, July 10, 2011

Skeptics and "backward masking"

Below these two videos is a post I made (perhaps to the Kate Bush fans' "love-hounds" mailing list, I don't recall) back in 1986 regarding a 1985 Christian "rock music seminar" about alleged Satanic backwards messages in rock music.  I was familiar with the claims of supposed "backwards masking" where the sounds of ordinary lyrics were interpreted to have different messages when reversed, as well as actual examples of recordings that were put into songs in reverse.  The former seemed to me to be examples of subjective validation, and I tested it myself by closing my eyes and covering my ears when the presenter gave their claims about what we were supposed to hear prior to playing the samples.  Subsequently, this became one of the first tests the Phoenix Skeptics conducted as a student group at Arizona State University in October 1985.  We invited the speaker to give his demonstrations before our group, but required him to play the samples first without explanation and have everyone write down what they heard.  The result was that on the first pass, those unfamiliar with the samples had a wide variety of responses; on a second pass, once the expectation was set, everybody heard what they were supposed to hear.

It's interesting that this demonstration, the key example of which was a sample from Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," made a comeback two decades later--being used by skeptics to show the power of suggestion and expectation, as these two videos from Simon Singh and Michael Shermer demonstrate.

Simon Singh, 2006:

Michael Shermer, 2006 TED Talk:

Date:  Wed, 5 Feb 86 15:35 MST
From: "James J. Lippard" 
Subject:  Christian Death/rock seminar
Reply-To:  Lippard@MIT-MULTICS.ARPA

Yes, I've heard of Christian Death, though I haven't heard much by them.  That
reminds me of an article I wrote in October for ASU's "Campus Weekly"
(alternative campus newspaper) about a rock seminar I went to, and here it is.
The article was never printed, as the newspaper folded.  (Note: There was
originally an additional paragraph about a fourth type of backwards
message--the kind that's at the end of the first side of "The Dreaming".)

      Druids were Satanists.
      Van Morrison reads Celtic literature.
      Therefore, Van Morrison's music is evil.

   I had hoped this kind of feeble guilt-by-association reasoning applied to
rock music by religious fanatics had died off.  No such luck.  The above was
typical of the reasoning presented at a seminar on rock music on October 21 by
Christian Life.  Not only is the first premise false, the conclusion is a non

   Things looked promising enough at first.  A quote from the Confucian
philosopher Mencius about how the multitudes "act without clear understanding"
was projected on the large screen in Neeb Hall before the presentation began.
When the show finally started, the speaker gave some facts about the size of
the music industry and its influence on society.

   For a while things were rational.  Since the seminar was focusing on the
seamy side of rock, it seemed reasonable to show slides of Lou Reed shooting
heroin on stage, Sid Vicious, Kiss, and so forth.  Still, the impression was
given that this was representative of the majority of rock music.  Obscure
groups such as Demon, Lucifer's Friend, and the Flesh Eaters say nothing about
rock in general.

   Apparently the writers of the seminar were aware of this, because it then
shifted to analyzing album covers of fairly popular groups.  But this analysis
was taken to a ridiculous extreme, pulling interpretations out of a hat.  If
an album cover had a cross on it, it was automatically blasphemous.  Any other
religious symbols on an album along with a cross were putting down
Christianity by calling it "just another religion."

Other symbols also drew criticism.  From the following Bible verse, Luke
10:18, it was concluded that lightning bolts are a demonic symbol:
  And He  said to them,  "I was watching  Satan fall from  heaven
     like lightning."

   Since all lightning bolts are evil, the lightning bolts in the logos of
Kiss and AC/DC show that they are in league with the devil.  Interestingly, on
the backs of many electrical appliances is a symbol which serves as a warning
of potential shock hazard--a yellow triangle containing a lightning bolt
exactly like the one in AC/DC's logo.  Surely this is a more obvious source
than the Bible for AC/DC's lightning bolt, given the electrical symbolism in
their name and many of their album titles.

   As the Jesuits knew, if you teach a child your ways early, he will likely
follow them for the rest of his life.  But to conclude from this that Led
Zeppelin is trying to influence children because there are children on the
cover of their _Houses of the Holy_ album is absurd.

   In the interest of "fair play", quotes from several artists denying any
involvement with the occult were given.  But these were shrugged off,
including the disclaimer at the beginning of Michael Jackson's _Thriller_
video which says, in part, "this film in no way endorses belief in the
occult." Michael Jackson is a devout Seventh Day Adventist, so I seriously
doubt he had any more intent in promoting the occult through _Thriller_ than
the creators of Caspar the Friendly Ghost.

   Finally, the seminar got to its most entertaining subject: backwards
messages on rock albums.  There are several types of messages commonly
referred to as "backmasking," most of which were covered.  The first is a
message recorded normally, then placed on an album in reverse.  The example
given was from ELO's Face the Music album, which says "The music is
reversible, but time is not.  Turn back, turn back..." There is little doubt
about the content of such messages.

   The second type of backwards message is where words are sung backwards,
phonetically.  On Black Oak Arkansas' live album _Raunch and Roll_, there is
no question about what they are trying to do when the singer shouts "Natas!"
The conference speaker seemed to imply that this message was unintentional,
however, when he gave an example of a song by Christian Death.  The words are
sung backwards (as seen on the lyrics sheet), but pronounced in reverse
letter-by-letter rather than phonetically.  He seemed surprised that this
resulted in nonsense when reversed.

   The third type of backwards message is where a perfectly ordinary record
album is played in reverse to produce gibberish and creative imaginations
supply the translations for supposed messages.  According to the speaker, this
must occur in one of three ways.  Either they are intentional, accidental, or
spiritual.  They can't be intentional, because creating such a message is
unimaginably complex.  They can't be accidental, otherwise we would hear
messages saying such things as "God is love" or "the elephant is on the back
burner" as often as we hear messages about Satan.  Therefore, the messages
must be spiritual (i.e., Satan caused them to occur).

   This completely ignores what has already been well-established as the
source of these messages.  Someone person plays his records backwards,
listening for evil messages, and hears something that sounds like the word
"Satan".  He then tells his friends to listen for the message, and plays it
for them.  Since they have been told what to hear, their mind fills in the
difference between the noises on the album and the alleged message.

   This explanation was mentioned, but was dismissed out of hand because, the
speaker claimed, the backwards messages are as clear as most rock lyrics are
forwards.  He played the first message, in Queen's "Another One Bites the
Dust", without telling the audience what to hear.  I heard no message, but he
told us that we clearly heard "start to smoke marijuana".  When the tape was
played again, I could hear it.

   The rest of the messages of this type played at the seminar were
accompanied by text on the movie screen telling the audience what to listen
for.  I closed my eyes to ignore the hints, and was unable to hear anything
but gibberish.  The same method was used and the same results obtained by
several other audience members I questioned after the presentation.

   In addition, an anti-rock program aired a few years ago on the Trinity
Broadcasting Network stated that there were several messages on Led Zeppelin's
"Stairway to Heaven", including "here's to my sweet Satan" and "there is power
in Satan".  The rock conference, on the other hand, combined these two into
one large message which began "my sweet Satan" and ended "whose power is in
Satan".  Having heard the TBN version first, those were what I heard when they
were played at the conference.  If the words "there is" can be mistaken for
"whose", isn't it possible that the same is true for the rest of these

   Even the transcriber of the backwards messages had problems coming up with
words to fit the message.  The slide for Rush's live version of "Anthem"
played backwards read:
  Oh, Satan, you--you are the one who is shining, walls of Satan,
     walls of (sacrifice?)  I know.

   As any ventriloquist knows, many sounds can be mistaken for many other
sounds.  An m for an n, a t for a d, a c, a z, or a th for an s.  Given that
the most frequent letters in the English language are ETAOINSHRDLU, it is no
surprise that something sounding like "Satan" is quite common.

   With enough effort, evil symbolism and backwards messages can be found
anywhere.  Try visiting a record store and finding satanic symbols on
Christian album covers, or listening to some Christian albums backwards.  I'm
sure much can be found with little difficulty.

   It is true that most rock is not Christian.  It is even true that much of
it conflicts with the Christian faith in some way.  But to bury these points
in a mire of fuzzy logic and fanaticism by engaging in a witch hunt is
counter-productive.  Before the conference, I commented to a friend that if
"Stairway to Heaven" was played backwards, the presenters would have destroyed
any credibility they had.  That, unfortunately, was the case.

    Jim (Lippard at MIT-MULTICS.ARPA)

Additional information: has a good overview with scientific references on the subject.

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