Of all the ink that’s been spilled describing what has been lost with the passing of the vinyl record, little attention has been paid to debates about the existence of “backmasking”: a process whereby messages were thought to be placed in popular recordings such that their meaning could only be discovered when the record was played in reverse. Some of my most vivid memories of interacting with vinyl and turntable are of methodically spinning discs counter-clockwise on my parent’s old record player, straining to find the eerie secret messages supposedly hidden in the Beatles’ “Revolution #9,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” or Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” Now, in the cold laser light of the digital age, those rites and secrets seem as esoteric as table rapping, but they have something besides nostalgia to offer those interested in media history. I didn’t think about it at the time, but my basement explorations of backmasking were enactments of what William Boddy refers to as a “vernacular theory of electronic communication.” The vernacular theory of backmasking was made known to the public through the lectures of anti-rock activists who claimed to have discovered an uncanny power in popular recordings. Consider these excerpts from a 1982 lecture by Pastor Gary Greenwald:
It will not come as a shock that Greenwald’s “neurological explanation” for backmasking has not held up under scrutiny. Psychological studies have produced no evidence that listeners are influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the content of backward messages. To decode reversed messages, the unconscious brain would have to be simultaneously hearing language forward and backward, all the while identifying and deciphering an intended message from the chaos of reversed sound. Studies have shown that the forward meaning of backward statements do not “leak” through, even when the backward statements themselves are coherent and memorable, let alone if they are something as esoteric as “turn me on, dead man.”
It is easy to point out what the backmasking theorists got wrong in their hodgepodge of haunted media, media effects panic, subliminal advertising anxiety and cultural xenophobia, but what I find more compelling is what they got right. That is, backmasking theory was remarkably productive in record culture. First, it provided otherwise “faceless” rock bands like ELO and Styx with a certain transgressive edge and a compelling marketing strategy at just the moment when the industry was in a prolonged sales slump, rock promotion was becoming thoroughly routinized, and the baby boom generation that had driven its massive expansion was aging out of the key record-buying demographic. In the longer term, backmasking crusaders helped to create their own worst nightmare in the form of the overtly satanic rock of bands like Venom, Grim Reaper, and Slayer, all of whom surely grew up playing their Led Zeppelin records backwards and contemplating the details of Jimmy Page’s pact with the devil. At the same time, kids like me who scoured the grooves of their LPs for hidden messages put the theory of backmasking to action, and in the process, rediscovered a sense of wonder at the familiar medium of sound recording. Backmasking theory was most influential then, not as a critique of record producers, but as a stimulus for new types of record consumption. In other words, the performances of showmen like Gary Greenwald renewed rock and re-enchanted the old medium of recorded sound.