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The Devil Wears Headphones: A Brief History of Backmasking

A while back, I was browsing at a favorite used book shop and found a paperback called Backward Masking Unmasked. Written in 1983 by a youth minister named Jacob Aranza, it’s an unintentionally hilarious attempt to expose the alleged backward Satanic messages in rock music.

For example, in the chapter called “Which Way Are The Eagles Flying?” Aranza condemns the southern California group as “occultic” [sic] and as “having had dealings with members of the Satanic church.” He claims their song “Hotel California,” an ode to devil worship, contains this startlingly formal backward message: “Yes, Satan organized his own religion.”

As Aranza denounces subliminal messages that encourage everything from homosexuality to marijuana use, he cites the usual suspects – Zeppelin, Stones, Sabbath – as well as such unlikely ones as Hall & Oates (“They often impersonate women and attempt to come across to their audiences as women”) and the Bee Gees (“Robin Gibb confesses to the hobby of pornographic drawing”).

His book made me curious about the history of not only backmasking, but backwards recorded sound in general.

It began, as many things do, with Thomas Edison. After inventing the phonograph in 1877, old Tom noticed that music in reverse sounded “novel and sweet but altogether different.” In the early 1950s, avant-garde musicians began incorporating that difference into their compositions. They ran reel-to-reel tape recorders backwards, and presto - the unsettling sound of a hundred little Hoovers sucking up a melody and lyric.

A decade later, The Beatles pushed backward sounds into the mainstream with such songs as “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Later, their audio reversals came back to haunt them with the Paul Is Dead rumors. But that’s a topic for another day.

The backmasking-Satanism connection can be traced to a 1913 book by mystic Aleister Crowley, who recommended that those interested in black magic would do well to “learn how to think and speak backwards.” Sixty years later, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page moved into Crowley’s old mansion. To borrow one of Aranza’s pet phrases: “Coincidence?”

As Aranza points out in the “Stairway To Heaven?” chapter, Zep’s classic tune is full of backward messages like: “So here’s to my sweet Satan.” And such words corrupt impressionable minds.

Backmasking on the Brain

Let’s pause here to ask two questions. Can any songwriter actually write lyrics that scan forwards and backwards? And does the brain even comprehend backward messages? No to the first. And despite claims by pseudo-scientists like David John Oates that the subconscious mind can decipher phonetic reversals, there is no proof that it can, or that a person’s behavior would be influenced in any way, if it could.

That said, the brain will search for recognizable patterns in noise or gibberish. A song played backwards offers many possibilities, especially when you’re told what to listen for. As an experiment, I played Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” backwards. As unlikely a song for evil messages as I could think of. I braced myself for Satchmo getting Satanic, but the only line that leapt out from the gibberish was this: “Where’s the sandwich, dear Dolly?” A sly reference to one of his earlier hits? Coincidence?

After a decade of government attempts to legislate against backmasking (remember the PMRC?), the phenomenon peaked in 1990, when a civil action against Judas Priest alleged that they were responsible for the suicide of a teenage fan. Apparently, in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me,” they’d planted a backwards subliminal message of “Do it.” The case was dismissed.

What makes backmasking – especially the Satanic-related stuff - seem quaint today is the plethora of malevolent songs by death metal bands who put their messages front and center. To see what I mean, click around at random on the death metal archive site DarkLyrics.com. Yikes.

In tribute to the golden age of backmasking, here are three of Aranza’s top offenders:

Led Zeppelin – “Stairway To Heaven”

The Eagles – “Hotel California”

E.L.O – “Fire On High”

Feel free to weigh in with your own favorite backmasked songs.

Kcor evil gnol.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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