Last weekâ€™s massive international celebration of Vinyl Record Day (wait â€“ you say that big party they showed on TV was about the Olympics?) reminded me of my teenage fascination with backmasking and its (occasionally) unintentional counterpart, the backward â€œsecret message.â€ And that memory, in turn, reminded me of the single dumbest thing I ever did with a recorded piece of music.
First, concerning backward messages: As a fan of bands like Led Zeppelin and Electric Light Orchestra during the â€™70s, I had of course heard stories about the backmasking those bands allegedly (and, in at least one case, actually) used on their records. I had heard the following clip before, but only this past weekend did I find that someone had interpreted the “lyrics” to say, “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan/The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.” In retrospect, it should have been obvious all along…
My interest was piqued, however, during the extended bout of Beatlemania with which I was afflicted after John Lennonâ€™s death. It was while reading Nicholas Schaffnerâ€™s essential book The Beatles Forever that I became obsessed with exploring all the â€œcluesâ€ identified during the â€œPaul is Deadâ€ hysteria of 1969, including the supposed White Album backward incantations â€œPaul is dead man, miss him, miss himâ€ (at the end of â€œIâ€™m So Tiredâ€) and â€œTurn me on, dead manâ€ (during â€œRevolution 9â€).
The trouble was, at the turn of the â€™80s my dad had bought me one of those newfangled linear-tracking phonographs; among its many flaws was an inability to reverse the direction of the turntable, so I couldnâ€™t play records backward. I had to wait until a day when my parents werenâ€™t home to use my dadâ€™s turntable, fearing the whole time that Iâ€™d either break the phonograph or scratch up the numbered, first-printing copy of the White Album that Iâ€™d found at a second-hand store outside Cleveland. Fortunately, neither disaster occurred; unfortunately, I couldnâ€™t scrounge up a turntable to use at school when my sophomore-year World History teacher assigned an oral report on an incidence of â€œMass Hysteria,â€ and I chose (of course) to discuss the â€œPaul is Deadâ€ hoax. (The things I got away with in high schoolâ€¦)
As the â€™80s progressed and Moral Majority/PMRC â€œvaluesâ€ hung over the culture like a black cloud, I clung to my enthrallment with backward messages as a form of rebellion against Falwell, Tipper and their gang of prudes. Eventually, in 1986 I had the privilege of interviewing an evangelist named Michael Mills, who had built a cottage industry out of touring conservative churches and railing against the evils of backmasking, Rod Stewart’s hair, and other atrocities associated with rockâ€™nâ€™roll â€“ frequently resulting in â€œunplannedâ€ Friday-night record burnings. Dedicated music-blog readers may remember that, early last year as part of its 365 Days project, WFMU’s Beware of the Blog site posted an old radio recording featuring Mills talking about various rock stars and their dealings with the devil. The following excerpts discuss Zeppelin, Kiss, the Beatles and Queen; my favorite moment is near the end, when he says with horror, “A drag term on the street for ‘homosexual’ is ‘queen.’ The music group Queen has a message for you … ‘Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me!'” Party time! Excellent!
My encounter with Mills is another story for another time â€“ except to note that, just as the efforts of douchebags like him encouraged more and more young boys to seek out â€œSatanicâ€ music just to get a cheap, rebellious thrill, so did every struggle with an uncooperative turntable or a right-wing Christian send me into a deeper obsession with backward messages.
Which brings us to the aforementioned â€œdumbest thing I ever did with a recording.â€ To start, a bit of background. I was 8 years old in 1974, the year I first began to develop any music appreciation. My initial memories of songs tended to be snippets, not entire lyrics, and one such tidbit from 1974 was a bit of a chorus that went, â€œWhat are you gonna do?/Tell you what Iâ€™m gonna do/Why donâ€™t you get away?/Iâ€™m gonnaâ€¦â€ And thatâ€™s all I remembered â€“ for seven long years, thatâ€™s all I remembered, even as that scrap of chorus ran through my head every few weeks. Didnâ€™t know the song title, didnâ€™t know the artist, didnâ€™t know how to find out either one in those primitive years P.G. (pre-Google).
Cut to the spring of 1981, and my renewed interest in backward messages based on â€œPaul is Dead.â€ I had long heard that if you reversed the spin on â€œFire on High,â€ the opening instrumental on E.L.O.â€™s 1975 Face the Music LP, you could hear a creepy voice intoning, â€œThe music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back!â€ (Jeff Lynne included the passage in response to false accusations of a Satanic backward message on the bandâ€™s previous album, Eldorado.) I was eager to hear it; alas, I wasnâ€™t so eager that I was willing to buy a copy of Face the Music on vinyl â€“ particularly considering that my brother Kit already had it on a homemade cassette.
On the cassette caseâ€™s card/sleeve/whatever (I think the official name may be â€œliterature tray,â€ believe it or not) Kit had listed the ELO album on side A, and nothing on side B. And as I listened to â€œFire on High,â€ I could hear the faint â€œshadowâ€ of whatever music Kit previously had recorded on the cassette (and then taped over with the ELO).
So I got a brilliant idea: What if I forwarded the cassette to the end of â€œFire on High,â€ turned the tape around in the player, and played it AT TOP VOLUME with my headphones on? Maybe, since the other side of the tape was blank, the backward â€œshadowâ€ of â€œFire on Highâ€ would play clearly enough that I could hear the spooky voice!
Alice Cooperâ€™s music may be no more mind-blowing than anyone elseâ€™s, but at approximately 130 decibels on a pair of high-end headphones Alice may have given me the most mind-blowing experience of my young life. Of course, on the flipside of Kitâ€™s ELO cassette he had recorded â€“ without labeling it â€“ Aliceâ€™s Greatest Hits album, and the song that shot like a pair of cannonballs into my brain when I pressed â€œplayâ€ was â€œTeenage Lament â€™74.â€ Prepared to be freaked out by a backmasked voice, I was instead unbelievably freaked out by the ear-shattering sound of a song that had been bouncing around my head (as an anonymous snippet) for half my life:
I donâ€™t know how much of my current hearing loss can be attributed to that single moment of stupidity, as opposed to all those other moments when I chose to stand too close to the speakers at too many all-ages shows during college. But I did learn one valuable lesson that day: If you want to hear what a record sounds like when played backward, then play the record backward. Or just wait for somebody to invent the MP3.