Stairway to Masking
When Satan Was a Vinyl Groove
Rick deYampert/Candide's Notebooks, May 24, 2006
My hands trembled as I put my copy of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album on my turntable.
The time was 1982, and a Christian minister had brought his traveling road show to the University of Alabama campus to preach that the mighty Zep, and dozens of other rock bands, had seeded their recordings with “backwards masked” paeans to Satan. I had not attended the preacher’s fire ’n’ brimstone seminar, but I had read an account in the school newspaper, and backwards devil rock had even made The CBS Evening News recently.
Eagle-ear Christians also were able to discern Beelzebub doing a sonic moonwalk through albums by the Eagles, ELO and even Cheap Trick, the Cars and Styx (OK, so the latter is a river through Hades).
Then, that sunny day in 1982, I had screwed up the courage to investigate this diabolic matter myself.
Oh, my fingers were not shaking from fear I might unleash demons. Rather, I was frightened I might royally mess up my turntable by spinning it backwards with my index finger. And I feared the reverse path of the needle might chew the ... er, hell out of my vinyl record. Replacing an album on a college student’s budget was a grisly proposition indeed.
Instead of hearing “Here’s to my sweet Satan” in “Stairway to Heaven” as the Christian minister had promised, what I heard sounded like “He’s to mah sweet satin.” That minister had discovered the shocking truth: Zeppelin singer and lyricist Robert Plant was a fashion freak.
When CDs began to replace vinyl in the early 1990s, I figured that was the end of the backwards masking shtick. I certainly couldn’t get my CDs of Zep and others to spin backwards and upchuck satanic musings.
How silly and myopic of techno-challenged me. Backwards masking is back in the news thanks to geekdom, which has made searching for Satan inside the craw of rock ’n’ roll as easy as finding a pot belly on a Buddha statue.
Jeff Milner, a 20-something Canadian, created a backwards-masking Internet site that’s been getting a lot of press over the past few months (in articles by the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, the May issue of Stuff magazine and elsewhere). Check out his site and hear backwards recordings of “Stairway” (if you dare!) and even Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” (which allegedly contains a naughty but not satanic bit).
In the 2004 book “Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends and Curses,” author R. Gary Patterson explores tales of hidden messages and reveals how to manipulate your computer in order to excavate supposed devil tracks. A recent Associated Press article by Jaime Holguin noted an Internet site run by Eric Borgos, TalkBackwards.com, that lets seekers upload audio files and have them played backwards in seconds.
Patterson equivocates over the “Stairway” allegations. The song may not include a “true backward mask” but may employ a “phonetic reversal,” he writes in “Take a Walk on the Dark Side.” That’s a process, he says, in which vocals are recorded (in this case a Satanic paean), then played backward — and sensible, innocent lyrics are composed to mimic the sounds of the backwards bit.
That may be, Patterson writes, how Zeppelin lyricist Robert Plant came up with the curious phrase “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow . . . “ — the part which, when reversed in turn, supposedly sounds like “Here’s to my sweet Satan. The one will be the sad one who makes me sad whose power is in Satan” yadda yadda yadda.
“Personally, I have no problem picking up key phrases,” Patterson writes, noting the “Here’s to my sweet Satan” part.
I must say Milner’s site reveals a backwards “Stairway” to sound like “Satan” is being uttered much more than the “satin” I heard when I was crudely spinning my turntable backwards during my college days. But otherwise it’s gibberish that’s been twisted a number of ways by different listeners into something satanic, and it makes me wonder that a paean to Mr. D. could be so incompetently executed.
Elsewhere Patterson rightfully notes the Beatles, Pink Floyd, ELO and the Christian rock band Petra have intentionally employed backwards bits (of a non-diabolic nature), and he expresses as much skepticism about hidden Satan stuff as do Milner and Borgos.
“The swirling sounds can be and usually are interpreted to be anything that the listener wants to hear, usually after some guided listening by a friend who hears the ‘hidden message,’” Patterson writes. “... In many ways, individuals who hear many backward messages in phonetic reversals are actually facing their own hidden demons and repressions.”
“No, I did not create this to show the evils of rock and roll,” Milner writes on his site.
I still recall Robert Plant’s melancholy response to the charges in a Musician magazine article in 1983: “‘Stairway to Heaven’ was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that’s not my idea of making music. It’s really sad. The first time I heard it was early in the morning when I was living at home, and I heard it on a news program. I was absolutely drained all day. I walked around, and I couldn’t actually believe, I couldn’t take people seriously who could come up with sketches like that. There are a lot of people who are making money there, and if that’s the way they need to do it, then do it without my lyrics. I cherish them far too much.” ¶
Christians see Satan as the arch deceiver — what could be more satanic than sowing discord and innuendo, and tarnishing an anthemic song that has brought joy and hope to millions?
Rick de Yampert is the entertainment writer for The Daytona Beach ( Florida ) News-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org