Backward masking

Backward masking (BM) is the process of recording words or music backward to include a secret message on recordings that can only be deciphered by playing the tape or CD backward. In the 1980s BM became a point of heated controversy: TELEVANGELISTS, politicians, and private groups such as the Parents Music Resource Center alleged deliberate “brainwashing” of children by using hidden plugs for sex, drugs, and SATANISM. Arguments ranged from flat denials to bizarre allegations of a global conspiracy involving thousands of executives, performers, and technicians in the music industry. The truth, as usual, lay somewhere in between.

It is a fact that BM does exist and has for many years. In 1969 the Beatles planted backward lyrics on their Abbey Road album, hinting at Paul McCartney’s death as a morbid publicity stunt. Popular singers David Bowie and Meat Loaf Aday have acknowledged using BM on their albums but deny any sinister intent. In 1990 Rob Halford (lead singer for the heavy-metal band Judas Priest) told reporters that BM “has been going on for 30 or 40 years.”

The question then must be: To what effect? BM critics—typically fundamentalist Christians or politicians seeking their support—see demons inside every album. In April 1986 Ohio minister Jim Brown convinced local teenagers to burn their records of TV’s Mr. Ed’s theme song, somehow persuading them (and their presumably mature parents) that the reversal of “A horse is a horse” yields “Someone sang this song for Satan.” The Arkansas state senate passed a ban on BM in 1983, while Congress defeated a similar federal bill. In 1990 performers Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne faced lawsuits from parents who claimed that the performers’ music had driven their sons to commit or attempt suicide, but the defendants prevailed in both cases.