The “Stairway to Heaven” Backmasking Controversy

Barack_Obama_speaks_to_Led_Zeppelin

Barack Obama chats with surviving members of Led Zeppelin in 2012 during Kennedy Center Honors event (Wikipedia Commons)

Some evangelicals in the 1980s were obsessed with backmasking.  This was the practice of placing secret messages on records that could only be heard when the record was played backwards.  Perhaps the most famous case of backmasking was the Beatles’ White Album in which the words “Paul’s a dead man” was apparently heard when one of the songs was played backwards.

I joined the evangelical fold as a high school student in the mid-1980s and quickly “learned” that “secular” rock bands often used backmasking to pass along Satanic messages.  The classic example was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”  This news was a shock to me since before my conversion I had been in a band (we only practiced, never played a gig) that played a lot of Zeppelin, including the iconic “Stairway.”  I took my new evangelical faith (as I understood it back then) very seriously.  I quit the band and stopped listening to Zeppelin for a while.

I thought about all this again when I read Erik Davis’s piece at Salon, “What exactly lurks within the backward grooves of ‘Stairway to Heaven?

Here is a taste:

The darkest supernatural myth about Zeppelin’s most mythic song is that if you play the recording backwards, you will hear Satanic messages encoded in Plant’s vocals. The idea that some rock records contain “backmasked” messages goes back to the Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” which was rumored to contain the reversed announcement that “Paul’s a dead man.” As far as I can tell, Christian anti-rock crusaders got into the act in 1981, when a Michigan minister named Michael Mills hit Christian radio with the news that phrases like “master Satan,” “serve me,” and “there’s no escaping it” were hidden in the grooves of the Zeppelin hit. Noting wryly that words “certainly do have two meanings,” Mills argued on one program that the “subconscious mind” could hear these phrases, which is why sinful rock musicians put them there in the first place. Soon backmasking became the Satanic panic du jour, giving paranoid Christians technological proof that rock bands like Queen, Kiss, and Styx (!) did indeed play the devil’s music. While most people, Christian or otherwise, found all this rather silly, these fears did reflect more pervasive fears that the media had become a subliminal master of puppets—fears that would themselves come to inspire some 1980s metal.

In retrospect, what stands out most in the backmasking controversy is the marvelous image of all these preachers screwing around with turntables. Though one doubts that Minister Mills was chillin’ with Grandmaster Flash or DJ Kool Herc, rap musicians and Christian evangelicals both recognized that popular music is a material inscription, one that can be physically manipulated in order to open up new vectors of sense and expression. For both evangelicals and rap DJs, the vinyl LP was not a transparent vehicle of an originally live performance, but a source of musical meaning itself, a material site of potential codes, messages, and deformations of time. Alongside the more kinetic and rhythmic innovations introduced by scratch artists like DJ Grand Wizard Theodore, we must also speak of a “Christian turntablism”: slow, profoundly unfunky, obsessed with linguistic “messages.” Some evangelical TV broadcasts from the early 80s even include top-down shots of the minister’s DJ decks so that viewers can admire the technique of squeezing sense from sound. However, while rap and all the sampled music that follows it treats the vinyl LP as an open form capable of multiple meanings and uses, Christian turntablists remained literalists, convinced that they were revealing a single “fundamental” message intentionally implanted in the grooves by a diabolical author. Unfortunately, when it came to “Stairway to Heaven,” these DJs for Jesus could not agree on the exact wording of Led Zeppelin’s insidious messages. Once again, ambiguity trumps.

Read the rest here.

Here’s a non-backmasked (I think) Zeppelin tune:

 

One thought on “The “Stairway to Heaven” Backmasking Controversy

  1. I remember when this was a thing and arguing with my mom that it was a load of bull. I eventually stopped arguing, but she never convinced me that the “backward masking” (as it was referred to in our neck of the backwoods in Arkansas) subliminal messaging was real or even possible. It sounded utterly ridiculous to 12-year-old me then, and I’m still a bit irked over being fed that garbage. And also that Proctor & Gamble satanic propaganda I swallowed as true for a while.

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