Many have never heard of the “Satanic panic” of the ’80s and along with it a wide array of conspiratorial type accusations among those proposing it as something that was real. Something that came with this “Satanic panic” was the idea that many of the popular songs contained backmasked messaging or otherwise known as subliminal messaging within the songs that could change people’s subconscious mind. So many artists were purported as including these messages including Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and even Michael Jackson. In this, I will dive into this conspiracy, see if it ultimately has truth to it, touch on other conspiracies, a legal case deciding its protection, and how this has changed music today.
This isn’t the “I wanna hold your hand” Beatles anymore! With the old known conspiracy theory within the classic rock community known as the “Paul is dead” theory, many believe that backmasked messages pointed to Paul McCartney’s death. Many who are familiar with The Beatles have heard of it and some even might say something if you bring it up like “Oh yeah, Paul? He died in 66”. Why was it so popular and does it actually have any merit to it?
To get to the bottom of this conspiracy encapsulated within a conspiracy buffed to misconstrue its true conception we must look at the release of The Beatles 1966 groundbreaking album “Revolver”. This album brought a whole new array of techniques that were almost never before seen in music at all which then hit mainstream airwaves and sent straight to the listeners. This included the first commercialized usage of sampling and along with it came backmasking. According to John Lennon, one night he was smoking pot and accidentally played the track “Rain” backward which was a B-side for their upcoming album. This is one of the only truly confirmed usages of backmasking by The Beatles themselves.
Years later in 1969, a conspiracy went mainstream, having the phrase “Paul is dead” at the forefront started by a call to a Detroit radio station claiming that multiple phrases could be heard after played backward in their songs hinting at Paul’s death. From the song “Revolution 9” off The White Album, many say you can hear the phrase underneath which is in the clip you can play below.
Original – ‘Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine.’
Reversed – ‘Turn me on dead man. Turn me on dead man. Turn me on dead man. Turn me on dead man. Turn me on dead man. Turn me on dead man. Turn me on dead man.’
Another track striking people as something being wrong with Paul was the track “I’m So Tired” having indistinguishable gibberish by Lennon, the one who had claimed backmasking being done in The Beatles music as his doing. Listen to this track below and see if you can tell what the second reversed track of the original says which is supposedly making out the phrase “Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him”.
Original – Gibberish
Reversed – ‘Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him.’
These instances of possible backmasking along with the confirmed backmasking in the track “Rain” made many fans believe that there was merit to their claims. From that point, it blew up in the media and became a conspiracy sensation as one would say. Not only were backmasking found in many of The Beatles songs but various possible messages about this supposed death of Paul started to pop up. People were finding messages in album art, videos, random pictures, and even side by side pictures of Paul from before the supposed death and after it. People said that the fake Paul was Billy Shears, a Paul look alike. This person is thought to be connected to the same phrase “Billy Shears” chanted by the 4 Beatles on the song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The band’s press office rebutted all of these rumors as just “a load of old rubbish”. To combat these spreading rumors, LIFE did an interview with McCartney featuring the title “Paul is still with us.”
This conspiracy obviously does not portray the entirety of backmasking which is the main subject of this and not the “Paul is dead” conspiracy. I do think it is important to understand that this is where backmasking gained its original popularity if not from the musique concrète movement which is where The Beatles had their first influence of its backmasking aspects. Do I think the conspiracy is true? I think there is not enough evidence to tell if they were joking or if it meant something else. But I do find it unlikely that Paul was murdered and replaced even after seeing the side by side facial intricacy comparisons, to say the least.
Backmasking went from there to accusations of demonic backmasking arriving even more heavily in the 1980s. Many bands were accused such as bands like Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Judas Priest, and metal bands were accused of doing so to change the conscious mind of those that listen to the songs. The movie The Exorcist also included a backmask in the incomprehensible speech of the possessed victim which when played backward was English. In 1985 the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was formed which took a stand against supposed satanic backmasking which even claimed people like Michael Jackson included subliminal messaging like this example from Beat It
Original – ‘tell you it’s fair, so beat it.’
Reversed – ‘I believe it was satan in me.’
Or this example from Queen with Freddy Mercury saying ‘Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust.” being heard as “It’s fun to smoke marijuana. It’s fun to smoke marijuana. It’s fun to smoke marijuana. It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” Listen below.
Original – ‘Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust.’
Reversed – ‘It’s fun to smoke marijuana. It’s fun to smoke marijuana. It’s fun to smoke marijuana. It’s fun to smoke marijuana.’
From here is where we get to the Vance v. Judas Priest court case in 1990 where Boys shot selves after listening to Judas Priest album. One lived and testified after that the lyrics that made him do it were not very important or outright directing him to do it. This is a horrible event and the families want to sue probably came from this real panic from years prior with heavy metal bands admitting to putting Satanic messages within their music. No proof has shown that Judas Priest specifically put Satanic backmasking messages to subliminally alter people’s conscious behaviors. The families did sue and claimed that subliminal messaging and backmasking within the music are what caused them to do it. The court case came to the conclusion that Judas Priest was not responsible for the deaths. The court also established the precedent for backmasked messages in the first amendment and if they are protected. The court ended up ruling that they are not protected by the first amendment if they are even there in specific cases. After listening to the Judas Priest song in question for myself, forward and backward, I can confirm I did not hear anything significant. Is backmasking real? I’d say so. In terms of changing my conscious behavior, however, I do weirdly crave a Klondike bar now…