Hidden messages in songs
April 2, 2006 6:22 AM   Subscribe

How did kids in the sixties and seventies know that playing their Beatles songs backwards told them that Paul was dead, or that Black Sabbath wanted them to kill themselves?

Now, it's easy enough - you record it on your PC and reverse the waveform, however we're talking about bakelite turntables from Woolies here.

Were all these kids so desperate to find messages from Satan that they all ripped open their record players and reversed the motors? or was there a brand of record player that allowed this reverse playback? (In itself a technque that I assume wrecks the stylus and disk fairly quickly.)
posted by twine42 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Put it on the turntable, manually spin it backwards.Viola! We were scatching before anybody knew what that meant. More sphisticated types might have done it on a reel to reel.
posted by doctor_negative at 6:37 AM on April 2, 2006

Right, doctor_negative, but I think the question was actually about how the first person to ever try that knew to try that. And I think the answer is that they got really fucking high.
posted by emelenjr at 7:16 AM on April 2, 2006

As the Beatles evolved from a standard pop band into serious musicians breaking musical boundaries, their recordings began to be minutely scrutinized to determine how they were created, what special effects were employed. Several times they put into their orchestrations voices and instruments recorded backward -- for example, the ending groove on Sergeant Pepper, and the backward drumbeat in "Strawberry Fields" and other songs. Obviously this led people to play the songs in question backward to hear the voice or instrument "the right way". One thing led to the other, people started playing entire songs backward, and pretty soon the "Paul is dead" clues started to circulate based on things like the line "Number Nine" in Revolution #9, which was interpreted, backward, as "Turn me on dead man". Spinning the turntable backward was one way, but controlling the speed was difficult. Flipping a tape reel is how my friends and I did it.

On preview: really fucking high
You mean drugs? There were drugs around?
posted by beagle at 7:19 AM on April 2, 2006

the cheap "suitcase" type phonographs were very easy to spin backwards when you didn't have them spinning ... also, they weren't that hard to open up and reverse the wires, if you knew what you were doing

this whole thing took off with the whole "paul is dead" thing ... people just had to hear "turn me on dead man" on revolution no 9 themselves ... soon, the ministers got ahold of the idea and started "finding" backwards satanic messages on records by hop skip and jumping through an 8 minute song like "stairway to heaven" and picking out 30 seconds worth of messages ... of course, they always told you what it "said" before they played it for you, so you'd be more likely to "hear" it

here's an example of one of those ministers from battle creek michigan discussing led zeppelin ... mp3 link ... note how the short phrases are from different parts of the song
posted by pyramid termite at 7:22 AM on April 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think it was a simple case of listening to some music and hearing a section that sounded like people talking backward. A quick "WTF?" moment, followed by the aforementioned manually turning the turntable backwards. After that, it was a simple grapevine effect of "You gotta hear this, man!"
posted by Thorzdad at 8:06 AM on April 2, 2006

Well, I think that one thing to remember is that lots of 60s and 70s bands legitimately used backward-recording techniques to achieve certain sounds. For example, The Beatles used a backward guitar solo in Tomorrow Never Knows, and LedZep used backwards cymbal crashes in numerous songs. So it's possible that the whole thing started when people wanted to hear what these elements sounded like when played "forward."

Of course, I wouldn't count out the possibility that they were also really fucking high.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:17 AM on April 2, 2006

Also note that when DJs cued records in a radio studio, they often had to spin backwards anyway to re-set the track start after checking it. It wasn't as though no one ever spun a disc backwards until the 60s.
posted by Miko at 8:30 AM on April 2, 2006

Remember, we didn't have the internet to waste time with, so we had to create our own fun.

*reminisces fondly about exchanging reasons Paul was dead*
posted by languagehat at 8:46 AM on April 2, 2006

By the mid/later 70s, just record to a cassette, pop the tape open and flip the reels, and put back together.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:55 AM on April 2, 2006

With a belt-drive turntable, it is trivial to twist the belt into a figure 8 conformation to play records backwards.
posted by nowonmai at 9:18 AM on April 2, 2006

The way DJs do it is to flip the cartridge around (so it's pointing up, shift the weight so that the armateur drifts upwards, then put the record on a roll of tape or something so the cartridge can press up against the bottom of the record.
posted by phrontist at 10:24 AM on April 2, 2006

Although this is pure speculation, I wouldn't rule out simple marketing ploys here. Although the term "viral marketing" is relatively new, I wouldn't be surprised if the concept, in one form or another, was around back then.
posted by sic at 10:25 AM on April 2, 2006

Well, speaking from experience, I know that my brothers and I figured out how to spin the record player backward by hand before we were very old. (I was probably eight and my next brother probably seven.) It wasn't hard to do, and a very natural thing for boys to try. We weren't looking for hidden messages (nor did we have any concept that they existed), we were just screwing around, and thought the records sounded hilarious in reverse. Dad didn't agree.

It wasn't until junior high or highschool that I learned of the concept of backmasking, but it didn't surprise me, and I knew instinctively how to listen for it because I'd often spun records backward by hand.

And remember: most record players were cheap. (My dad's wasn't, and thus the reason he was not amused.) Spinning the record in reverse by hand was no big deal.

Basically, it was easier to play songs backward from record than it is to play them backward on a computer. And it was a more obvious thing to try. There's not much mystery here.
posted by jdroth at 10:45 AM on April 2, 2006

People seem to be interpreting this question in different ways but I read:

Now, it's easy enough - you record it on your PC and reverse the waveform, however we're talking about bakelite turntables from Woolies here.

Were all these kids so desperate to find messages from Satan that they all ripped open their record players and reversed the motors?

The bolds are mine. The answer, as has been stated is that we did this all the time by simply putting your hand itself on the turntable and moving it backwards. No "ripping open" required. Other tricks lost by the post-vinyl crowd:

1) Take a needle and tape it to a paper funnel. Now, spin the LP on the tip of a pencil and gently lower the needle onto the record. Voila! instant manual turntable!

2) Spin (again manually) the turntable at differrent speeds and get a creepy slow drawl all the way to chipmunk voices.
posted by vacapinta at 12:28 PM on April 2, 2006

Yeah, I learned about it from a travelling minister, who offered our youth group very interesting lessons in deconstructing lyrics and how to play records and cassette tapes backwards (you cut the tape and flip it around, then splice it back in with scotch tape). Unfortunately he was stuck on the idea that everything ambiguous or weird = Satanism. Interesting guy though. Taught me to look past the obvious meaning of things, which got me interested in poetry and all kinds of things.

p.s. Spinning records backwards doesn't destroy the needle that easily. I never broke one despite lots of abuse. I even played my Batman and Robin records backwards.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 12:56 PM on April 2, 2006

The question itself really highlights the change in thinking that occurs when we leap from analog to digital technology. With analog there were parts -- we could see them working, they were of a size we could manipulate, and we used our human tendency toward experimentation to discover the potentials.

That someone raised in an all-digital era can't imagine why or how we would discover this speaks to the loss of engagement with the physical world that is the result of the application of digital information management.
posted by Miko at 1:15 PM on April 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Baskmasking fans! Don't miss the shattering revelations in:

Rape of the Soul!
posted by dpcoffin at 1:18 PM on April 2, 2006

Off-topic, but I recall reading in a guitar magazine about an effects pedal which imitated the sound of back-masking, by changing the ADSR in some way.

You can imagine the looks on stoned audience-members' faces. "He's, like, playing his guitar backward, man!"
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:15 PM on April 2, 2006

Spinning the turntable backwards with your hand was strictly for amateurs. But back then, that was the only tech many had. However, I was into reel tape recorders at the time, when the cassette was still new. And in 1969 I got my first stereo reel-to-reel, so I was well-positioned to play "Revolution #9" backwards and hear "Number Nine Number Nine" become "Turn me on, dead man."

> L
> R
< L
< R

Stereo reel-to-reel
> L
< L
> R
< R

Unlike cassettes, reel-to-reels alternated the tracks, so you could play a stereo tape on a mono reel-to-reel and get one track backwards, perfectly. Or you could play a mono tape on a stereo reel-to-reel and get the whole thing backwards, on one channel.
In other words, unlike cassettes, stereo reel-to-reel tapes were not compatible with mono equipment.
posted by Rash at 9:35 AM on April 3, 2006

Addressing the original question, "How did we know" to do this, you gotta realize, 'Paul is Dead' was huge. Details were all over the popular press and the radio, at the time.
posted by Rash at 9:53 AM on April 3, 2006

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