Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is renowned as one of the greatest rock and roll epics of our time. Recorded in 1970, the song’s popularity has enjoyed an impressive longevity, as it is still widely played on radio stations worldwide. Part of Stairway’s enduring presence in the public’s conscience is owed to the controversy surrounding alleged hidden backwards messages–encoded via “backmasking”–which reached its pinnacle in the 1980s.
- “Backmasking,” which is a word formed from the original phrase “backward masking,” is used to describe a technique used while recording a musical track, such as on an album. When backmasking is employed, a secret message or sound is recorded on the track that you can only hear while playing the track backwards. When you rotate a turntable backward–either manually or using a specially designed turntable–the audio will play back in reverse, allowing the secret message to be heard.
- The first prominent instance of backmasking appeared in songs by The Beatles, specifically “Revolution No. 9” and “I’m So Tired,” which both appeared on the 1968 self-titled LP (aka “The White Album”). These tracks allegedly contained hidden messages revealing Paul McCartney’s death, such as “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him…” and “Turn me on, dead man…” and a Satanic message: “Satan look at me.” These rumors created a frenzy, causing listeners to obsessively play records backward, searching for hidden messages, while Christian pundits decried and denounced pop music containing supposed satanic messages.
- Two years later, Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven,” another song rumored to contain hidden backward messages. However, it wasn’t until 1982 that prominent Baptist radio DJ Michael Mills began purporting that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” contained dangerous satanic messages that were influencing young children to commit sins and participate in risky behavior. This accusation, along with the rising hysteria of the public, led to record-burnings, segments on talk shows devoted to searching for subliminal messages, and most importantly, court hearings regarding “dangerous” backmasking.
- According to backmasking expert, Jeff Milner, the backward lyrics are:Oh here’s to my sweet Satan.
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan.
He will give those with him 666.
There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.
Others claim that the words “I live for Satan” can be heard in the recording.
More recently, David John Oates conjectured in his book “Reverse Speech: Voices From the Unconscious,” that the messages within were unintentional, a result of the will of the subconscious. He claims to hear the words, “Words have two meanings,” “thoughts are misgiven” and “play backwards.”
In 1982, the Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee staged a hearing on backmasking, drawing on neuroscientists and other experts who claimed that backward messages in songs such as “Stairway to Heaven” have a negative influence on listeners.
- Backmasking also came under fire by the Parents Music Resource Center headed by Tipper Gore, wife of former vice president Al Gore, who accused several popular bands of encoding messages promoting drug use and Satan worship into their songs. This group of bands and musical artists — including (but not limited to) Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, Twisted Sister, Prince, Queen, KISS, Van Halen, Rush, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden and Styx — were charged with exposing children to overtly sexual and violent lyrics, both explicitly and through the use of backmasking. These legal proceedings eventually led to the institution of the Parental Advisory warning that now adorns albums containing “explicit lyrics” that refer to sex, drug use or violence.
- The band and the record label denied the claims — stating that any backward message heard by listeners were a result of the power of suggestion. The most well-known official stance comes from the Led Zeppelin’s producer who is quoted in Stephen Davis’ 1985 book “Hammer of the Gods” saying that the speculation was “totally and utterly ridiculous. Why would they want to spend so much studio time doing something so dumb?”
- Today, when most music is either in digital format or on CDs, which are easily converted to digital audio files, the easiest way to detect backward messages is by using digital audio manipulation programs. One such popular program is Audacity, an open-source audio editor and recorder that allows you to play songs backwards.