The bassline: The evolution of secret codes embedded in vinyls

A black and orange Beatles record with 2 speech bubbles emerging from it: one has a teal outline and a light cyan interior, filled with teal music notes. The other speech bubble has a red outline and red music notes and is filled in with black.
Graphic by Elaine Yang

Digital music has been revolutionary in its powers of streaming and accessibility, but it’s eliminated the possibility of an old rock ‘n’ roll tradition. 

Artists in the 60s and ’70s, such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Queen, expressed secret subliminal messages through their music in a process known as backmasking. Coded messages were hidden in the layered lyrics of tracks, only apparent once the record is spun backwards. 

Often these messages were interpreted as occult symbols with dark imagery and demonic phrases. Many of the songs became censored in several countries and from public radio stations due to religious outcry. However, backmasking provided another channel for rock ‘n’ roll to represent its true form of rebellion.

Backmasking was used by The Beatles for the first time on the single “Rain” from 1966. John Lennon discussed discovering it in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine.

“On the end of ‘Rain’ you hear me singing it backwards … So I got home about five in the morning, stoned out of me head,” Lennon said. “I staggered up to me tape recorder … and I was in a trance … what is it — what is it? … It just came out backwards, it just blew me mind.” 

In “Rain,” the backmasked message is deliberate, repeating the first line of the song, “If the rain comes,” with slightly different wording: “When the rain comes.” But often, artists have accidentally encrypted secret messages in their lyrics. A theory was proposed in 1987 by David John Oates claiming that the effect is due to the process of reverse speech. 

This theory suggests that backwards messages could reveal the truth or the innermost thoughts of the speaker, too often not apparent in forward speech. 

“Language is bi level — forwards as well as backwards,” according to Back Masking. “[I]t is a natural function of the human brain … The unintentional backmasked messages in music were the first signs to be discovered of this far greater phenomenon.”

This theory isn’t completely verified to be scientifically accurate and has largely been called a pseudo-scientific hypothesis for backmasking. Nevertheless, the coded messages have penetrated into American culture and fueled urban legends across college campuses throughout the later 20th century.

According to Curiosity, another theory states that there’s nothing actually recorded in reverse audio and it’s only our brain’s intense attachment to language that creates words out of random sounds. The brain then uses “top-down” processing to utilize context clues that help decipher a message.

Backmasking affords musicians the ability to provide social commentary or address difficult issues. Electric Light Orchestra received a lot of backlash from Christian groups for their album “Eldorado,” accusing it of containing Satanic verses in the reverse. They responded to the controversy by recording “Fire on High” with the intentional backmasked message: “The music is reversible but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.” 

ELO subsequently produced an entire album with reverse vocals called “Secret Messages” to revolt against their conservative critics.

Today it’s much more rare for modern artists to include cryptography in their music due to the decline of vinyls, but a few have succeeded in translating hidden lyrics to attentive fans. Franz Ferdinand included this sardonic line meant for the band’s homesick bassist in the song “Michael”: “She’s worried about you, call your mother.” 

They Might Be Giants also joined the tradition with their song “Which Describes How You’re Feeling (Demo).” It includes a backmasked message that ironically, yet succinctly illustrates the freedom that backmasking gives artists during a time of censorship and lyrical scrutiny.

The band sings of themselves in third person: “They Might Be Giants wanted to include a verse about the suffering people of the world, but we couldn’t figure out where to put it into the song.”

Kyla Walker PO ’22 is one of TSL’s music columnists. She loves playing guitar, reading any and all fiction and probably belongs in the 1960s.

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