Great Backwards Moments In Rock

I love recording studio shenanigans. And one of my favorite tricks is recording backwards.

This technique has a rich tradition—the Beatles made liberal use of it, Led Zeppelin was demonized for allegedly exploiting it, and, in my opinion, we are all better for it.

Here is my list of Great Backwards Moments In Rock.

1. “Are You Experienced?” by Jimi Hendrix

This song is a cornucopia of backwards recordings. The intro (listen to the original and reversed versions) features a backwards recording of Jimi strumming strings while muting them with his fretting hand. Throughout the song, backwards recordings of the cymbals and snare drum ebb and flow, enhancing the psychadelic lyrics. And the whole guitar solo is backwards (listen to the original and reversed versions). Groooovy!

Upside down guitar player2. “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin

Growing up, I heard rumors of rock songs that, if you played them backwards, would reveal satanic messages. In the 1980’s, Christian groups accused prominent rock bands of using this technique (called backmasking) to corrupt their fans.

When I was 11, I tried unlocking hidden messages on Kool and the Gang’s Celebration (my first record), and only succeeded in tweaking my record player’s needle. But now with digital recording software, there’s no need to bend needles or scratch vinyl. A couple mouse-clicks are all you need to unlock the Dark Lord’s missives.

So what does Beelzebub have to say? Well, apparently when Satan fell from grace, he sustained a serious head injury. “Stairway to Heaven,” the most notorious of the satanist-recruiting-classic-rock-songs, is a typical example of infernal incoherence.

The passage in question (listen) goes,

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now. It’s just a spring clean for the may queen. Yes there are two paths you can go by; but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.

And here’s the supposed satanic verse when you listen to it backwards (listen):

Here’s to my sweet Satan. The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan. He’ll give those with him 666. There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.

So Satan’s sweet? And sad? And he has a little path that makes us sad? This doesn’t sound like the Lord of the Flies, it sounds like Judy Garland wandering wistfully down the yellow-brick road.

Granted, the toolshed part is a bit creepy, but I thought these subliminal messages were supposed to hypnotize vulnerable teenagers into joining the Devil’s ranks. A story of torture in a toolshed is hardly effective recruiting material. Where are the earthly pleasures I was promised? I’m so confused.

3. “Empty Spaces” by Pink Floyd

Now here’s a real backmasked message, found in this ominous track from Pink Floyd’s masterpiece, The Wall. (Listen to the original, and reversed versions).

I found this information on Wikipedia:

Directly before the lyrical section, there is a hidden message. It is isolated on the left channel of the song. When heard normally, it appears to be nonsense. If played backwards, the following can be heard:

-Hello, Luka [hunters]… Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont…
-Roger! Carolyne’s on the phone!

It is believed that this backward message is a comical reference to former lead singer/guitarist Syd Barrett. The very beginning, which is hard to hear, is disputed: Roger Waters congratulates either a girl named Luka, or ‘hunters’ (i.e. people who deliberately look for backward messages hidden in songs) for finding this message, and jokes that she (or they) can send her (or their) answer to Syd (the ‘Old Pink’), who lives somewhere in a funny farm (a term to describe a Psychiatric hospital) in Chalfont. Before he can tell the exact location, however, he gets interrupted by someone (engineer James Guthrie) in the background who says Carolyn (Waters’ wife) is on the phone.

4. “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon

The musicianship on Paul Simon’s Graceland album is incredible, and some of my favorite performances are the bass grooves of Bakithi Kumalo. The second half of his explosive bass solo on “You Can Call Me Al” is a backwards-recording of the first half (listen).

5. “You Shook Me” by Led Zeppelin

What can I say? I’m a Zeppelin fanatic. This track features reverse-echo, a technique where reverb is applied to a track, but isolated on a separate track so that the track contains only the reverb, not the parent sound. Then the track is reversed, and mixed back in with the parent track (and the rest of the song) so that the reverb precedes the parent sound. The result is this fantastic foreshadowing of sound, as you’ll hear in the call-and-response between Robert Plant (on vocals) and Jimmy Page (on guitar) (listen).

Here’s Jimmy Page’s account of how the recording happened:

During one session [with The Yardbirds], we were recording “Ten Little Indians”, which was an extremely silly song that featured a truly awful brass arrangement. In fact, the whole track sounded terrible. In a desperate attempt to salvage it, I hit upon an idea. I said, “Look, turn the tape over and employ the echo for the brass on a spare track. Then turn it back over and we’ll get the echo preceding the signal.” The result was very interesting — it made the track sound like it was going backwards.

Later, when we recorded “You Shook Me”, I told the engineer, Glyn Johns, that I wanted to use backwards echo on the end. He said, “Jimmy, it can’t be done”. I said “Yes, it can. I’ve already done it.” Then he began arguing, so I said, “Look, I’m the producer. I’m going to tell you what to do, and just do it.” So he grudgingly did everything I told him to, and when we were finished he started refusing to push the fader up so I could hear the result. Finally, I had to scream, “Push the bloody fader up!” And lo and behold, the effect worked perfectly.

So those are my five favorite backwards-recordings. What are yours?

Comments 13

  1. Well… I don’t have any others.
    Although ‘Call Me Al’ had me spend hours on my CD, trying to find the *exact* point where the solo switches from forward to backward. =D

    Also, I must add, this is a wonderful, wonderful blog, and has really been an inspiration to me.

  2. Lest not forget Pink Floyd’s “One of These days”
    [backwards-one of these days i’m going to cut you into little pieces].

    Also,though not really backward masking…Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love has Plant’s vocal overlay twice dubbed[Way down inside, woman, you need it…Loooove!]
    I think the previous track never fully erased and bled through.
    Cool effect though.

  3. baracuda68: I am pretty sure the line “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces” is spoken forward, albeit heavily treated, as you can reasonably easily make out the line during normal listening. Perhaps they play it forward and backwards in the song?

  4. ummm, you kinda left out the grand daddy of them all, the beatles’ ‘revolution 9’, ya kno the one with ‘turn me on dead man, turn me on…’. i used to scare the dickens out of my lil sis with this years ago. she loves the beatles but loathes number 9 to this day. ha!

  5. Haha. That’s really funny about The Beatle’s Revolution 9.

    You mention the “reverb only” trick and I wonder if that’s the same sort of thing used on Underoath’s “It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door.”

    The first time that he sings the chorus, there’s this ghostly lead in of the singer’s voice, but it sounds like only reverb.

    1. There is a great reverse solo on “I’ve Seen That Movie,Too” on Elton John’s “Good-Bye Yellow Brick Road” album.(By Davey Johnstone.) Another can be found on The Doobie Bros. Stampede” Album. “Music Man” has a cool “reverse” as well as other interesting guitar interaction. The song was actually pruduced by Curtis Mayfield!  Also, I could SWEAR the lead guitar in the first few bars of “Magic Man” by Heart is reversed……I’m actually a Keyboard guy, so can anyone here verify the “Magic Man” claim?    

      1. Post

        Hey Will,

        I just gave “Magic Man” a listen.  Hadn’t heard that one in a while–oh my god, what an amazing tune. 

        There is definitely some backward recording in the intro. It’s a little hard to tell exactly what’s going on. One of the main indicators of a reversed guitar part is that notes that are held for a second or longer swell in volume in stead of decaying normally. But Nancy Wilson’s guitar has enough distortion on it to almost totally get rid of any decay.

        Also, when you are rests between notes and a solo, you can easily hear the attack (the sound of the pick striking the string) occurring at the end of the note instead of the beginning. The intro solo is one continuous series of notes.

        BUT, another hallmark of backwards-recorded guitar is weird-sounding bends, and there’s definitely one in the last bar of the intro. People just don’t bend like that, and bending a string speeds up its decay, making it more noticeable.

        I’m going to bet that all but the very first note of the solo is backwards-recorded. The first snow sounds normal, because the attack happens at the beginning of the note. But then, if you listen carefully you can hear the end of that note cross faded with the backwards-recorded section that follows.

        That was a fun little puzzle. Thanks for writing!

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