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!
2. “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
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?