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Monday, February 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Backmasking unmasked! Music site's in heavy ro

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Long before people were hawking food items on eBay with alleged imprints of famous faces — from the Virgin Mary's portrait on a grilled cheese sandwich to the mug of Jesus Christ on fish stick — people were finding secret meanings in rock music.

"People have a natural curiosity for hidden messages and the unknown," says 26-year-old Jeff Milner, who has fashioned himself into somewhat of an expert on the topic. "People like being in on the secret."

For years Milner had heard the rumors: Play Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" backward, and you'll hear "It's fun to smoke marijuana." Or listen to the Eagles' "Hotel California" in reverse to hear, "Satan he hears this." But it wasn't until the advent of digital audio editing technology that he was able to investigate for himself.

"I was curious whether there was something there, but I didn't actually have the time or inclination to bother," says the student at the University of Lethbridge in Canada.

Armed with the editing software called Audacity a couple of years ago, Milner tested portions of a few songs long-purported to contain messages in reverse. And he didn't stop there. He decided to share the samples — played forward and backward — on his Web site (warning: some backward "lyrics" are not for the faint of heart) www.jeffmilner.com/backmasking.htm.

As word of Milner's site made it into blogs and even The Wall Street Journal, his audience grew, and he now averages around 5,000 visitors a day.

Milner hopes the attention helps rekindle an interest in the decades-old fad that began, as a lot of things in rock music do, with the Beatles.

Turn me on, dead man

In 1969, rumors began to circulate that Paul McCartney had died in a car accident and was replaced by a look-alike. Conspiracy theorists pointed to many things, like album covers, photographs and lyrics to back their claims. But it was the band's "White Album" that was said to offer definitive proof. The gibberish at the end of "I'm So Tired" supposedly rendered "Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him... " when played backward on a turntable. Similarly, the repeated words "Number nine," in "Revolution 9" became "turn me on, dead man."

Though reports of Sir Paul's demise proved untrue, rumors of reversed and hidden, or "backmasked," messages by other artists continued to swirl. Years before the widespread availability of audio editing software, conjuring up backmasked messages required disengaging a turntable's RPM switch and manually rotating an album counterclockwise. Another option was to disassemble a cassette tape, flip the magnetic tape reel over and put it back together using duct tape. Since CDs couldn't be manipulated to play backward, interest in backmasking tapered off when they arrived.

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Satanic "Stairway"

Back in the late '80s, my friends and I opted for the cassette tape option to test the rumor that playing Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" backward revealed a Satanic sermon by Robert Plant.

It was too tempting to resist, even if it meant sacrificing my only copy of "Zeppelin IV." We set up camp in my friend's bedroom and listened intently with a mixture of anticipation and dread and braced ourselves for any supernatural forces we might unleash.

Distinguishing actual words among the garble proved to be too difficult for us. We got through the whole song once and tried a second time before we finally gave up.

What we should have been looking for, says Milner, is: "Oh 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 tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan."

Listening to it today and knowing what to listen for, I succeeded in distinguishing some of the words. The reason, according to another backmasking expert, is that until someone tells you what to listen for, reversed speech is all gibberish.

"If someone tells you to look for, 'The devil will kill you,' it sounds clear after you're told to listen for it," says Eric Borgos, who runs a Web site, TalkBackwards.com, which lets visitors upload audio files and play them backward. "Your mind just isn't trained to pick up that kind of thing."

Brian Wandell, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says the phenomenon is the result of human perception of noise, finding structure in everyday clamor like street traffic, a crowded restaurant or computer keyboards and fax machines in an office.

"Wait long enough and certain structures will start to emerge that people will agree on because our brains are built and wired to look for things according to particular rules," he says. "So it's not surprising that one might take 500,000 hours of famous songs and listen to them backward and occasionally hear something that everybody in the room agrees sounds like something weird — even though it wasn't intended to be there."

Sensitive issue

Most record companies and artists deny partaking in intentional backmasking. It has become a sensitive subject following a 1990 lawsuit that accused British heavy metal band Judas Priest of planting subliminal messages that promoted suicide and Satanism in its 1978 "Stained Class" album.

After two Judas Priest fans killed themselves in 1985, their parents sued the band and their record label, claiming that the album induced the men to form a suicide pact. A judge later cleared the band of any liability in the two deaths and ruled that the music did not cause the men to form a suicide pact.

Wandell says any claims that suggest messages imbedded through backmasking can be picked up by the subliminal mind, are just "bizarre" and "implausible."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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