Looking at music videos of the past few years, it’s difficult to believe that just a few decades ago, Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” single and music video were banned for ‘sexual content’ (ie. people in gym gear). The song was just one of many that, in the early to mid-1980s, were the focus of a strong backlash from Christian fundamentalists against what they saw as the pernicious influence of music on the morality of the nation.
Given the outrage over “Let’s Get Physical”, you can only imagine how Prince’s “Darling Nikki”, off the Purple Rain album, went down (pun not intended). The song’s lyrics spoke of Nikki, “a sex fiend”, who Prince met “in a hotel lobby masturbating in a magazine”. (It has been said that Tipper Gore – wife of former vice-president Al Gore – co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985 to censor offensive music because she witnessed her then 11-year-old daughter listening to and singing along to the song.)
If that wasn’t enough, the outro of the song was a curious a capella of unintelligible lyrics – which when played in reverse revealed the following words:
Hello, how are you?
I’m fine ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon
Coming, coming soon
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Being in reverse, Fundamentalist preachers were quick to condemn it as ‘Satanic’ – Prince was obviously referring to the *Dark* Lord, not Christ – based on the ‘backmasking’ panic that had also arisen around this time. Backmasking began…
…as many things do, with Thomas Edison. After inventing the phonograph in 1877, old Tom noticed that music in reverse sounded “novel and sweet but altogether different.” In the early 1950s, avant-garde musicians began incorporating that difference into their compositions. They ran reel-to-reel tape recorders backwards, and presto – the unsettling sound of a hundred little Hoovers sucking up a melody and lyric.
A decade later, The Beatles pushed backward sounds into the mainstream with such songs as “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Later, their audio reversals came back to haunt them with the Paul Is Dead rumors. But that’s a topic for another day.
The backmasking-Satanism connection can be traced to a 1913 book by mystic Aleister Crowley, who recommended that those interested in black magic would do well to “learn how to think and speak backwards.
It’s worth noting that Christian preachers saw two different types of ‘backmasking’: intentional, and unintentional. Prince’s “Darling Nikki” outro was an example of intentional backmasking: he sang it forwards, then put it down on tape backwards, meaning listeners just heard gibberish, unless they played it in reverse to hear the ‘secret message’.
But the other type was unintentional backmasking, where the lyrics were recorded forwards, but when played in reverse they also appeared to be intelligible (at least, to Christian preachers desperately searching for occult messages). In this case, it would seem to be far too difficult for anybody to write a song that was intelligible, with different lyrics, when played both forward and reverse. The conclusion many took – such as in the video below – was that demons, or the devil himself, were using rock musicians to communicate with this realm
The only workable explanation is that…outside intelligent forces with supernatural power are occasionally able to ‘play’ an artist, much like we would play a musical instrument.
Artists from Led Zeppelin to The Eagles, ELO and pretty much every metal band of the 1980s were accused of hiding paeans to Satan on their albums. The panic climaxed in a lawsuit filed against Judas Priest, which accused them of inciting two young men to commit suicide with alleged backmasked lyrics including “Let’s be dead” and “Do it”. (Amazingly, the case proceeded to trial because, according to a judge, “so-called ‘subliminals’ don’t constitute actual speech — and are therefore not protected by the First Amendment.”)
The case was eventually dismissed, with band manager Bill Curbishley famously noting that if he and the band actually knew how to influence people with subliminals, “I’d be saying, ‘Buy seven copies,’ not telling a couple of screwed-up kids to kill themselves.”
Interestingly, in Prince’s case, his studio engineer/technician for much of the 1980s Susan Rogers has noted that the intentional backmasking on “Darling Nikki” – rather than being Satanic – may actually have been an exorcism of a kind:
[Prince] had a complex relationship with sex. He had a father who was a jazz musician, very religious, and his father had very strong anti-sex views. So when Prince would have a strong statement of lust, like the song “Darling Nikki,” it’s usually followed by some sort of exorcism, like, “Forgive me, get this out of me.”…
This is his way of asking for forgiveness for having lust in his heart, and doing it in a way that was artistic. Great art comes from conflict, and he was conflicted, for sure.