When I was around 10 years old, I wandered into a rural flea market and found one of the greatest pieces of music journalism ever written: a forgotten crank masterpiece called Backward Masking Unmasked that had been written in 1983 by Texan minister Jacob Aranza. The basic premise is familiar to most rock fans: Satan and his long-haired agents are inserting backward messages into our rock music telling us to reject Christ and maybe kill ourselves. These messages are then decoded by the brain's useless-faculties lobe, which busies itself with processing everything backward, just in case, and before we know it we're smoking drugs and mouthing off to our elders.
In Unmasked, Aranza lays down some pretty damning evidence of subliminal persuasion: "Queen, a group who's [sic] name is often used in slang to mean homosexual, had a hit song entitled 'Another One Bites the Dust.' The segment in which they sing that chorus, when played backwards, says, 'Decide to smoke marijuana, marijuana, marijuana.' " I checked it myself: if you reverse the track, Freddie distinctly says, "T'sud hetsub ewannah," which is close enough — just think how the impressionable backward-processing portions of a teenager's brain might interpret that suggestive set of phonemes.
Aranza doesn't stop at unmasking hidden messages — he blows the lid off the whole Satanist conspiracy of rock. Much of the book is just a compendium of rock-star sins. Were you aware that Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees indulges in pornographic drawing? Or that Ted Nugent once ate a raccoon? Did you know that KISS means Kids in Satan's Service? And that the Captain and Tennille are vegetarians? The mind boggles at such perversity.
Best of all, Aranza's razor-sharp editorializing adds a backbone of authentic crankiness to what might have turned into just another screed. "Rumours may be the hit album for Fleetwood Mac, but it's no rumor that this group is indulging in the occult." "A better name couldn't be given to them [the Grateful Dead] to describe their music. I'm sure many will be grateful when their music is dead." "A warning to those interested in flying with Jefferson Starship: their flight pattern ends in death."
This isn't just some square trying to lay his hang-ups on the kids, mind you — Aranza himself was a troubled youth, "deeply involved in the drug/rock culture" from a young age. His recollections of the time certainly sound authentic: "Words like 'far out, heavy, solid and wow' were in their prime. It seemed the whole world was taking acid, snorting THC and dropping mescaline." A vivid tableau like that almost makes me wish I'd been alive for the storied heyday of "wow," but I'm not sure I could handle all the weed snorting.
Most of us think of the whole backward-masking thing as a phenomenon of the '70s and '80s. Not so — as long as popular music can infiltrate the minds of the youth, Satan shall not rest. I've even tried my hand at reversing a few current hits, and the results are disturbing. Could Justin Timberlake's verses on T.I.'s "Dead and Gone" hide a demonic message? "Just trying to find my way back home, the old me's dead and gone, dead and gone." It may sound uplifting, but let's reverse it: Oh, a great, no a great evil, oh, a cat eat on my flesh.