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Backwords and Music of the Beatles and solo Lennon

1966 -- the midpoint and perhaps turning point of the Beatles' musical and cultural presence. Culturally, things turn all around: John meets Yoko, touring ends, the first truly negative press coverage accompanies the "more popular than Christ" controversy, drug use (especially by Lennon) hits its peak. Musically, the product undergoes serious changes in both lyrical and aural content. More than coincidentally, the youth of Western Civilization are exposed for the first time to what is later termed "backwards masking," the sound of the innovative, psychedelic, surrealistic period of the "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper," and "Magical Mystery Tour" albums and the intervening singles.

For you sane enough to not have spent much time on this matter, some backwards-ground information might be helpful. Running tape backward reverses the order of notes, so the notes B-A-G are turned into G-A-B; what goes down must come up, and the reverse.

More impressive is the turnabout of the envelope or sonic shape of each individual sound: the end comes first, then the middle, then the beginning. It's an artificial alteration, a freak accident of analog technology. Interpret the little magnetic molecules in the reverse order and you get a foreign similarity, a different sameness. As a simple, plaintext example, it's the difference between a lowercase b and a lowercase d... the same shape, but backwards. Continuing, if the letter b were a note, you'd hear the line first, then the round part, and gracefully fade out to a single point then silence. Rotate a b in the horizontal plane and you "hear" a d: the fadeup from a single point to the round part, ending abruptly with the line. Similarly, with backwards masking each sound comes up the way it used to fade and fades the way it used to come up.

As you might guess, this process changes the sound of the instrument (or voice) while still evoking the original material as recorded in the usual front-to-back fashion. It is this quality of strange familiarity that makes backwards masking unique. Never mind the opportunity it presents to hide Satanic messages or deep clues about dead bass players on otherwise innocent pop records ... Art Historically, backwards masking is a surrealist device evocative of Marcel Duchamp, a "found" sound.

Transcending the natural connotations of standard instruments and voices, this approach treats sound as an abstract, plastic entity that can be reversed, (also sped up or slowed down) for effect. And because of the differences between hearing and speech, and the use of a technological cloning device (tape recorder) as the medium, there is no verbal equivalent. In writing, you can emulate musical techniques such as stacatto (peter Piper pickezd a peck of pickled etc.) or legato (away alone a last a love along the), but backwards masking just doesn't compute. Tricks like inverting letters (evoba eltit ees) or creating palindromes (Madam I'm Adam) correspond only intellectually and don't have a comparable impact.

Film can come pretty close. There's a great video of Steve Allen "creating" a banana, made by reversing a tape of Mr. Allen devouring said fruit. Graphically, especially for those visually oriented, it's easy to produce even with letters, but is easily perceived in things like negative photos, mirror images, and fractals.

The origin of this idea, who thought of flipping the tape and when and the like, is unclear. George Martin has taken credit in Lewisohn's book (p. 74 of "Recording Sessions"), and that may be so. Then again, there were ample opportunities for anyone in the group to come up with this idea. For example, given the drug use of the time and the fact that they all owned personal tape recorders, any of them could have first heard it by accident, putting in a tape the wrong way while stoned, which would support Lennon's asserted claim.

As with the topic of the earlier harmonic article, there are no index entries to guide one through Beatle-related books on this subject, and precious little written when you can find it. Things often being important in inverse proportion to the conventional attention paid to them, I thought it might be interesting to listen to all the songs with backwards masking and hear what's really there. To do so, and create a chronological order tape portable to my car stereo, I recorded all the tunes known or suspected to contain backwards material on tracks 3 and 4 (the "other side") of a conventional stereo tape, starting with the last suspect first. Flip and play tracks 1 and 2: you get 'em all backwards in date order.

Because the use of backwards masking came in at the same time as speed alterations ("Rain" is the prototype cut for this approach), I had to listen several times, especially with the speed slowed down, to get a clear picture. Even then there was difficulty. Some instruments have a fairly symmetrical envelope )sounding about the same backwards and forwards, as the letters "o" and "l" of the alphabet look the same from either direction). This is true for horns, strings, and the Hammond organ: those that sustain notes, unlike guitars and drums where the envelope is less symmetrical. Things like tape loops add to the confusion, the original sound is so weird it's hard to tell back from front.

Listening to this stuff is a strange sort of fun, like hearing the Czechoslovakian Beatles On Acid, and highly recommended. So here's what there is, in date order of recording:

"Tomorrow Never Knows" (April, 1966)

The very first note of the song is backwards sitar or tamboura drone. There also seem to be scattered overdubs of backwards Hammond organ notes throughout, and backwards, distortedly acidic guitar (severely sped up) in the solo. The guitar playing centers on descents, pentatonic ones at that, to reverse into ascents when you play the record. This is the Boys' first Eastern-mystical song and prominently placed as the album closer for "Revolver," the most innovative album. "TNK" is the absolute least "pop" song by them to date, with no romance or love object and ideas from the Tibetan Book of the Dead per Timothy Leary. It is as if the subject matter shift and the very sonic texture had to change simultaneously to support one another.

It's the first assertion of the Seekers After Truth not lovable moptop troubadors persona. It's almost impossible to tell that this song is by the same group that did "She Loves You." Welcome to the spiritual search Eastern flavor, alienation from regular Judaeo-Christian materialist sensationalist society and all the good and bad of the Karma Cola period. Two of John's songs on this album mention dying, as does one of Paul's. Following this theme would certainly be an interesting exercise, but suffice it to say the quest the Next Big Thing and Enlightenment Too begins here and we are well on our way to the disaster with the Maharishi. That worthy is currently selling an end to crime for only pennies a day in newspaper ads...

Returning to the material, one has to acknowledge a definite artistic success, a very interesting and well-realized piece where the words and music explore new territory in a complementary and effective fashion.

"Rain" (April, 1966)

This all-timer gives us the first time vocals are turned backwards: "do something with my voice." Specifically there are three passages from the forwards version of the released vocal and they occur in this order: "If the rain comes they run and hide their heads," "Raaaaaain...," and "when the sun shines." As with "TNK," there are speed changes: the entire song was recorded at a faster speed and then slowed down to elongate the envelope and change the texture.

This one hits the public first, as a double A side single with "Paperback Writer." The theme of alienation or outsiderness in Lennon's work, introduced in "There's A Place," continued in "Help!" and "Nowhere Man," reaches a new plateau here. The world is divided into "us" and "them" for the first time. It is "they" who run and hide their heads, "I" who can show "you" that it's just a state of mind, "you" who can hear "me" explain that everything's the same when it rains. No lover or potential mate: "TNK" a direct address to an audience of peers.

The overall single is the first overt musical social comment from the Boys, the first single not to address mating behavior at all. Note in passing that "Paperback Writer" is ironically a sharp good portrait of keeny author Dirk McQuickly himself hustling his pop songs, and one of McCartney's best to date. Paul's Beatle music is usually successful when it's uptempo and/or personally revealing regardless of intent, another topic that merits more attention.

"I'm Only Sleeping" (May, 1966)

The guitar is the backwards focus here, a few early accentuating riffs between the words, typical George, pentatonic-fill guitar-player noodlestuff. The solo is prominent of course and also inverted, mentioned by Lewisohn as perhaps the only case of a musical line composed frontwards then reversed solely for envelope effect. For that reason, the part played sounds pretty strange forwards. To my ear it seems to have been recorded at a slower speed in a different key, two guitar takes plus a single sitar or tamboura note to fill it out. The coda features a backwards guitar riff seemingly very sped up, sounds like a six string (not the Rickenbacker twelve) with a raga-style approach of some single notes plus a droning root/fifth combination, guitar emulating sitar.

The central statement extends the thread noted earlier in "Rain" and prefigures "Strawberry Fields:" the introverted loner in opposition to frenetic everyday society, the alienated artist alone in the world of the imagination which is the only true refuge and so on. Again romance is not the issue. again Lennon.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" Backwards Talk Experiment (approx. November, 1966)

This unused and unreleased snippet seems to be John trying talk forwards pidgin pseudo-Czech to get the effect of backwards speech. It is not particularly interesting or effective; small wonder it gets dropped. Interestingly, this cut (my source is the "Lost Lennon Tapes" Vol. 9 LP on Bag Records) seems to include a tape loop used in the released version. That loop is of the mellotron doodling around in the B or whatever diatonic scale, and appears in the final section. One strong implication is that many of the loops the Boys used were of sped up mellotron; the speed is heavily kicked here and more so on the actual song.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" (December, 1966)

On the next to last verse there is backwards, very steady playing on the percussion. The instrument could be a closed hihat but also sounds kind of like a saucepan, followed by what is clearly some snare and cymbals. The last verse has a steady beat on what sounds like a drum or tin can, again reversed. The coda has that tape loop mentioned in the previous paragraph.

This headliner, another double A-sider backed with one of McCartney's more personal songs, is the first to use reversed percussion, the second use of backmask on a major single, and probably the most prominent of all in the entire canon. Notice how there has been an almost systematic exploration of the possibilities: in just a few cuts we have random-style guitars, Indian stringed instruments, voice, well-planned guitars, doodle loops, and percussion as variations on the backwards theme.

As with the previous cuts, there's a close relationship between the sound and the lyrical content, and no love affair. The theme of alienation, of a distinct and unique personal reality separate from the generally agreed upon assumption-framework, attains its fullest total expression in the one song that most epitomizes the surreal expressionist period. All of this from nowhere in about eight months, with a final! tour in there too. And all four John songs.

"Only a Northern Song" (February, 1967)

The intro sounds like backwards organ; there are lots of hard-to-hear loops and symmetrical envelope instruments here, perhaps some rapidly repeated single mellotron notes and sustain guitar effects backwards. Buried and released much later on the throwaway Yellow Submarine album, again with no love interest, this interesting cut is the ultimate answer to people who insist on playing Beatle songs as written in the published chord books. George's first entry, though not a prominent one, in the backwards game.

"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" (February, 1967)

Some of the tape snippets in the solo have to be backwards if you believe Martin's story of cutting tapes up and putting them back together at random to get that swelling calliope sound. Whenever discussing this song, one must write the word Stockhausen; consider it done. John is back, the absence of romantic content remains.

"A Day in the Life" (February, 1967)

Nothing discernible during the main part of the song, but there is always the famous coda at the end of "Sgt. Pepper," a loop of chatter and silliness. After several listenings backwards and forwards at various speeds, it sounds to me like the content is really forward speech of "Never goose me any other way" sung to a scalar melody and sped up. Backwards it sounds like "Yeah we'll love you like you're superman" but there seems to be no "f" sound anywhere, in either direction, at any speed. Whatever it is, it's clearly McCartney. There is also someone singing a simple "dum-da-dum" or somesuch that is definitely Lennon, and a laugh of "ho ho ho" sounding like Ringo on the last repeat of the loop, backwards.

"Baby You're A Rich Man" (May, 1967)

The fill-ins between the words, bridging the chorus's questions and Lennon's answers consist of backwards pentatonic riff guitar, sped up, as in "TNK." Writing for and about for Brian Epstein, dead proof that money, even handily in a paper bag, cannot buy happiness, it's John again, and no love object (at least overtly).

"It's All Too Much" (June, 1967)

The intro is backwards guitar and the coda on the released version has some reversed heavily distorted guitar playing. The intro is just like the beginning of a Hendrix album but backwards, something from Are You Experienced or something like that. There is also reverse guitar on sustained notes in the middle right after the solo, and some before it, severely sped up. George returns, and the first time the technique is used in a song about love.

"Aerial Tour Instrumental/The Bus" (September, 1967)

This one has lots of backward percussion, like "SFF". There is also some backwards mellotron doodling and bass guitar too, the latter for the first time. The percussion includes hihat on straight beats, fills with hihat, drum rolls, maracas, and a knocking of some sort; according to Lewisohn, this material was compiled by John and Ringo. Mark also states that backwards organ is the basic rhythm, but he might really mean the mellotron. Clearly a strong Lennon influence, and while there are no lyrics the title doesn't mention love.

"Blue Jay Way" (October, 1967)

Early on in this one we hear the first reuse of vocal inversion with a backwards "don't belong" backwards, stolen from end coda. Several snippets of the reversed vocal are faded in and out quickly. George is clearly more into it now, this is his third piece, and again the focus of the song is not romance. One of George's best overall Beatle cuts, and probably the best of his Indian-flavored pieces.

"Revolution 9" (June, 1968)

A steady flow of backwards material approaches an abrupt end. This cut, in some ways not a song at all but certainly an interesting piece, comes eight months after the previous, our largest gap since the technique was adopted. As with the harmonica, we are about to see an abrupt dumping of a very characteristic sound, one chosen by Peter Paul and Mary in "Rock and Roll Music" as a Beatle style mark equal to their vocal harmonies. As Senor Pollack says, the avoidance of foolish consistency.

Ironically, or perhaps exactly what people like me deserve, this nearly non-musical cut, hated by so many, has the most backwards material of all, in this order: piano doodle, rock and roll loop with strings, piano doodle, string chamber music, orchestra, guitar doodle loop, orchestra, a Gregorian chant twice, loop of car horns and orchestra, crowd noise, lounge piano doodle loop, crowd noise, clapping, heavy rock beat with drums or piano, Gregorian chant, orchestra music, Gregorian chant. Looking at the bright side, of all the songs this one sounds the most the same whether you listen to it backwards or frontwards. like "You Know My Name, Look Up The Number," a great Beatle song to put on at a party.

Lennon solo: "#9 Dream" (1972)

Once the psychedelic short story period ends, you don't really hear this technique anymore. About halfway through on this suspect, I heard the name "John" backwards. This "Walls and Bridges" album cut is just about Lennon's only effort to return to the surrealist tone poem gig in the post-Beatle years.

"Peace of Mind" (year unknown)

I've read that this is could be a forgery, but it does sounds authentic on vocal and guitar, fits into Lennon's picking style and sounds like his voice. I treat it separately because of its raw, unreleased and dubious nature. Overall it would fit most into the White Album era. Backwards there is a group or one person overdubbed a few times singing "bum bum bum" in diatonic arpeggiated harmony, like "Whispering Bells" or something, the same material used as both the intro and the coda.

Closing Rap

I listened to a lot of material I didn't mention here, including the likely songs such as "I Am the Walrus," "Mind Games" and so on but didn't hear any definite backwards materials. Like anyone and even more so I am subject to error, so those of you out there who find things I've missed, please make like a toker and pass it along, in care of the email address at the top. This space may be opinionated, but it does not claim to be definitive.

Viewed from above, we again see the bell curve of backwards masking mirrors that of the harmonica: quick start, build to a peak high-frequency, then a rapid dropoff. In terms of instruments, the content as you'd expect concentrates mostly on the those that change the most when you invert the envelope: vocal, guitar, and drums; there's a decent amount of mellotron and Hammond organ too.

On the whodunit side, Paul is not surprisingly mostly a non-factor, there's a heavy tilt toward John and a strong representation from George. This isn't shocking given the marked sympathy between G and J on Eastern "mystical" and general anti-social issues, in contrast with the other two who were always more normal or integrated or something. But that's the Beatles, isn't it, something for everyone.

The Beatles' use of backwards masking peaks in and coincides with their most creative period and parallels their branching out into social comment and an increased distance from mainstream adult society. It is the work of this period that deviates the most from their original roots and influences. One senses an unexplored world- an abyss retreated from, or perhaps fallen from, or a promised land that like Moses' is visible but impregnable. Or a normal peak like any other, impossible to control or sustain.

Lewisohn accurately stresses that like Phil Spector in his heyday, the Boys simply started to run out of band-width, too much quantity of sound reducing the quality. Most of the lead vocals on these cuts have little clarity, harmony singing is much less emphasized; there just isn't room for it with so much going on. The need for the simplicity of most "White Album" and all "Get Back" efforts and a return to more familiar territory, is summarized in the anecdote Mark reports about them having to overdub Ringo pounding a packing case because the snare beat was lost in the wash. Be all that as it may, the strange familiarity of backwards masking will always be a hallmark of this phase, and a major creative contribution of John Lennon, the Beatles and George Martin to popular music.

Turn me on, dead man.