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
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
"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
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
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.
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.