In the first half of this exploration, I specifically dealt with messages and information hidden in artwork and liner notes for albums. Now I want to shift from packaging to product, and explore messages hidden within the songs themselves.
No discussion of hidden messages in music would be complete without at least touching on backmasking.
Basically, backmasking isn’t a thing. Well, it sort of is, but not the way you think. There are so many layers to this, it’s hard to summarize. For a good primer, check out this article from A Journal of Musical Things, or this entry in The Skeptic’s Dictionary. The main takeaway is that Satan isn’t surreptitiously hiding messages backwards in rock music, no matter how badly people need to convince themselves otherwise.
On the other hand, there are unambiguous examples of artists intentionally putting backwards sounds in their works. The main thing that separates this from the traditional “backmasking” idea is that it’s generally for artistic and/or humorous purposes, nothing sinister or hidden. The Beatles were pioneers in studio trickery in their later years, so it’s no surprise that they explored backwards messages. ELO, Frank Zappa, and Pink Floyd have also had fun with the concept. At the beginning of “Empty Spaces” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, there’s a bit of obvious backwards audio. In part, the reversed message says “Congratulations, you have discovered the hidden message”.
Ever the relevent satirist, “Weird Al” Yankovic has had fun with this as well. His 1983 tribute to horror movies “Nature Trail to Hell” has growling backwards audio during the instrumental break. Reversed, it says “Satan eats Cheese Whiz”. Even more cheeky, 1996’s “I Remember Larry” contains a backwards recording of “Wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands.”
Playing a song on a record backwards was a relatively trivial task. Once CDs became more standard than records, the practice became less common, and most of the hysteria went away. But where one type of audio trickery waned, a new trend emerged: hidden tracks.
One of the most well-known and talked about examples came from Nirvana. On most CD copies of 1991’s legendary Nevermind, the 12th track is over 20 minutes, even though the listed song, “Something in the Way”, is less than 4. After the song ends, there’s about 10 minutes of silence, then “Endless, Nameless” starts. You see, back in the early 90s, you would generally just put the CD in the CD player and hit “play”. You generally wouldn’t think to check track lengths or anything like that, so at first most were taken by surprise if they forgot to eject the disc after the last song. It’s a plodding, messy bit of chaos, and while it’s not exactly terrible, it’s also not hard to see why it was relegated to “bonus track” status.
And, once again, Weird Al got on top of this right away. In 1992, Al released Off the Deep End. The cover satirized the Nevermind cover, and the lead single was the classic parody “Smells Like Nirvana”. Adding an extra layer to the tribute, there’s an unlisted 12th track on the CD release called “Bite Me”. It’s a 6 second track that sounds like it was extracted from the most chaotic jam session in history… with another backwards message thrown in for good measure. And unlike “Endless, Nameless”, which has a slow build, Al’s bonus track is essentially a jump scare.
Putting a “hidden” track at the end of a CD is one thing, but a slightly less accessible method is to put it before the first track. In 1996, They Might Be Giants released Factory Showroom. At first appearance, it has 13 tracks, with no surprise at the end of the 13th. But with some CD players, if you would pause the disc as soon as the first track started playing, and rewind about a minute, you would hear “Token Back to Brooklyn“, a strange short track that, according to Radio TMBG, was meant to “evoke a low-key nightmare”. Unfortunately, not all CD players would read this track properly, regardless of how you tried to listen to it. Further, some older CD players and many CD-ROM drives were confused by what was mistakenly interpreted as a data track, and were unable to play the disc at all. The song has since been included on a few collections to make it easier for fans to obtain a more “normal” copy.
Breadcrumbs and Puzzle Pieces
Methods for hiding information in audio have shifted and developed over the years. Simultaneously, the ability of the listener to manipulate the audio to find this information also advanced. A few decades ago, finding some of these would have taken several hours of meticulous tape splicing and arranging. These days, it can be a simple matter of spending a few minutes in your audio editing software of choice.
One of the undisputed masters of this has to be Tool. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding several articles and extensive perpetual blogs on this, but I want to focus on one specific example. Among the 11 tracks on 2006’s 10,000 Days (still their newest album as of this writing) were 3 which turned out to be puzzle pieces. You can put two of the shorter ones together and play them at the same time as the longer one, and a whole new song is formed. In the first half, strange noises from one compliment the melody of another. In the second half, vocals from two different songs alternate to form a new set of lyrics.
Data Within Data
Beyond piecing together existing audio to form something new, the world of computing has provided various ways to “hide” data inside audio, and vice versa. The most common form of this is the use of spectograms. A spectogram is a visual representation of sound, similar to a waveform but more complex. Two artists in particular have made extensive use of this trick, Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares. Spectograms of The Venetian Snares’ (aka Aaron Funk) 2001 album Songs About My Cats display pictures of his cats. Aphex Twin (aka Richard D. James) went a bit more creepy and personal. He released a song whose official title is a complex equation, as a b-side for 1999’s “Windowlicker”. The spectogram of this song contains an image of his face, run through filters to look sort of like an x-ray.
The effort required to “decode” these images is trivial compared to what The Information Society expected in 1992. On the album Peace and Love Inc (only available on vinyl at the time), there was a track called “300bps N, 8, 1 (Terminal Mode or Ascii Download).” If you were to listen to it normally, it would just be a bunch of binary noise. The title is an explanation of how to use a computer modem to convert the binary into a text file, which tells a (likely exaggerated) tale of the band’s woes with the Brazilian government.
This wasn’t unprecedented, but the most remarkable version of this from previous years wasn’t meant to be a secret. The October 1984 issue of Computer and Video Games Magazine came with a 7″ vinyl flexi-disc. Readers were to record the audio onto a cassette tape, then load that into the tape drive of their Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum computer. It was The Thompson Twins Adventure, a game loosely based on the lyrics of that band’s recent hit “Doctor! Doctor!”
Everything Old is New Again
The earliest example of a “hidden code” appears to be cryptographic “non-standard” hieroglyphics, circa 1900 BCE, discovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb. There’s little evidence that they were intended to convey important information, but rather it was most likely done for amusement. I would hope that those tasked with decorating these tombs would be proud of how some of us have maintained and advanced the artform.