I discovered the band Led Zeppelin when I was in middle school. I was completely blown away. Prior to then, I had mainly listened to what my parents listened to: 1970s soft rock and oldies from the 60s. Led Zeppelin completely altered the path of my musical taste. In short order, I saved money from allowance and mowing lawns to buy album after album. I was completely obsessed (I used to be able to list out from memory every song in their entire catalog in the order the songs appeared on their albums).
Not long after my Zeppelin obsession was in full bloom a report hit the media that the song “Stairway to Heaven” played backward contained a satanic message. The claim was that in the middle of the song when Robert Plant sings “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now…” there is an embedded message encouraging us to worship Satan.
Here’s a 2-minute video from a TED talk by author Michael Shermer where you can listen to this part of the song backward:
Here’s what the backward lyrics supposedly say:
“Oh here’s to my sweet Satan.
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan.
He will give you, give you 666.
There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”
There was a media firestorm over these supposed backmasked lyrics. The concern was that our brains could subliminally understand the satanic message and would turn us into Satan-worshipping zombies (or that we’d go on a quest for the toolshed of suffering, LOL). The California Legislature held hearings on backmasked lyrics and a bill was introduced to put a warning label on Led Zeppelin IV (which has Stairway to Heaven on it). Led Zeppelin mostly ignored the backmasking allegations and their record label merely said, “our turntables only play in one direction—forwards.”
As a young adolescent at the time, I was disturbed that my new favorite band might be satan worshippers. Also, a family member who knew of my love of Led Zeppelin pleaded with me to stop listening to the band and said she was concerned for my soul. After a few weeks of consternation, I decided that Led Zeppelin was so good that it was worth the risk that I’d be turned into a Satan-worshipper and my obsession with Led Zeppelin continued unabated. (I am glad to report that over the past 40 years I have experienced no Satanic worshipping urges even though I have listened to a prodigious amount of Led Zeppelin.)
So, does playing Stairway to Heaven backward really reveal satanic messages? No. The alleged satanic lyrics are the result of people finding patterns in background noise where none exist and then being prompted to find the patterns by other people. Our brains are pattern-recognizing machines because finding patterns gave us a survival advantage, but it’s led to us finding patterns where none exist.
As a species, we’ve evolved to be sensitive to patterns and to favor false positives over false negatives. Imagine it’s 100,000 years ago and you are living as a hunter-gatherer on the plains of Africa. You hear a bustle in your hedgerow. Is it just the wind or a predator (or just spring cleaning for the May Queen)? We gained a survival advantage by favoring the predator option over just the wind. If you are wrong and it’s a false positive — meaning that you run but it turns out to be the wind — no harm done and you still survive. However, if you choose to believe it’s the wind but it’s really a predator, that’s a false negative, and now you are both wrong and dead.
This ancient pattern-seeking propensity is still helpful in many aspects of our lives, but it also is a bit too overactive for the modern world in many other areas. We think we hear satanic lyrics in backward songs, we think we can predict outcomes of random events and we are especially susceptible to false pattern recognition in many aspects of the investment world.
The lesson of the Stairway to Heaven backmasking controversy is that we should be wary of patterns we think we see because our brains are primed to find patterns in randomness.
Want to listen to some Led Zeppelin? Here’s a playlist I made of some of their lesser-played/known songs that are fantastic: Some Zeppelin