The continuing Satanic Panic and religious hysteria surrounding Led Zeppelin’s most famous recording.
The Year of Our Lord 2021 marks the golden anniversary of one of pop culture’s most enduring totems: the fourth record by British rock group Led Zeppelin. Famously the first record released without a title or even the band’s name anywhere on the cover – guitarist and keeper of Zep’s eternal flame Jimmy Page has often said that the album bore no title so the focus would be on the music instead of the band members themselves – the album is, ironically, known to fans by many names: the highly inspired Untitled; The Runes Album, the hippie friendly nod to the four glyphs used to refer to the band members on the record’s label; ZoSo, Page’s not-quite personally designed glyph whose meaning he threatens to take to his grave, should his death ever really happen; and the chronologically logical Led Zeppelin IV, coming as this record did after Led Zeppelins I, II and III. In his review of the record in the February 1972 issue of Creem magazine, Lester Bangs credits Dave Marsh with divining its best title: Atlantic SD 7208, its catalogue number at Atlantic Records. For the purposes of this essay, let’s just call it LZIV.
LZIV is a great album, a more or less perfect bridge between the chunky riffage and acoustic bubblings of Led Zeppelin III and Houses of the Holy’s increasingly progressive chord structures and more expansive arrangements. Songs like Rock and Roll, Black Dog, and Misty Mountain Hop became fan favourites during Zep’s mammoth live gigs, while Four Sticks and When the Levee Breaks (often touted by Zep scholars as the best song on the LP) became the ‘will they or won’t they?’ songs when the band played out. (Unfortunately for those same Zep scholars, most times, they didn’t.)
But LZIV’s big selling point is plainly Stairway to Heaven, eight minutes and two seconds of rock ’n’ roll brilliance composed by James Patrick ‘Jimmy’ Page with lyrics by Robert Anthony ‘Robert’ Plant. Chances are you’ve heard it. Song’s been insanely popular for five decades. It consistently topped radio listener polls for Best Rock Song or some variant thereof for a good 25 years or so after its release, and after a brief lull got its mojo working again; Stairway to Heaven was voted Numero Uno in New York City classic rock station Q104.5’s annual listeners poll of best 1,045 songs as recently as November 2020, like it has been every single year since the poll debuted in 2001.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why the song is so popular, though. Stairway to Heaven isn’t Zep’s best song (that would be Heartbreaker); it’s not even the best song on LZIV (that would be The Battle of Evermore); and LZIV isn’t even Zep’s best album (that would be Led Zeppelin II). Stairway does not, repeat does not contain Page’s best guitar solo (that would be a dead heat between Whole Lotta Love and Page’s 1965 lead session for Leave My Kitten Alone by the First Gear, a not unenjoyable Merseybeat combo who rented the famed Page digits a few times in their short, two single career). And it sure as shit doesn’t have Plant’s best lyrics (which would be Thank You). For better or worse, though, Stairway to Heaven is Plant’s best-known and most recognized lyrical accomplishment: the beguiling tale of a woman, some gold, and a benevolent piper, with references to hallucinations, auditory revelations, and white-light experiences thrown in for good measure. And with the upcoming Q1043 poll coming up around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of LZIV’s release date of November 8, 1971, its place on the top of the heap is just about guaranteed.
But just as notable a date in the history of Stairway to Heaven as the date LZIV hit record bins is July 27, 1973, when Robert Plant, sausaged into the same pair of jeans he’d wear for three days to maintain continuity in their concert film The Song Remains the Same, uttered four little words that would eventually become both a blessing and a curse:
“Does anybody remember laughter?”
Given the song’s staying power and upcoming (official) anniversary, a closer look at that blessing and curse dichotomy is in order, and nowhere are the two sides more apparent than in the song’s association with the Dark Lord, the Fallen Angel, the Prince of Darkness. No, not Led Zeppelin manager writ large Peter Grant, but the Devil himself: The Devil.
Everyone knows rock is the Devil’s music. It’s also no secret that Satan enlisted Led Zeppelin in his quest to nosh on the souls of America’s youth. Negotiated by Jimmy Page, Zep’s deal with the Devil is considered one of rock’s better corporate mergers, the exchange of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Bonham’s souls for unimaginable wealth, fame, and groupie pussy having provided a respectable return on investment for all involved. By all verifiable accounts, the lone hold-out in the transaction was John Paul Jones, who everyone knows is the wet blanket of the group, and Gene Simmons was still in Wicked Lester anyway.
The above is total bullshit, of course, but the exact sort of total bullshit that’s been circling the bowl of rock journalism since at least September 1977, when Rock magazine put the cover line “Is There a Curse on Led Zeppelin?” next to a photo of Plant, eyes rolled backwards, Linda Blair-style. Edward Stern’s article of the same name does little to answer the titular question beyond recalling Page’s fascination with the Dark Side; his ownership of Aleister Crowley’s Boleskine House; and his agreement to compose the soundtrack to fellow Crowley groupie Kenneth Anger’s total crap film Lucifer Rising. Soon Stern gets around to mentioning Plant’s 1975 Greek car crash and the then-recent death of Plant’s son Karac, which smart money says is the main reason the article made the cover in the first place: to sell magazines in the aftermath of a tragedy.
“I do not worship the devil,” Page told Cameron Crowe about a year earlier, in the August 12, 1976, issue of Rolling Stone. “But magic does intrigue me. Magic of all kinds.” Elsewhere he says, “I’m not about to deny any of the stories . . . I’m no fool; I know how much the mystique matters. Why should I blow it now?”1
Exactly. Any businessman worth his salt knows the value of good product placement, and Page is nothing if not a good businessman. His placement of “Do What Thou Wilt” and “So Mote Be It” in the run-off grooves of the first pressing of Led Zeppelin III got Led Zeppelin and Aleister Crowley a decent number of column inches over the years, but even Lucifer couldn’t have conjured up a better PR stunt than the accusations of Satanic backmasking in Stairway to Heaven at the start of the Satanic Panic of the early Eighties.
Released on the Harmony label and credited to ‘Dell Jones’ – who, like the Devil, (probably) doesn’t exist – the A-side of the bootleg seven-inch EP The Evils of Led Zeppelin Exposed is just Stairway to Heaven backwards, making it either a brilliantly deft example of musique concrete so completely deconstructing the source material that it requires no additional sonic manipulation, or a cynical and condescending money grab exploiting the Bible Belt’s irrational fear of Old Nick and saving Beelzebub-curious metalheads and kids on Rumspringa the trouble of playing the song backwards themselves.
Listening to Stairway backwards just for fun is pretty satisfying, if your musical taste runs to dollops of ADSR-manipulated sound on a bed of horror flick library music and smothered in secret (message) sauce. Actually, the creepiest part is how much of Stairway still sounds the same in reverse: the chord sequence under Page’s solo is unmistakable, as is the musical cue that, in the proper direction, introduces it, and here appears at its conclusion. But all Christian evangelists know that the only reason to play Stairway backwards is to complete your covenant with Lucifer, which brings us to the record’s flip side: the Led Zeppelin segment of Hidden and Satanic Messages in Rock Music, a 1981 radio interview with Michael Mills, Minister of Youth and Evangelism at the Family Altar Chapel in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Hidden and Satanic Messages in Rock Music has deservedly gained cult status among fans of audio inanity for its Reefer Madness-scale alarmism and Mills’s mournful, midwest mumbling when discussing how the Devil lives in your teenager’s record collection. According to Mills, listening to Stairway backwards unlocks the message, “Listen, we’ve been there. Because I live, serve me. There’s no escaping it. Satan. If we gotta live for Satan. Master Satan!” The main problem with Mills’s theory is that in order to hear that whole 15-second subliminal message, you have to listen to the other seven minutes and forty-seven seconds of Stairway along with it, and you have to listen to it selectively enough so that only the Satan bits sink into your brain. Because if you play Mills’s edit of the backward message backward itself, not only does the Highway to Hell remain closed for repairs, the lyrics are: “There’s a sign . . . There’s a feeling I . . . if we . . . there’s . . . And it makes me wonder . . . piper’s . . . way lies on . . . And if you listen . . . ”, which doesn’t make any sense forward or backward.
The “Master Satan” message on The Evils of Led Zeppelin Exposed is hardly the only time people have heard the Devil in the details of Stairway. In 1982, evangelist Paul Crouch Jr. made an appearance on Trinity Broadcasting Network with his parents, evangelist Paul Crouch, Sr. and his pearl-clutching wife Jan, in which Crouch the Younger cued up a reel-to-reel tape with bits of Stairway to play backwards. A studio audience listened intently as the trio described the irony of the phrase “words have two meanings”; explain that the line “When I look to the west” actually means looking to Hell (since the West is where the sun goes to die every day); and point out multiple instances of devil-endorsement in the final verse of the song.
In his 1989 video expose Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ’n’ Roll, Eric Holmberg of Reel to Real Ministries claims the entire phrase, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run/ There’s still time to change the road you’re on,” translates to “Here’s to my sweet Satan/ No other made a path/ For it makes me sad/ Whose power is Satan.” (The exact interpretation of the lines depends on exactly which evangelical minister you believe, since different preachers offer different translations of the text, kinda like they do with the Bible itself.)
Of course, once someone tells you what the backward message in Stairway is, the only power you’re under is the power of suggestion, as even Holmberg concedes (up to a point) when he discusses the three types of backmasking:
• An intentionally placed message heard as atonal noise when the rest of the recording is played forward.
• A random message in which phrases that are intelligible when played forward have come together by chance to form other, entirely different intelligible phrases when played in reverse. This phenomenon is known as a ‘subliminal cue,’ about which Holmberg says not a shred of reputable supporting evidence exists.
• The third and most insidious kind of backmasking: one that’s created “spiritually” by “outside intelligent forces with supernatural power” that can “occasionally [play] an artist the way we would play a musical instrument.” Why else, Holmberg asks, would all these types of backmasked phrases reveal messages that are “intrinsically demonic”?
American politicians weren’t about to let Evangelical Christians corner the market on saving the souls of America’s young and stoned. Tipped off to the scourge of backwards messages by twenty-year-old Monika Wilfley, who had seen Crouch’s show, in 1982 California Republican Assemblyman Phil Wyman introduced A.B.3741, a bill calling for warning labels on records that use backmasking to “manipulate our behaviour without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.” In an April 27, 1982, meeting of the Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee meant to demonstrate exactly why the bill was part of God’s Plan™, the California legislature was made to listen while chunks of Stairway to Heaven were played backwards for them, summoning the message, “I sing because I live with Satan. The Lord turns me off. There’s no escaping it. Here’s to my sweet Satan.” When legislators in attendance failed to burst into flame, Democratic committee chairman Sally Tanner, who found Wyman’s proposal “exciting and interesting,” delayed a vote on the bill so Page and Plant could defend the song in person, which for some reason never happened.
The federal government wasn’t about to let the California Assembly take all the credit for trying to save America’s youth from entering the Devil’s playground, so in May of that same year, Republican House Representative Bob Dornan (R-California) introduced H.R.63632, The Phonograph Record Backward Masking Labeling Act of 1982, seeking to make it “unlawful for any packager, labeller, or distributor to distribute in commerce phonograph records containing ‘backward masking’ without a label bearing a specified warning,” backward masking being defined as “an impression upon a phonograph record which makes an audible verbal statement when the record is played backward.” A similar bill, passed by Arkansas legislators in 1983, was sent to the desk of then-governor William Jefferson Clinton, who promptly sent it back to the state senate, where it was defeated, as was Dornan’s bill.
Democrats weren’t about to let Republicans hog all the headlines, either, and in 1984 the wives of prominent Democratic lawmakers formed the Parents Music Resource Center [PMRC], ostensibly a consumer advocacy group seeking to make it easier for parents to keep their ears peeled for material inappropriate for their kids. During widely seen (and widely mocked) Congressional hearings, Senators literally sleeping with the enemies of the First Amendment threatened to pass legislation mandating a lyric ratings system similar to movie ratings (V for violence, X for sex, D for drugs and O for occult) as well as placement of a large sticker warning parents of explicit lyrics contained within unless the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), got their shit together and mandated the ratings and stickers first. The recording industry, rather than risk the legislation actually passing, agreed to voluntarily place the labels on LPs and cassettes, ironically giving musical acts the greatest rock ’n’ roll marketing tool since backmasking, thanks in no small part to the devil in Led Zeppelin.
1. In 2000, Page decided he’d finally had it with the ‘Jimmy Page as Satanist’ trope and sued the publishers of Ministry magazine over an August 1999 article describing the death of John Bonham in Page’s home. Ministry claimed Page was pissed that Bonham puked all over his bed and “stupidly or selfishly contributed” to his soon-to-be-former-drummer’s death by donning “Satanic robes” and casting a spell on him instead of actually trying to save him. Page won the lawsuit, getting an apology and a “substantial” damage settlement that he donated to the Action for Brazil’s Children Trust.
2. According to numerology, 6363 is an Angel number that helps you to become more open to new ideas and to allow those ideas to help usher necessary change into your life, so it’s difficult to figure out whether it was God or Satan on Dornan’s side with this one.
Eric Danville is the author of the book Does Anybody Remember Laughter? Fifty Years of Led Zeppelin, coming this fall.
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Why else, Holmberg asks, would all these types of backmasked phrases reveal messages that are “intrinsically demonic”?
Erm because the only people trying to find messages that don’t actually exist have a distinct fundamentalist Christian bias?
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