The senior who slid the phrase “F— All Y’All” onto the cover of the Shaker Heights High School yearbook has managed to pull off one of the great subliminal pranks of all time. As we know all too well, rock and roll is rife with subtle messages and “backmasking,” dating back to the Beatles’ “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy 40 years ago. Here are our favorite subliminal messages in rock history.
Prince, “Darling Nikki”
The 1980s version of Prince was a dance-crazed sex maniac who hadn’t yet found the Lord. Or had he? At the end of “Darling Nikki,” one of the filthiest songs Prince has ever recorded, there’s a bit of garbled speech that translates to “Hello, how are you? I am fine, because I know that the Lord is coming soon” when played backwards.
U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind album cover
The cover of U2’s 2000 comeback album depicts the band in a terminal at Charles De Gaulle International Airport in Paris. In the background there is a digital sign that reads “J33-3,” which is code for a passage from the Bible (Jeremiah Chapter 33, Verse 3). The passage reads, “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” Bono has always worn his Christianity on his sleeve, so this is an especially subtle move for them.
Marilyn Manson, “Tourniquet”
Though it seems like all of Manson’s songs should have some sort of subliminal message in them, the most notable is in the middle of this track from Antichrist Superstar. At the beginning of the track, Manson whispers a bit, and when played backwards, it turns out he’s saying, “This is the lowest point of my vulnerability.”
Frank Zappa, Over-Nite Sensation album cover
Most of Zappa’s covers have some sort of optical illusion or visual pun, but this one is probably the angriest. While making 1973’s Over-Nite Sensation, bandmate Mark Volman (also known as “Flo”) left Zappa’s band under tense circumstances. As a retaliation, Zappa put a middle finger under the name “FLO” on the cover of the record. Take that, guy from the Turtles!
Iron Maiden, “Still Life”
Iron Maiden album covers and songs are full of subliminal messages, but “Still Life” might be their most notorious. Sick of being attacked for worshipping the devil, the band dropped a backwards message into this tune from 1983’s Piece of Mind baiting religious groups who might be scanning for backmasking. The message? “Don’t meddle with things you don’t understand!” It’s punctuated with a belch.
Every Dio cover
The genius of Ronnie James Dio’s band’s album covers was in the band’s logo, which dropped a subliminal message every time it was printed. When turned upside-down, the “DIO” logo spelled out “DEVIL.” The kicker? Dio is the singer’s last name, but also happens to be the Italian word for “God.”
Pink Floyd, “Empty Spaces” and “Goodbye Blue Sky”
There were always plenty of things buried on Pink Floyd albums, but as backmasking became popular, Roger Waters grew tired of it. So on “Empty Spaces” and “Goodbye Blue Sky” (both from The Wall), there is a backwards message that says, “Congratulations. You have found the backwards message.”
Beastie Boys, License to Ill album cover
Early Beasties material is rife with sophomoric humor, and the prank on the cover of their debut album is a classic. If you look on the tail of the plane, it reads “3MTA3.” Read it backwards and it says “EAT ME.”
J. Geils Band, “No Anchovies Please”
In the middle of this wacky story-song, frontman Geils unleashes a bunch of garbled sentences. It turns out it was a hidden backwards message that said, “It doesn’t take a genius to tell the difference between chicken s— and chicken salad.” True!
Judas Priest, “Better By You, Better Than Me”
Rob Halford of Judas Priest is responsible for what might be the most notorious subliminal message in history. Halford dropped in the benign message “Do it” into this song, but it lead to a lawsuit against the band when two guys from Nevada killed themselves after listening to the song. The suit was dismissed, and Halford always joked that he would never encourage his fans to kill themselves — because then they couldn’t buy any more Judas Priest records.