Pink Floyd was Laughing at You

A high school classmate once told me that Alan Parker's movie, 'Pink Floyd: The Wall,' had two meanings--one that sober viewers got, and another that would only be revealed "on acid."

Oct 13 2011, 12:00am

A high school classmate once told me that Alan Parker’s movie, Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), had two meanings—one that sober viewers got, and another that would only be revealed “on acid.” Having just watched the movie afresh while tripping balls, this young man explicated the secret meaning that Floyd was transmitting to the heads at length, and in some detail. I had a hard time paying attention, because at the time I was busy carving the lyrics of “Angel of Death” into my leg with a kitchen knife, and besides, it was hard to imagine that Roger Waters would have anything useful to tell me by secret message. (Support ecology? Buy low, sell high? Surf naked?) I think the upshot of my classmate’s interpretation of The Wall was that it’s all in the guy’s head, because fascism sucks, or something.

There actually was a secret message on Pink Floyd’s 1979 album, The Wall. If you bent over your record player, listened with headphones, and turned the record backwards by hand at just the right moment during “Empty Spaces,” you could hear the voice of Roger Waters congratulating you on finding the “secret message.” His voice then instructed you to send your “answer” (to what?) to “Old Pink at the funny farm, Chalfont,” but was interrupted by a phone call before finishing the address. Plainly, this meant that the joke was on you, who had just spent an hour and a half standing by the record player, stoned, smearing finger grease and dripping sweat into the grooves of the second side of an expensive new double album, and wrecking your turntable in the process. Pink Floyd didn’t give a fuck.

Secret messages were a big part of rock mythology. The Beatles were supposed to be signaling that Paul had died and been replaced by a look-alike, or, if you were Charles Manson, that the time for race war was nigh. In the years that followed, Led Zeppelin and Judas Priest were supposed to be controlling listeners’ minds with irresistible subliminal commands. In the 1970s some backwards Christians insisted that Zeppelin had crafted lyrics that, played in reverse, said things like “Here’s to my sweet Satan!” and “Shall I loathe you now, parishioner?” This “backward masking” technique, evangelicals claimed, allowed rockers to plant mind-controlling suggestions in the subconscious of anyone with ears.

This charming folk belief was big news in 1990, when two families sued Priest in a Nevada court for placing subliminal messages in their cover of a tune by Gary “Dream Weaver” Wright. In December 1985, two teenage metalheads had spent an evening drinking beers, smoking weed, blasting Stained Class, and shooting themselves in the face. The one who survived said that Priest’s music had “mesmerized” the pair and caused them to shoot themselves. In turn, their families’ attorneys argued that Priest lusted for their fans’ mass suicide, so had backward masked “try suicide” and “let’s be dead” on their version of Wright’s song. Like so many claims, it made no sense unless you were determined to believe it, but lots of people did.

Even the very credulous found fewer supportable claims of subliminal messages in pop music during the 90s, when the lyrics of extreme subgenres became so explicit as to defy interpretation. It would be hard to make the case that Cannibal Corpse’s “Meat Hook Sodomy,” say, contains sinister subliminal messages that you can hear if you just listen closely enough, because the name of the song is “Meat Hook Sodomy.” For similar reasons, it didn’t occur to anyone to look for backward masking in Ice Cube’s “Get Off My Dick & Tell Yo Bitch To Come Here.” Perhaps the only pop artist keeping the diabolical tradition alive on today’s charts is Taylor Swift, whose printed lyrics contain secret messages like “C-M-T-A-W-A-R-D-S” and “M-O-V-E-D-O-U-T-I-N-J-U-L-Y.” Who will save our children?

Previously - Tupac