Halloween is a time to seek out the darkness in your surroundings in a fun way. There are some songs that I am sure you are familiar with, but maybe not as familiar as you my think – there is a darkness lurking in these “happy” tunes.
One of the most well-known examples of this was the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”, recorded when backmasking had recently been used for the first time. Backmasking is a recording technique in which a sound or message is recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward. When this album is played backwards, it supposedly says: “Turn me on, dead man… turn me on, dead man… turn me on, dead man.”
Along this same line, Marilyn Manson is notorious for backmasking and subliminal messages. One example is in his song “Dope Hat”, in which the phrase “I’m gonna kill you, kill yourself, kill yourself”, is embedded using this technique. You can check out many instances where this technique is used by Manson here.
Motorhead sent a backmasked message in the song “Nightmare/The Dreamtime”, which is on the album “1916”. The following message, which can be heard in various sections of the song, was reportedly speaking to the Parents Music Resource Center: “Now tell me, about your miserable little lives. I do not subscribe to your superstitious, narrow minded flights of paranoia. I and people like me, will always prevail! You will never stifle our free speech in any country in the world, ‘coz we will fight forever.”
Now, from a totally different genre, did it ever dawn on you that it may be a little weird that the theme song from the popular 80’s movie “Flashdance” was a song entitled “Maniac”, instead of something at least remotely connected to the theme of dancing? The songwriters of “Maniac”, Dennis Matkosky and Michael Sembello, originally wrote the song about an actual maniac – in other words, a person who murders other people for no apparent reason. The two had been hired to write the soundtrack for the movie “Flashdance”, when one night Matkosky saw a news report on television about a guy who had killed people and buried them in his backyard, and was suddenly struck with a lightning bolt of inspiration. He immediately penned the lyrics to the song which would evolve into “Maniac”, even though this first draft was quite different than what was played in the final soundtrack of the movie. The original version: “He’s a maniac, maniac, he just moved next door; He’ll kill your cat and nail it to the floor.” The “Flashdance” version: “She’s a maniac, maniac on the floor; And she’s dancing like she’s never danced before.” Matkosky showed the lyrics to Sembello, and the two then wrote the music with a crazy person in mind, composing the bridge to sound like “how an insane person woild play chopsticks.” Unfortunately, the record company never recorded the original version of “Maniac”, as they insisted that the soundtrack for the movie had to sound more “Flashdancey.”
Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, generally thought of as an all-around great patriotic song, is actually about communism. Guthrie specifically wrote this song as a rebuttle to “God Bless America,” a tune he considered overly patriotic and sappy. He didn’t think it represented average, working-class Americans like himself and their feelings about the government. Original lyrics that didn’t make the final version of the song were;
“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.”
In Jimi Hendrix’s iconic take on another patriotic song, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, hiding below the surface are various references to the horrors of war. . . “rockets red glare” depicting bombs dropping and exploding. After that, you can hear screams. Later he adds in some machine gun noises. Then, about a minute after the sound of guns, Hendrix plays part of “Taps”, a song traditionally played on a bugle at military funerals. And children sing this song in grade school! When you think about the messages behind the lyrics, they are not too appropriate for children!
Did you ever wonder why they play “Pomp and Circumstance” at every graduation in the United States; what is the meaning? The phrase is actually from Shakespeare’s “Othello”. But, according to Wikipedia, the composer, Elgar, wrote this as a war march. The beginning lines are:
“Like a proud music that draws men on to die
Madly upon the spears in martial ecstasy,
A measure that sets heaven in all their veins
And iron in their hands.”
Written before World War I, the song wrongly proclaimed that the splendid show of military pageantry – “Pomp”, has no connection with the drabness and terror – “Circumstance”, of actual warfare. The composition was played ar Elgar’s graduation from Yale in 1905, and has been played at graduations ever since. Is moving on from school into real life a comparison to marching into war; the song not really so hopeful nor serene as it sounds?
This darkness hidden in song lyrics has been heard throughout the ages. Going back much farther in musical history, the classic childhood song “London Bridge” can possibly be traced to a pretty gruesome origin. There have been a lot of theories over the years as to what the collapse of the London Bridge in the song means. One interpretation: immurement. Never heard of the term? Immurement is the practice of entombing someone within a structure, where they slowly die from lack of food and water. This was based around the idea that a bridge would collapse unless the body of a human sacrifice were buried in its foundations and that a bridge’s watchman is actually a human sacrifice, who will then watch over the bridge. Among the earliest written records of this superstition are examples of living people encased in the foundations of bridges as sacrifices. Children were the favored sacrificial victims. Their skeletons have been unearthed in the foundations of ancient bridges from Greece to Germany. And British folklore makes it clear that to ensure good luck, the cornerstones of the first non-timber London Bridge, built between 1176 and 1209, were splattered with the blood of little children. There’s a game that children often play while singing “London Bridge”, where two of them join hands to form an arch, and the others take turns running underneath until the end of the song, at which point the hands are lowered and the last child is captured within. I have not been able to find anywhere in my research one verse of “London Bridge” that I can remember singing as a child, which contained the words “take the key, and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up”. Regardless, kids are innocently playing a game portraying human sacrifice. Now, that is the Halloween spirit!
These are only a few examples of darkness lurking in music where you least expect it. If you take a minute to think about it, it is not hard to find many more instances.