Subliminal advertising: The voice within

Can musicians plant subliminal messages in the minds of their listeners? They've been trying for years, and are still doing so, says Chris Mugan

A funny thing happened at a concert hall in Liverpool recently, when two artists attempted to implant a subliminal message in the minds of their audience. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard refuse to reveal the message, nor did they attempt to discover what effect it had on listeners. Instead, their aim was to recreate the atmosphere of 19th-century seances.

This pair of music-obsessed conceptualists came to fame with re-creations of seminal gigs, David Bowie's last appearance as Ziggy Stardust and a legendary performance by US rockabilly fiends The Cramps in a mental institution. Their interest in spiritualism came from those projects, Pollard explains. "We had talked about our re-enactments as a channel through which you raised the spirit of the past, then we realised the terminology we used came from spiritualism, so we looked at psychic research."

They noticed the invention of the telephone and gramophone tied into attempts to reach voices from the ether, thanks to the pseudoscientific connotations that Victorians attached to spiritualism. Forsyth and Pollard decided a modern equivalent would be conspiracy theories that we are being brainwashed via subliminal messages in mainstream media. A recent twist is suggestions that during the Gulf War the US army had used mind-control techniques to cause Iraqi soldiers to surrender.

These were based around the use of silent sound, broadcasts at frequencies either just below or above the range of human hearing. So with help from electronic specialists, the duo devised an infrasound machine to lower the pitch of their own voices. Instead of hearing what they said, the audience were able to feel them speak.

"When we tried it, we felt some pressure in the back of our skulls," Pollard explains. "Not that we're interested in the results, but we wanted the audience to imagine the potential, so we've worked with experts to make something viable."

Such is the power of their impressive machine, with its Fantastic Voyage-style dials and enigmatic symbols, that Forsyth and Pollard published a disclaimer. Pregnant women, people with heart conditions and under-18s were refused entry. Those who attended were warned they might feel anxious or light-headed. All their work is now on show at a Liverpool gallery.

Alongside them, Spiritualized's mainman Jason Pierce performed a piece he had composed alongside a string quartet and other musicians to mask the message. By embedding it within music, the artists followed attempts by advertisers and film-makers to suggest ideas by hiding images in their works.

As a term, subliminal advertising was coined in the Fifties when "Drink Coca-Cola" messages would flash by during movies. Despite public outcry over such techniques and being subsequently banned, psychologists were unable to build a case for the efficacy of such subliminal persuasion. Attempts to persuade Canadian viewers in 1958 to phone in to a TV show fell on blind eyes as well as deaf ears - not that this has calmed many people's worries over hidden messages, especially in rock music.

Here, artists have developed the technique of backmasking to hide messages, where sounds are recorded backwards to sound nonsensical when records are played normally. Reverse recording was first used by The Beatles' on the B-side "Rain", with John Lennon's vocals recorded backwards. He originally took credit, though George Martin later claimed it was his idea.

First to actually hide a message was Frank Zappa, who recorded backwards his songs that contained swear words to avoid censorship by his publishing company. Yet play any sung or spoken words backwards and you will inevitably find some hidden meanings.

At first, this was grist to the mill of Beatles conspiracy theorists who were convinced Paul McCartney was dead. Sure enough, they found such references as "turn me on dead man" when they played backwards "Revolution No 9" and "I'm So Tired" from the band's so-called White Album.

Problem is, it is difficult to find a particular message until someone tells you what to look for, when it leaps out of the gibberish. Not that this held back American fundamentalist Christians, who were convinced that bands had hidden messages promoting sex and drugs. Most infamous was Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven", which campaigners claimed contained the backmasked line "Here's to my sweet Satan", a charge denied by singer Robert Plant.

Matters came to a head in the mid-Eighties, when British metallers Judas Priest were sued following a suicide pact between two schoolboys in Nevada. One of the boys survived; their families' claimed that a Priest album contained hidden messages, with the words "Do it" audible when the record was played backwards. The case was dismissed after the band's defence called scientists that had already proved backmasking was ineffective. Psychologists John R Vokey and J John Read studied 300 volunteers, many of whom even found it hard to make out phrases, let alone show signs of their behaviour being altered.

By this time, groups were putting in messages for fun. Pink Floyd were serial offenders, with the line "That was pretty avant garde, wasn't it?" hidden away on Ummagumma's surreal excursion "Several Species..." On The Wall, the track "Empty Spaces" advises its listeners, "...congratulations. You've just discovered the secret message."

Christian-baiters Slayer are one of many hard rock bands to insert anti-Church messages in their music, while Cradle of Filth recited the Lord's Prayer backwards. A hint, perhaps, that fundamentalist Christians are still worried about witches that mocked their religion by reading prayers backwards.

No one has had more fun with this, though, than Ozzy Osbourne, who himself was in court over an alleged subliminal message in his 1980 album Blizzard of Oz. When the case was finally closed in 1988, Ozzy could actually insert a backmasked message in a more recent track, the line "Your mother sells whelks in Hull", a comment that sounds like a parody of one of The Exorcist's more potty-mouthed quotes.

Forsyth and Pollard's messaging system is more sophisticated than backmasking, though their use of the technique is just as playful as either Ozzy or Zappa. For those who love to bait rock's censors, the fun could begin again.

'Silent Sound' is on show as part of the Liverpool Biennial at Greenland Street, Liverpool (0151-706 0600), to 26 November

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor