Deus Ex Machina by Chris Green
I’m not sure what sparked my interest in subliminal messages in songs. I was aware of the Paul McCartney is dead scam from the 1960s, but this was about it. The claim was that Paul was killed in a car crash in 1966 and replaced by a lookalike. It was supported by messages from the covers of Magical Mystery Tour and Abbey Road, and backed up by the line I buried Paul which, if you listen closely, you can hear in the fadeout to Strawberry Fields Forever, and the backwards message in I’m So Tired. Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him. The clips sounded vaguely convincing if you were impressionable, and may well have been deliberate. But the idea that the Paul we were seeing was not the real Paul was so implausible, I put it down to a conspiracy theory.
My interest might have ended there, but the hidden messages in Beatles’ songs seemed to inspire other artists to put subliminal backmasked messages into their work. The most high-profile example was Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, in which you can hear Here’s to my sweet Satan and There’s power in Satan. He’ll give you 666 quite clearly when the track is played backwards, along with other references to Satan scattered throughout the track. Pretty dark stuff! But that was then. Like many rock people at the time, guitarist Jimmy Page was said to dabble in the occult. Led Zeppelin’s use of hidden messages inspired Deep Purple, Judas Priest and Def Leppard and other heavy metal bands to insert subliminal Satanic messages into their tunes. Before you knew it, the process was widespread.
Backmasked messages were not restricted to satanic messages or to heavy metal bands. In Pink Floyd’s song Empty Spaces from The Wall, Roger Waters can be heard saying Congratulations. You’ve just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont. Old Pink refers to the band’s former lead singer, Syd Barrett.
ELO took the process a step further. Their album, Secret Messages, as its tongue-in-cheek title suggests, is littered with hidden backmasked messages, some obvious, others less so. You might have thought that ELO’s drawing attention to the process would have spelt the end of it. Surely, the novelty had worn off, and anyway, what was the point? Were bands doing it just because they could? Who were they doing it for? Who were these geeks who put recordings onto a tape machine and threaded the tape backwards? Did the fact that I was showing an interest mark me down as a geek? Granted, I did not have a tape machine. I relied on word of mouth, and later on, the internet to guide me, even so, I have to hold my hand up.
Whatever the reason for the messages, artists as diverse as Eminem, Eurythmics, Franz Ferdinand, Prince, and The Prodigy continued to put hidden passages into their tunes. Nor was Roger Waters finished with the idea. In his Perfect Sense Part 1, we hear the backward message: Julia, however, in the light and visions of the issues of Stanley, we changed our mind. We have decided to include a backward message. Stanley, this is for you, and for all the other book burners, this in response to his fallout with Stanley Kubrick over sampling.
Despite my growing fascination, no one else I knew seemed interested in these secret messages. Kaylee became exasperated with the time I was spending on them, and my co-workers told me I ought to get a life. Marlon Slyder thought perhaps I should get in touch with Roger Waters to find out the address of the funny farm. Marlon had never forgiven me for getting a promotion over him and taking his parking space. He had to park his Alfa round by the bins. But they had a point. What a waste of time this was!
But at least I would have time to waste. Kaylee was moving out.
‘How many women do you imagine actually enjoy spending weekends listening to loud bands’ tunes played backwards, looking out for creepy messages?’ she said.
I told her I didn’t know. Was it six out of ten, maybe?
‘Well, Nick, however many there might be, I’m not one of them,’ she said. ‘I’m off. Have a nice life.’
And with that, Kaylee was gone. I had been so tied up in putting the Black Sabbath back catalogue onto my new tape machine to look for examples of backmasking that I had not noticed her packing.
Following a break-up, self-help books tell you the thing to do is to keep busy. Immerse yourself in something that will channel your thoughts. So, with time on my hands, to distract myself, I developed my interest in secret messages. I dug deeper into the canon. It became an obsession. Internet forums sprang up on the subject, and I became acquainted with a handful of like-minded individuals. Other common interests came to light. Evaluating conspiracy theories was something my new acquaintances were keen on. One of them described conspiracy theory as the exhaust fumes of democracy, the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people. But most agreed that there was usually no smoke without fire.
Conspiracy theorists took advantage of the false balance in the media. Each of them claimed to be presenting a legitimate alternative viewpoint that deserved equal time to argue its case. On the whole, it seemed that people who believed conspiracy theories usually had lower levels of education. They could not differentiate between good sources and bad sources, or credible sources and non-credible sources. But it was also clear to me that many things we were asked to accept as fact were little more than the shameless promotion of someone’s vested interests. Even so, you needed to exercise a little caution. I had a fair suspicion by this time that the assassination of JFK was a cover-up and that 9/11 was an inside job, while perhaps chemtrails might not be anything to do with controlling the population. But I began to question everything. It seemed there was always bad shit going down wherever you looked.
Living alone eventually got the better of me, and I decided to put an ad in the lonely hearts column of the local paper. I had lost my job by this point and now had all the time in the world to come up with a suitable bio. I sketched out several conventional notices, but they seemed a bit downbeat. I could not summon up the enthusiasm to post them. I needed to be bolder. Throwing caution to the wind, I settled on; Inquisitive dream-weaver, male, tall, slim (45) seeks psychic explorer, female (30–40) with erotic potential for adventures in spacetime. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I got a response from someone called Maya. She said she loved my quirky ad and couldn’t wait to meet me. We arranged to meet at Two to Tango.
Maya had long, dark hair and startling brown eyes. She wore a bohemian summer dress and red canvas shoes. On the face of it, she came across open and friendly, yet she at the same time, seemed somehow distant and detached. I wondered if the latter might be because she spoke with a trace of what I took to be an Eastern European accent. It had a mystery to it. Maybe it was a Central European accent or a Mediterranean accent. This was more likely. Maya was a Greek name. Or was it Indian? Whichever, Maya had charm in spades. It would have been difficult not to fall for her. Having had little recent experience with women, I did not want to assume I was home and dry. She was a few years younger than me, but almost certainly more worldly. Thankfully, my nervousness didn’t seem to put her off.
Maya asked how I occupied my time?
I told her that lately, I had been researching subliminal messages in songs.
‘Wow, that’s far out!’ she said.
Far out! Not only was it unexpected; I had not heard anyone come out with this for years.
‘Backmasking has a long history,’ I told her. ‘The earliest example I have turned up is on Return to Sender. If you play it backwards and listen carefully, you can hear Elvis saying in his Southern drawl; Dang! Why can’t they give me a proper song, man?’
She lapped up my Elvis examples, so I gave her a potted history of hidden messages, culminating in the abundance of backmasking I had recently discovered on Radiohead albums. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that her interest in Radiohead was not as great.
Maya proved to be a mine of information. I had not realised the universe consisted of an infinite number of dimensions and that some people were able to pick up other wavelengths while the rest could not. Or that we were ruled by shape-shifting lizards from the fourth dimension. She went on to explain that many common misinterpretations about what was really going on were down to something called the Alice in Wonderland technique, an expression borrowed from CIA interrogations. You were bombarded with layer upon layer of mutually exclusive, contradictory information, as if it all made sense, until you were no longer sure what to believe or what was real. In this state, you could be manipulated into accepting a false narrative. With the rise of the internet, to a greater or lesser extent, everyone was being subjected to this.
I suggested that being ruled by lizard people from the fourth dimension might be such a false narrative, but Maya was adamant she was right. I did not argue. I knew she would win the debate.
The erotic potential I was looking for was realised later that night. This seemed to me to be more important than who might or might not be running the show.
Maya could be persuasive, and before I knew it, she had convinced me about a number of things I would never have once believed. For instance, I wouldn’t have believed that Elvis was alive. After all, this was beyond the bounds of possibility. It was thirty years since his much-publicised death. Like most people I knew, I had assumed that all the alleged sightings of the King over the years since then had been lookalikes. Or simply hoaxes.
But having racked up unthinkably huge gambling debts, in an attempt to pay off some of his creditors, here was Elvis via a pirate satellite link, playing a concert at a small venue in Tashkent. He had apparently been in hiding here for years. He was simply colossal. Even compared to his 1977 bulk, you would be forced to admit, here was a large man. He had thinning silver hair and wore an outfit that resembled a sequinned tent. It was a sad sight to watch poor old Elvis perform like this, struggling to make his way through Hound Dog and Viva Las Vegas. A pale imitation of the powerhouse he once was.
As the days went by, being ruled by shape-shifting lizards started to bother me. It didn’t seem right.
‘Shouldn’t we be doing a bit more to get rid of these reptilian overlords?’ I said to Maya.
‘Haven’t I mentioned it?’ she said. ‘There is a secret worldwide network of men in sheds planning to do just that. They are preparing a range of explosives from restricted garden products and classified defoliants and who knows what else to carry out surprise attacks on the centres of power.’
‘That’s different to how I imagined it,’ I said. ‘I have this picture of men in sheds being retired tradesmen and burnt-out professionals rearranging their garden tools and enjoying a discreet spliff while listening to Bob Dylan on an old cassette player.’
‘Some of the sheds are elaborate underground constructions with banks of sophisticated scientific equipment,’ Maya said. ‘And the men in sheds are not just made up of dissident gardeners. They have recruited retired military commanders and nuclear scientists. They are a highly trained force. They even have experts in the paranormal.’
‘I haven’t seen any reference to them on the internet,’ I said.
‘You won’t,’ Maya said. ‘The internet is not secure. All cyber communication risks being intercepted. They communicate person to person or by telepathy and remote viewing. But these are not primitives. It would be wrong to underestimate them. I expect we’ll see the results of their endeavours very soon. Unless it is all hushed up again.’
Had the men in sheds revelation not come from Maya, I might have been more sceptical. I would have marked it down as an apocryphal tale. A good one for sure, but lacking in veracity. It turned out I had been wrong about chemtrails, too. The shape-shifting lizards were using these for psychological control of populations. Maya told me this helped to explain a lot of people’s strange behaviour. Hadn’t I ever wondered, for instance, how it was that people in democracies readily voted against their own interests? Or that they repeatedly borrowed money they couldn’t afford to pay back for things that they couldn’t possibly need?
Maya had me wrapped around her little finger. She had turned my world upside down. Black could be white and night could be day. It wouldn’t have mattered. But did our liaison have lasting potential? There were complications inherent in our arrangement. Knowing that the world was run by ruthless reptiles who exploited the masses was all very well. Knowing that a crack force of men in sheds was likely to soon take over might in other circumstances have been comforting. But none of this was not going to get me a job. Being aware that the universe was multidimensional, and the dynamics were more complicated than you could possibly imagine, did not bring home the bacon, either. Nor was it any help to know that Elvis was alive or, for that matter, that Radiohead were melancholy, paranoid, and altogether too clever for their own good. Jobs were scarce. There seemed to be none in my field, whatever my field was. Maya couldn’t work because of a recently come to light immigration issue, so it was up to me to provide. This may not have been my strong suit. Kaylee had always maintained I was too prone to distraction to hold down a job for long. But another problem here was that as soon as I was not around, Maya would probably be off with the nearest space cowboy she could find. She had a low boredom threshold. She was the kind of woman that needed round-the-clock attention. This was a high-maintenance woman. I had a situation on my hands.
But when it came down to it, I was as fickle as the wind. I always had been. Whenever I was offered a choice, my first consideration would always be which option represented the path of least resistance. Self-preservation was an underrated quality. But when you are on the horns of a dilemma, the choices are not so clear-cut. Neither option promised a favourable outcome. It is a case of the devil and the deep blue sea. Maya was the centre of the universe, but ……….
‘Another ad, I think,’ said Eddie Otis when I met up with him for a drink. ‘Pitch it a little differently this time. And perhaps knock the conspiracy stuff on the head for now. Even if you believe some of it. And don’t give them all this backwards stuff. Lighten up. Girls just want to have fun. At least, in my experience, that’s how it works.’
More often than not, I would have said Eddie was right. He usually was. Sometimes it seemed that he knew me better than I knew myself. This is why I turned to him so often in times of crisis. It was clear I ought to change my tack. Of course, it was time for me to take the initiative. There were plenty more fish in the sea. But was this even what I wanted? It seemed that Eddie may not have been keeping up this time around. Wasn’t he missing something? Fish and seas might not be the way to look at it. Shouldn’t I be looking in other areas for my inspiration? Or not looking at all? Things were bound to change, no matter what. Even I had learned that there was no point in searching for anything where you left it because you would never find it there. This was the nature of things. Or expecting to find everything the way you remembered it. Order was always temporary. Change was the only certainty. I needed to be ready for all eventualities.
But still, I didn’t see it coming. How could I have? It was not something you could ever be prepared for. When Eddie told me Maya and I were fictional, it came as a monumental bolt out of the blue. It hit me like a runaway freight train. Without warning or ceremony, Eddie revealed that Maya and I were nothing more than characters in a short story he was writing. A short story, mind you, not even a novel! And he wasn’t even sure he was going to finish it.
I hadn’t even realised that Eddie Otis was a writer.
‘Did you really believe that someone could be so obsessed with backwards messages in rock music?’ he laughed. ‘Or that someone could be taken in by all that lizard nonsense and the men in sheds drivel? Wasn’t it obvious to you all along that you were imaginary?’
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