YOU DON'T often see Republicans proposing that the government require labels on products to warn consumers, so it was worth noting when one of Congress' most conservative Republicans, Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California, proposed a warning label for certain record albums. It would read: "Warning: This record contains backward masking that makes a verbal statement which is audible when this record is played backward and which may be perceptible at a subliminal level when this record is played forward."
Those of you who may not be in the habit of halting your turntable's forward motion and forcing the stylus backward through the record's grooves may be wondering what this is all about. Mr. Dornan was inspired by a similar bill introduced in the California legislature by Republican assemblyman Phil Wyman. Both Mr. Wyman and Mr. Dornan are concerned about subliminal messages extolling the worship of Satan that are audible when records are played backward. One example they cite--and it was played out loud on the CBS Evening News--is Led Zeppelin's perennially popular "Stairway to Heaven." If you play it backwards, you will hear the words "Here's to my sweet Satan." The publicity given this has evidently led a satanic church in California to warn Mr. Wyman that "the devil awaits you in damnation."
Mr. Dornan and Mr. Wyman assure us that they do not dislike rock music (Mr. Wyman says that "Stairway to Heaven" is one of his favorite records); but they are afraid that subliminal messages may affect unknowing consumers. They have not, however, given us any inkling of how the human brain goes about sorting out from the multitude of sounds perceptible on a rock record being played forward a message that is both inaudible and backward.
The satanists or whoever it is who wants these messages in records evidently feel that artistic freedom or perhaps the right to free exercise of religion is being threatened. But they don't explain why a warning on a record will deter sales; perhaps it will increase sales among satanists and others. The notion that elderly relatives are somehow being duped into buying satanic records for their grandchildren and nieces seems quaint when you look at the clientele in any rock record store. This is clearly an issue on which we have not heard, forward or backward, the last diabolic word.