As discussed earlier, the “Purple Rain” guitar solo on the big screen made me an instant Prince fanatic as a 14-year-old in the summer of 1984. Being a Prince fan has never been boring, but it was never less boring than in the summer of 1984. Over the next year, I would devour Prince’s five pre-Purple Rain albums, as well as his Purple Rain follow up. I would attend my first Prince concert. I would get glimpses into a secret world of B-sides and other rarities. There was the “We Are The World” controversy and the Tipper Gore firestorm; Prince was constantly in the news.
That was all just around the corner, but to start with, all I had was the Purple Rain soundtrack. I spent the rest of the summer listening to my Purple Rain cassette over and over, absolutely dissecting those 43 minutes and 54 seconds. I tried to isolate all of the instrumental and vocal tracks in “When Doves Cry,” particularly in the last two minutes of the song, the emotional climax that didn’t make the radio edit. What is Prince doing exactly, and how is he doing it? I reveled in little hidden treats, like the faint harmonizing as “Take Me With U” fades. But like millions of others who listened to the soundtrack that summer, I was obsessed with the end of Side 1 more than anything. What, if anything, was Prince saying at the end of “Darling Nikki”?
As Tipper Gore’s least favorite song screeched to a halt, the cold funk rock is replaced by some calming natural sounds and some exceedingly odd vocals. One line sounded kinda like an advertisement for dishwashing liquid to me, and another like a Three Stooges sound effect, but of course, any attempt to decipher this vocal was a waste of time. It was almost certainly a recording of Prince played backwards. In the days of MP3 shuffling, you might not have heard this in years, but I bet it’s still imprinted on your brain. Sing along if you remember the words.
Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah…
Ooohhhhh-ooh-oh-ose. Ay-muh! Ay-muk!
It must be Dawn™ on her hands
Ooh-wah nah-suhk nyock!
Ooh-ooh-ee-ah yah. Ooh-uhhh-la!
Those fans who had the vinyl LP could simply spin the record backwards to decipher the message, but I didn’t know anyone who had the LP. Besides, this was my turntable in 1984.
Oh, don’t jump down my throat, audiophiles. If you were born in the sixties or seventies, you had that turntable too.
But the point is, backmasking was largely associated with Satanism at the time. And if Prince had no problem singing the lyrics to “Darling Nikki,” what kind of ghastly lyrics would he feel the need to disguise? Whatever it was, did I really want Mickey Mouse to be staring at me when I heard it?
Hail Satan, kids!
Kill your parents, kids!
(Mickey didn’t stop me from laboring to hear “it’s fun to smoke marijuana” while spinning the 45 of “Another One Bites The Dust” backwards a few years earlier, but I think I’m veering off course here.)
So, I had no vinyl LP, and I had no Internet. If I wanted to know what Prince was saying, I would have to decipher the message myself.
My first idea was to make a copy of the song, open up the cassette, cut out the relevant section of tape, and then splice the tape back together so that “Darling Nikki” was reversed. (By the way, if “Reverse Darling Nikki” isn’t a sexual position, it should be.) In retrospect, this seems like a foolproof plan and an amusing little project. But at the time, I had a certain reverence for the humble cassette tape, and had little confidence in my ability to take one apart, rearrange it, and successfully put it back together. Would I have to buy special tape, or could I splice with just a little piece of Scotch tape? There would be X-Acto blades involved, and tiny screwdrivers, and clumsy adolescent fingers. Maybe I could ask my father for assistance (“Dad, I can’t quite make out what Satan is trying to tell me at the end of this pornographic song… little help?”), or maybe not.
My only other idea involved the fact that if I hit REWIND on my little Toshiba boombox while PLAY was already depressed, you could hear the tape playing in reverse at a decent volume, although it was at about 10x speed so it was unintelligible. I sprang into action. What if I played the song using FAST FORWARD while recording it on my sister’s boombox, and then played this new recording in high-speed reverse? Good idea, dummy, now you’re hearing it in reverse at 100x speed. I experimented like this for the better part of the afternoon. I was excited, so I measured once and cut a few dozen times. I won’t bore you with the details of my many failures.
I was just about to give up when I discovered that if I hit RECORD, PLAY and FAST FORWARD at the same time, my Toshiba would at least appear to record at high speed. And if it was recording at high speed, when played back at normal speed, the track should sound slow, right? And if that slow track was played at high speed in reverse? It was worth a shot. I played “Darling Nikki” on my sister’s boombox while doing the proto Ctrl-Alt-Delete move on my Toshiba.
When it was finished, I held down PLAY and REWIND and heard… nothing. Maybe the FAST FORWARD button being depressed had rendered the stereo unable to record. Or maybe it degraded the sound and I should turn up the volume just in case. I cranked it up to full volume, and one second later…
I nearly wet myself. My improvised recording method had not degraded the sound at all; remarkably, it was perfectly clear, if a little fast. More importantly, it was loud, and I jumped when I heard it, my finger slipping off the REWIND button. This resulted in “hello” being played again, backwards, at a super slow speed and at ear-splitting volume. It was terrifying, frankly. I hit STOP and waited a few minutes for my heart to stop pounding before turning the volume down and trying again.
How are U?
Fine, Satan; that’s nice of you to ask. The conversational tone seemed anticlimactic, but oddly appropriate. After trying so hard to make contact, it was gratifying to receive a cordial welcome. There have been people working in the SETI program for decades who would kill to hear a simple “Hello, how are U?” Anyway, let’s start over…
How are U?
‘Cause I know that the Lord is coming soon
Coming, coming soon
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…
And that was that.
When the smoke cleared, all that was left was the most straightforward religious message on a Prince album since the Lord’s Prayer appeared in “Controversy.” In both cases, the delivery was subversive and unsettling, regardless of the content. The Lord’s Prayer was recited earnestly, but wedged between Prince questioning his sexuality and pining for mass nudity. His latest message of salvation was presented at the end of one of his most lascivious songs using a technique associated with the occult. Things were never quite as they seemed in the land of Prince; he always defied simple interpretation. Needless to say, this only added to my fascination.
Now that I was a certified audio engineer, I applied my new technique to “Baby I’m A Star,” where some unintelligible lyrics could be faintly heard in the beginning of the song and again at the end. When played backwards, you could hear a female voice (Wendy?) saying something along the lines of…
Like, what the fuck do they know?
All their taste is in their mouth
Really, what the fuck do they know?
Come on, baby
Let’s go crazy!
I clearly didn’t analyze this as much as “Darling Nikki,” because only after typing out these words 32 years later did I get the weird little “they have no taste” joke. At the time, I just assumed it was vaguely dirty.
Do you remember when you first heard the deciphered messages on the Purple Rain soundtrack?