Empty Spaces: Backwards Messages, Stairway to Heaven and a Failure to Communicate

Posted · 2 Comments

The+Wall++high+resolution+pngI’d like to show you what this song actually all about. Below is an excerpt from my book “Tearing Down The Wall: A Contemporary Guide to Decoding Pink Floyd – The Wall One Brick at a Time.” I’ve added a few videos from YouTube to help demonstrate some of the backwards messages here in “Empty Spaces” as well as the creepy backmasking in Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven.” 

EMPTY SPACES – From “The Wall” by Pink Floyd.

The ghostly wisps of airport terminal ambience and faces from the past fade; the journey now reaches at its next destination. Our arrival point now pulsates with a mechanical rhythm conveying the essence an assembly line of some sort. The synth and guitar play a subdued, darker, much more sinister version of “In the Flesh. 

In many regards, this industrial throbbing percussion in “Empty Spaces” makes the song feel like a blood cousin to “Welcome to the Machine” from the band’s smash album Wish You Were Here. Even lyrics from “Welcome to the Machine” seem to echo from the same DNA of disillusionment found throughout The Wall. 

What did you dream? It’s alright. We told you what to dream.

The musical separation from the living, breathing, organic sound of the finger-picked acoustic nylon-string guitar of “Goodbye Blue Sky” to this synth-driven conveyor belt heightens the sense that we have been torn from the innocence of Pink’s youth. There is no more free pass from obligation that childhood often affords us. Now, as a young adult, Pink is faced with the obligations of manhood.

Primarily those which come with romantic entanglements.

Is this some sort of Brave New World for Pink? Is this a world filled with the Futurist’s embrace of technology that separates us from our loved ones and, more dangerously, ourselves?

Narratively-speaking, Pink now remembers himself as a young adult. The years have not been kind. Throughout his upbringing, his unstable relationship with his own place in the world has deeply affected his ability to connect with others and form true relationships.

Is he now paying dearly for it, because inside of his soul he now feels these “Empty Spaces?”

As a work that deals with the erosion of sanity and its effects upon relationships, The Wall contains surprisingly few overt references to Syd Barrett, the founding member whose LSD addiction fried his brain and forced him out of the band. Perhaps Roger felt he had excised Syd’s spirit with Wish You Were Here’s infamous ode to Syd, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” 

That being said, there are moments in The Wall that feel like we are being visited briefly by the ghost of Syd’s presence in the band and in Roger’s life. Remember, Syd was Pink Floyd’s original lead singer and songwriter; it was only after Syd’s mental breakdown and subsequent curb-kicking that Roger began his brilliant career as a songwriter. In this case, however, it’s not so much a visit from Syd’s ghost as an embodiment of the man but instead as a form of cautionary tale.

“Empty Spaces” is a song about failed communication.

What shall we use to fill the empty spaces where we used to talk?

Of all the clichéd audio trickery allegedly found in rock record audio production of the era, backmasking was not a Pink Floyd hallmark. This practice of searching for backwards messages, intentionally inserted into recorded music in order to deliver a subliminal message, really didn’t hit the mainstream until 1969 when a caller at a Detroit rock radio station convinced disc jockey Russ Gibb to play The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” in reverse. Therein, explained the caller, were clues to prove the rumors of Paul McCartney’s death were indeed true. When played backwards, the phrase “Number nine” became obvious — to some people — as “turn me on dead man.” When other listeners tried this sonic experiment on their turntables at home, the station’s switchboards lit up. According to them, the mix also contained buried, backwards recordings of a car crash and the voice of someone screaming, “Let me out!”

Record companies and artists scoffed, citing the phenomenon of “phonetic reversal,” wherein a word sounds like another word when reversed. This did not deter some rabid backmasking hunters from convincing themselves that these subliminal messages were not only subversive in nature, but also boldly satanic.

Possibly one of the greatest examples of backmasking paranoia stems from claims that one of the most famous rock songs ever recorded, “Stairway to Heaven,“ is filled with backwards praise of the devil himself.

Right after the bridge of “Stairway” Robert Plant sings:

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now

It’s just a spring clean for the May queen

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run

There’s still time to change the road you’re on

Without getting too analytical about the lyrics within the context of the song, “Stairway to Heaven” is really about a spirit quest of sorts, harkening back to legendary pursuits like King Arthur’s grail quest or Homer’s Iliad.

The mythical quality of the song’s narrative also lends itself to shades of Paganism. The reference to the May Queen invokes an ancient ritual in which a virgin clad in white was chosen to lead a parade for May Day in celebration of spring. After being crowned with flowers though, a sinister fate awaits our lovely May Queen — for in this pagan ritual, she becomes the victim of human sacrifice.

Also quite undeniable is the allusion that the two paths and the choice to change one’s road refers to the spiritual destination that awaits at the end of this long journey.

That being said, it’s probably not that ridiculous to understand why some self-appointed backmasking detectives believe that when this section of the song is played in reverse, you clearly hear is:

Oh, here’s to my sweet Satan

The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan

He will give those with him 666

There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan

Before you give yourself severe ocular strain from rolling your eyes too hard, take a listen for yourself. (It probably helps to be really high when you do.) Most likely you will find these supposed backwards lyrics to be the product of overactive imaginations belonging to those who strive to find something hidden where nothing exists.

What makes this all very interesting is that “Empty Spaces, a song about failed communication, actually does contain its own backmasking!

Essentially a joke of Roger Waters’ own creation, it contains a certain poignancy that helps give this song a very deep meaning within the context of Pink Floyd’s history and the tragic story of Syd Barrett.

Beginning at approximately 1:12 into the song there is an obviously unhidden garbled audio element in the mix. Played backwards you can clearly hear what is being said.

“Hello looker,” Roger Waters begins. “Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink in care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont…”

Then cutting him off before he can deliver the entire address you hear recording engineer James Guthrie call out, “Roger! Carolyne’s on the phone!”

To which Roger replies, “Okay.”

Considering that original Floyd singer Syd Barrett had been institutionalized in a mental hospital, it’s easy to see how this could refer to him, though not as lovingly as in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

The “Carolyne” in question is no doubt Carolyne Waters, Roger’s second wife. In the past, Waters has publicly stated that if it had not been for Carolyne’s insistence on communication between them, he would have ended up as crazy as Pink.

Or perhaps Syd.

It’s worth mentioning that the use of Roger’s real wife’s name is the first time we are removed from The Wall’s fictional universe by something directly from the real world. However, that may be precisely the point. In order to illustrate the many layers in The Wall and to momentarily remind us that it’s a metaphor, he uses Carolyne as a grounding point to give us the right perspective and see the work for what it is.


Things get really interesting in “Young Lust.” I invite you to check out “Tearing Down The Wall” if you want to know more about the hidden meanings, messages and the incredible way the audio in The Wall was shaped to tell its own story-within-the-story. 


2 Responses to "Empty Spaces: Backwards Messages, Stairway to Heaven and a Failure to Communicate"
  1. I remember reading Guitar World magazine… oh, it must have been 20 years ago or more. Apparently they had run a contest where anyone who could explain the “bustle in your hedgerow” would win five bucks. One person wrote in and gave an elaborate explanation, including linguistic derivations, about how that passage is about a girl getting her first period. The columnist’s response was “New contest: Five bucks to anyone who can tell me what the hell that guy was talking about.”

  2. Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff says:

    LMFAO! That’s awesome

Leave a Reply