By Rick de Yampert
When Ticket to the Moon, the Electric Light Orchestra tribute band, performs Saturday June 25 at Flagler Auditorium in Palm Coast, you will not – repeat, not – feel any strange, magical compulsion to become a satanist.
That wasn’t the case during the nascent days of ELO in the early 1970s when, according to some Christian fundamentalists, ELO was one of the many rock bands sneaking diabolical, so-called “backward masked” subliminal messages into their music – the better to turn people, especially impressionable youngsters, into devil worshippers.
Despite the stink raised by Christian fundies as they dragged rock music across the devil’s asshole, the practitioners of the music and most fans saw the fundie-fueled bruhaha for what it was: either a ridiculous play for the media spotlight, or a weird variant of delusional, conspiracy-theory thinking.
Flash forward to today, and the engineers of that rock ’n’ roll satanic panic decades ago must be gagging on devil’s food cake to know that not only did ELO “survive” to become worthy of tribute band status, but also that the tribute concert at Flagler Auditorium will bring the band’s music to life with the aid of four teens — a string quartet from the Flagler Youth Orchestra. The foursome includes violinists Luka Tristam, Jack Lisenby and Nigel-Ginola Njok, and cellist Corey Lehnertz. (Disclosure: Luka is the son of FlaglerLive editor Pierre Tristam and FYO executive director Cheryl Tristam.)
Score: Symphonic rock band and young musicians – 1.
Satan and the Christian fundies who contort themselves to see the devil’s presence in the most innocuous places – 0. (For a more detailed account of the backward masking insanity, see the end of this article.)
The four FYO musicians “are excited,” says Victor Rivera, an Iraq veteran, professional violinist and one of the Flagler Youth Orchestra’s teachers and conductors. Rivera has been “coaching” (his phrase) the quartet as they’ve rehearsed for the concert.
“You’re talking about students who have been with the FYO program for a very long time,” Rivera says. “This is an opportunity that they’ve never had before, and they’re really looking forward to it.”
The Flagler Youth Orchestra was founded in 2005 under the direction of the late Jonathan May and Cheryl Tristam as an after-school strings program. As a special project of the Flagler County school district, the program provides instruction on violin, viola, cello and bass, and is free for any Flagler County students age 8 through their senior year in high school.
FYO students are grouped into several ensembles, which perform public concerts throughout the school year. Also, the FYO String Quartet performs at various events throughout the county dozens of times a year, and acts as unofficial “ambassadors” for the program.
Electric Light Orchestra was founded in Birmingham, England, in 1970 by songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, along with drummer Bev Bevan. Fusing rock, pop and symphonic string arrangements, the band became the heir, of sorts, to the ’60s-spawned, classical music-loving Moody Blues. During ELO’s 1970s heyday, they scored such hit singles as “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic,” “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” “Turn to Stone,” “Livin’ Thing,” “Telephone Line” and more – with many of those songs featuring string arrangements.
The tribute band Ticket to the Moon, which formed in 2019 and took its name from an ELO song title, performs the aforementioned hits and more. The FYO String Quartet will join Ticket to the Moon for three consecutive songs at Saturday’s concert: “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic” and “Xanadu.”
“I didn’t get an opportunity to do something like this until I went pro,” says Rivera, who notes he has performed backing the Little River Band, as well as in numerous pops-oriented concerts with the Ocala Symphony. “So, to be able to do this as a student, to have that experience is priceless.”
The collaboration was the brainchild of David Ayres, president and CEO of Flagler Broadcasting, which is home to six area radio stations. One of them, Kool 100.9 FM, annually co-produces a show with Flagler Auditorium. Just prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ayres reached out to the FYO’s Cheryl Tristam about the possibility of some of the student musicians performing during an upcoming show by Ticket to the Moon.
“Cheryl said, ‘Oh my God, we play some of their songs anyway with the youth orchestra,’ ” Ayres recalls. With Tristam’s support, Ayres reached out to singer-guitarist Reggie Fecteau, who plays the “Jeff Lynne” role in Ticket to the Moon. Fecteau enthusiastically agreed to the collaboration, but the pandemic scuttled the idea at that time.
With the return of the ELO tribute band this Saturday, the collaboration was revived.
“Bands like this sort of collaboration because it involves the local community,” Ayres says. “The kids get a chance to be part of a big production. I see it as a win-win-win all the way around for everybody. It should be fun and entertaining and a great experience.”
Tristam says she is “very excited about this. Personally, I’m an ELO fan. This is the sort of music I grew up on, certainly more so than classical music. ELO,” she adds with a laugh, “was my first exposure to strings.”
Ayres notes that concert proceeds will go to Flagler Broadcasting and Flagler Auditorium, the 1,000-seat, nonprofit venue on the campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School. Proceeds also will fuel a donation to the Flagler Youth Orchestra, he says. Tristam adds that Flagler Auditorium director Amelia Fulmer, “has been assisting in all this.”
The four members of the FYO String Quartet “are outstanding students,” Rivera says. Using arrangements provided by the tribute band, “the kids picked it up very, very quickly, and they were very open to interpretations and tempos and everything else. It was just a really fun experience to get them ready and get them going.”
When all hell (allegedly) broke loose in rock ’n’ roll: A glance back at the backward masking controversy
Electric Light Orchestra released its fourth album, “Eldorado,” in 1974, but it wasn’t until seven years later that the uproar from some Christian fundamentalists hit a fever pitch. Such devil hunters as Jacob Aranza in his book “Backward Masking Unmasked: Backward Satanic Messages of Rock and Roll Exposed” sniffed Satan’s sinister presence in that recording by ELO, as well as in famous songs by Led Zeppelin, Queen, Styx and myriad other rock bands.
An infernal legion of Satan-worshipping rockers, the fundies claimed, were sneaking so-called “backward masked” messages into their music. Heard in normal forward fashion, these lyrics seemed innocent enough, but the devil hunters were convinced rock bands were conveying diabolical missives that could subliminally seduce people to the dark side. Satan’s trickery would be revealed if you – or some preacher looking out for your soul — were somehow able to play these infernal songs backward.
The lurid claims sent curious and-or-incensed fans, music critics (including this writer), nervous parents, psychologists, sociologists and Christians of all stripes to their turntables, where with a bit of trial and error one could figure out how to rotate a slab of vinyl backwards with one’s index finger. (When I finally was able to spin my copy of “Stairway” backward, I heard slurred, ungrammatical nonsense sprinkled with a few words that may have sounded akin to “Satan” . . . or “satin” or “suet.”)
The title track to ELO’s “Eldorado” contained the opening lyric: “Here it comes, another lonely day. Playing the game, I’ll sail away on a voyage of no return to see if eternal life is meant to be.” Played backwards, the fundies claimed, that lyric would be heard as “He is the nasty one, Christ you’re infernal. It is said we’re dead men. Everyone who has the mark will live.”
Led Zep’s “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most beloved and famous tracks in rock history, was also sullied. Play the lyric “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now” backwards, the devil hunters claimed, and you would hear “Here’s to my sweet Satan, the one who made a path for it makes me sad whose power is Satan.”
These days, rock’s backward masking scandal is a curious footnote in the music’s history, but at the time numerous rockers were forced on the defensive to fight for their music and their reputations.
Led Zeppelin vocalist-lyricist Robert Plant addressed the matter in a 1983 interview in Musician magazine, and his distress was quite palpable: “To me it’s very sad, because ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that’s not my idea of making music. It’s really sad. The first time I heard it was early in the morning when I was living at home, and I heard it on a news program. I was absolutely drained all day. I walked around, and I couldn’t actually believe, I couldn’t take people seriously who could come up with sketches like that. There are a lot of people who are making money there, and if that’s the way they need to do it, then do it without my lyrics. I cherish them far too much.”
ELO auteur Jeff Lynne concocted his own cheeky response to the satanic accusations. On ELO’s 1975 album, “Face the Music,” the opening track, “Fire on High,” includes a quite obvious backwards vocal which, when played in reverse, is revealed to be drummer Bev Bevan saying, quite audibly, “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.”
At the height of the satanic panic (amply covered by the media), Lynne and company went full frontal on ELO’s 1983 album, the brazenly titled “Secret Messages.” As that apt title suggests, the album was strewn with backward messages, some obvious and some subtle.
Ticket to the Moon and the FYO String Quartet will present a tribute to Electric Light Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Saturday June 25 at Flagler Auditorium, 5500 E. Highway 100, Palm Coast. Tickets are $50, $40 and $30, available at the auditorium box office or online at flaglerauditorium.org. Members of the Flagler Youth Orchestra and their families will have received an email from the organization with a discount code for $10 off the $30 tickets. Information: 386-437-7547.
Rick de Yampert is FlaglerLive’s culture writer.