Black Mountain And Backmasking Keep That '70s Rock Era Alive

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Just as the phone conversation between myself and Stephen McBean, leader of the Vancouver, British Columbia, band Black Mountain, is warming up, it gets cut short. The quintet’s van is being pulled over by California Highway Patrol.

He calls me back 20 minutes later and assures me everything is okay. I question him to see if the officer rode a motorcycle just like the stars of the television drama CHiPs. He laughs and describes the officer as “pretty handsome.”

I ask, “Just like Poncherello?”

McBean confirms with a laugh and a “yes,” proof that the Canadian is familiar with Erik Estrada’s character on the hit '70s show.

When we start talking about the band’s fourth studio album, the appropriately titled IV, he can see where I am going when I start asking him about another '70s pop-culture reference: Led Zeppelin.

“We’ve all gone through our own Led Zeppelin phase,” McBean says. “You don’t want to be owned by your own musical dogma. It’s a weird thing. You want it to be fun, but you also want to take chances and push yourself.”

That intention gave the band a chance to play around with their audience. In the '70s and '80s, the practice known as backmasking became popular. Musicians recorded messages backwards and inserted them into their songs, often in a satiric response to Christian groups that accused rock groups of delivering satanic messages with their music.

Recently the band’s label, Jagjaguwar, held a contest to win a pair of tickets to their shows for a lifetime along with every album in their catalog. All fans had to do was find the backwards hidden message on the latest release, and report what they heard on Facebook or Twitter. This was an obvious nod to famous Zeppelin single “Stairway To Heaven,” a song that featured heavily in the backmasking controversy.

The dubious contest began on April Fools' Day. Cynics saw it as a ploy to lure hardcore geeks of hallucinatory blues rock away from streaming their record and nudge them toward purchasing a pricey vinyl copy of Black Mountain’s music. Their label insisted it was not a joke, and crowned the lucky winner, a Bay Area-based artist, one week later. Ironically, the message wasn’t satanic at all. It was the question “Do you want my love?”

While the band saw the album’s title and its nods to music’s past as a clever idea, McBean remembers one album reviewer declared the stunt “pompous.” He felt they were continuing a tradition of those who came before Black Mountain. He was quick to remind me (jokingly, of course) that Beyonce and Huey Lewis also have albums with the same title (Bey’s is 4 and Lewis’ is Fore!). Referencing the music of the '60s and '70s is part Black Mountain’s DNA. They’re having so much fun. Why change now?

Black Mountain is scheduled to perform Tuesday, May 3, at Valley Bar. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 day of show. 

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