Judas Priest once found themselves at the centre of a bizarre lawsuit by the families of two young men from Nevada who shot themselves on December 23rd, 1985. The case brought against them alleged that the metal band were blamed for directly causing the incident because of subliminal messages planted within their music.
18-year-old Raymond Belknap died at the scene whereas 20-year-old James Vance maimed himself in the incident and died three years later. Their families filed a lawsuit alleging that Belknap and Vance were driven to the fatal acts because of subliminal messages hidden in Judas Priest’s Stained Class album, a record which they had been listening to on the evening whilst the duo consumed drugs and alcohol.
Five years following the catastrophic event that devastated the two families and their quest for answers saw them take Judas Priest to court, the band forced to defend their lyrics as well as the alleged subliminal messages. What made this case different to previous lawsuits involving the likes of Ozzy Osbourne was that Priest were not protected by freedom of speech because, technically, subliminal messages aren’t classed as actual speech.
The complainant’s attorney wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times about the alleged subliminals which he claimed included phrases including “let’s be dead” and “do it” which he labelled an “invasion of privacy”. He then quoted Jimi Hendrix to try and bolster his defence on how hypnotising music can be, however, it turned out that the guitarist didn’t actually even say the quote he mentioned which is an encapsulation of the whole case.
Jayne Andrews, who was a member of the band’s management team, later revealed that the complainants initially were taking them to the court about lyrics that didn’t even exist on the record. It was originally about the track ‘Heroes End’. Andrews recalled: “They tried to say the band were saying you could only be a hero if you killed yourself, till I had to give them the correct lyrics which is ‘why do heroes have to die?’ Then they changed their plea to subliminal messages on the album.”
“It’s a fact that if you play speech backwards, some of it will seem to make sense. So, I asked permission to go into a studio and find some perfectly innocent phonetic flukes,” guitarist Glenn Tipton said, “The lawyers didn’t want to do it, but I insisted. We bought a copy of the Stained Class album in a local record shop, went into the studio, recorded it to tape, turned it over and played it backwards. Right away we found ‘Hey ma, my chair’s broken’ and ‘Give me a peppermint’ and ‘Help me keep a job’.”
Following the incident, Vance himself wrote a letter to Belknap’s mother which directly linked the music of Judas Priest to the night in question which was used as key evidence in the court case. “I believe that alcohol and heavy-metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerised,” Vance wrote.
“We had to sit in this courtroom in Reno for six weeks,” frontman Rob Halford would later say on the turbulent period. “It was like Disney World. We had no idea what a subliminal message was – it was just a combination of some weird guitar sounds and the way I exhaled between lyrics. I had to sing ‘Better by You, Better Than Me’ in court, a cappella. I think that was when the judge thought, ‘What am I doing here? No band goes out of its way to kill its fans,” he frustratingly added.
The judge eventually dismissed the case but did state that while there were subliminal on the album, those words were not the outcome that Judas Priest desired. Despite acknowledging the existence of these subliminal messages, the judge ruled that these couldn’t be used to make a person kill themselves and said both of the deceased were already suicide risks.
“It tore us up emotionally hearing someone say to the judge and the cameras that this is a band that creates music that kills young people,” Halford later admitted. “We accept that some people don’t like heavy metal, but we can’t let them convince us that it’s negative and destructive. Heavy metal is a friend that gives people great pleasure and enjoyment and helps them through hard times.”
Despite not being ruled as the reason for these two young men to lose their life, the press attention on Judas Priest would have not only an adverse effect on their reputation but also on heavy metal on a whole — with the genre being unfairly attributed as indoctrinating young minds.