Revisiting Judas Priest’s Subliminal Lyrics Trial
Members of Judas Priest, wearing day-job business suits instead of their traditional leather and spikes, entered a Nevada court room on July 16, 1990, facing charges that their lyrics had driven two young fans to suicide. Both the band and its record label were the target of a civil suit alleging the manufacture and marketing of a faulty product, intentional and reckless misconduct and negligence.
"Judas Priest and CBS pander this stuff to alienated teenagers," attorney Kenneth McKenna said during the opening day of arguments. "The members of the chess club, the math and science majors don't listen to this stuff. It's the dropouts, the drug and alcohol abusers. So, our argument is you have a duty to be more cautious when you're dealing with a population susceptible to this stuff."
Lawyers pointed to messages – some overt, some allegedly masked through backward recording techniques – on albums like 1978's Stained Glass, saying that they led directly to two teens from Sparks, Nev. -- Raymond Belknap and James Vance -- to make a grisly decision on Dec. 23, 1985.
The evening began, Vance said in hearings before his 1988 death, with lots of marijuana, beer and Judas Priest. He testified that the band's song "Beyond the Realms of Death" – which features Rob Halford singing "Keep the world with all its sin / It's not fit for living in" – led the friends to a blood oath. As for the hidden messages, attorneys argued that they heard the words “do it” embedded in the song “Better by You, Better Than Me.” "All of a sudden, we got a suicide message," Vance said. "And we got tired of life."
That night, Belknap and Vance shot themselves in the head at a nearby church playground with a 12-gauge shotgun. Belknap, 18, died instantly, but Vance suffered a glancing blow. While he destroyed most of his face, the then-20 year old somehow survived. A series of costly, and apparently quite painful, reconstructive surgeries followed before Vance died of a methadone overdose nearly three years later. "I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized," Vance wrote in an earlier letter to Belknap's mother.
The Belknaps sued for $1.2 million; the Vance family asked for $5 million. Judas Priest pushed back against the allegations, just as fellow rocker Ozzy Osbourne had done when similar charges were levied against him.
"I don't know what subliminals are, but I do know there's nothing like that in this music," Judas Priest manager Bill Curbishley said. "If we were going to do that, I'd be saying, 'Buy seven copies,' not telling a couple of screwed-up kids to kill themselves."
The trial included a series of unforgettable allegations and images, such as Halford's dramatic recitation of lyrics he said he "never perceived" as "deep and meaningful." By Aug. 24, 1990, the Washoe County District Court had dismissed the case.