Judas Priest's Subliminal Message Trial: Rob Halford Looks Back

Twenty-five years after judge finds band not guilty of hiding phrases like "let's be dead" in its songs, trial still resonates

Rob Halford reflects on Judas Priest's harrowing 1990 trial. Credit: Mikka Skaffari/Getty

Twenty-five years ago today, a judge ruled that heavy-metal trendsetters Judas Priest were not liable for the deaths of two young men who cited the band's music as the reason they killed themselves. One day in December 1985, the men — Raymond Belknap, then 18, and James Vance, 20 — had spent six hours drinking, smoking marijuana and listening to the metal band's Stained Class album, after which each man took a shotgun and shot himself. Belknap died instantly, but Vance lived, sustaining serious injuries that left him disfigured; he died three years later.

Before his death, Vance and his parents sued the band and their label at the time, CBS Records, for $6.2 million in damages. They claimed that Judas Priest had hidden subliminal messages like "try suicide," "do it" and "let's be dead" in their cover of Spooky Tooth's "Better by You, Better Than Me," influencing Vance and Belknap to form a suicide pact. The suit went to trial in July, 1990, and the prosecution played the song forward, backward and sped up in an attempt to prove the group had brainwashed these two young men into killing themselves.

As a "defendant of the faith" — as Rolling Stone described him in 1990, punning off the band's Defenders of the Faith album title — the group's frontman, Rob Halford, testified in court that the supposed "backward masking" in the tune was the sound of him exhaling while singing. The band's attorneys also drew attention to Vance and Belknap's troubled childhoods and substance-abuse problems. The judge ultimately decided that the group was not responsible. Below, Halford took some time to reflect on what was a landmark case in recorded music before he and the rest of Judas Priest readied themselves for a U.S. tour this October. 

It feels like it was just yesterday, because it's such a strong memory. I remember walking up the steps every day at the courthouse in Reno, and feeling the incredible fan support that we had every day. All the local metalheads were there, chanting and holding up signs calling for us to be exonerated. And then there was just the tension and the sadness in the courthouse, because at the heart of the matter were these two guys that lost their lives tragically. These two boys were massive Priest fans, and that made it even more heart-wrenching that this terrible combination of the night and the drugs and the booze and their state of mind turned into something quite terrible.

The case was very interesting, since it was about subliminal messages, plain and simple, and what they have the potential to do or not do. One of the first instances of the so-called "backward masking" I'd heard of was in Led Zeppelin songs. But in that case, it wasn't subliminal, it was allegedly audible. And weren't the Beatles accused of doing something like that?

Either way, my interpretation of subliminal messages as we presented it was how in the old days you'd go to a movie and someone would insert a frame of film that suggested you buy popcorn. But even then, it was real and it was physical, because you could take that frame and go, "Look, there it is." You can't do that with words, because you have to actually hear them. And then if you can hear them, then how can they be subliminal or subconscious, like in a dream?

It's a very, very intriguing subject matter, built in psychology. But I haven't got a clue. I'm just a fucking singer in a heavy-metal band. We were baffled by some of the things that were coming out in the courtroom.

The trial shook us up, because it came from a country that we love dearly. We've always had this fantastic relationship with America. To come from a place that we love so much was a shock.

Nevertheless, the case was a great opportunity for a band like Priest to show the judge and the public that was clueless about metal and rock that we had a bunch of guys who could string sentences together and be logical and intelligent and have a deep conversation in a courtroom. I think there was the misguided belief that that wasn't going to happen. But we're not idiots, and we never will be.

We were in court, 9 to 5, every day for a month. We stayed in some kind of facility way outside of Reno to get away from the press, so we could huddle on the weekends, switch off, cook some food, just hang out and support each other. But we had to be prepared for whatever the next week was going to hand us, because we were just a bunch of musicians. Like, "Why are we here?" We're British metal musicians, and we're having to defend ourselves and our music and our fans about the ridiculous, absurd accusations that we put these messages in our music designed to kill yourself. It was preposterous, absolutely ridiculous. So it was a very emotional circumstance, but the band had a wonderful defense attorney, and everybody supported us, and we got through it.

"I really wanted to go over to the mother of the boy who killed himself and give her a hug, and say, 'I'm sorry for the loss of your kid.'"

I really wanted to go over to the mother of the boy who killed himself and give her a hug, and say, "I'm sorry for the loss of your kid. Let's go have a coffee and talk this over." But I think the deeper end of the story was that the people who were working for her in terms of prosecution was a very tangled web, because we heard there was a kind of infiltration from the extreme, right-leaning Christian groups that were urging them to pursue the case, telling them that we were responsible. But I would have loved to have just had the opportunity just to be with that family and let common sense prevail and talk it out. But you can't, because it's obviously a highly charged, emotional circumstance when you've lost your children. You're bound to be angry. You're bound to be upset. You're bound to be looking for some explanation.

Our label took over the costs of the lawsuit for us. They understood that it wasn't just the musicians on the line, it was the label, too. Had the judge found in favor about the so-called subliminal messages having the power to physically manifest themselves and make people to do something, the ramifications of that would've been extraordinary. How do you prove to somebody that there are not subliminal messages on your record when you can't hear them in the first place? When you got into the nitty-gritty of the possible outcome, it would've been quite stunning.

When the verdict came in, we were relieved but also a little disappointed. The judge left the door open to some extent. He didn't flatly say, "What the prosecution was suggesting actually did not take place." He basically said, "Look, this is still a nebulous area, but it is my opinion that this band did not put these words onto this song and the outcome of those words created this tragedy." So we as a band were exonerated, but the whole thing as far as what subliminal messages have the potential to do was left in limbo. It would be horrible to think that it might occur again, but you just have to wait and see.