robhalford400 Kory Grow of Rolling Stone reports:

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.

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 f–king 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. 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.

In other Rob Halford news, we here at want to wish the Metal God a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY. The iconic singer will be celebrating his very special day tomorrow, August 25th.


15 Responses

  1. I did a paper on this for school, and looked at discussions of it in psychological and legal journals.
    The idea of “subliminal messages” is an urban myth. No evidence for their influential power exists. In the 1950s, some company marketed themselves as capable of, as Rob says, manipulating the images at a drive-in to increase concession sales. Because a lot of people are automatically predisposed to think companies do terrible, manipulative things, this lame bit of salesmanship on their part caught on, and so began the myth that images, and later sounds, could turn people into puppets, like a bad science-fiction movie.
    What gets overlooked about the Priest trial is that there was another one over Ozzy’s “Suicide Solution”. Regular visitors to this site know the significance of that trial really lay in Ozzy and Sharon reaping what they had sown in their treatment of Bob Daisley – because they had earlier claimed Ozzy was the lyricist for that song, he was targeted for a song he didn’t actually write! One almost wishes the plaintiff had won … .
    These ridiculous trials were the product of several phenomena converging – evangelical conservative Christians joining hands with a increasingly litigious legal landscape in the US, courtesy of liberals convinced that the courtroom was the best way to punish what they saw as “irresponsible” behavior on the part of big corporations.
    There’s a great documentary, sometimes on youtube, called “Dreamer Deceiver” which shows all the people concerned, including the mother of James Vance, and her brain-dead minister who got her into the lawsuit in the first place. Watch them interact and draw your own conclusions about what went on in that household.
    By the way, Vance’s sister also attempted suicide – and she hated heavy metal music.

  2. That trial was absurd. They even made Rob sing on the witness stand. I am a true believer that no real heavy metal fan listens to metal to deliberately feel bad or listens to it and is made to feel depressed or suicidal. The music is so empowering and has the ability to bring instant uplifting to one’s spirit. But someone who’s mentally ill and/or under the influence of drugs or simply has a history of suicidal thoughts or actions are more likely to attempt and sometimes accomplish suicide and music can’t be blamed. But the most absurd aspect the was the claim of subliminal messages within the song that, according to the prosecuting attorney, combined with the lyrics were basically an order to the listener to kill themselves. The truth is those two kids were messed up and needed help in their lives and nobody saw that until it was too late. Then, a finger had to be pointed and it obviously seemed easier to point it at Judas Priest than acknowledge that the people who knew those boys either didn’t recognize that they needed help or just ignored it. The one that lived, James Vance, supposedly wrote a letter not long before he died that also blamed the music but I’ve always been suspicious of that and believe he had some outside influences prompting him to do that. Maybe he was trying comfort the other kid’s mom to make her feel there wasn’t anything she did wrong. Who knows? The bottom line is Judas Priest should have never had to go through that ordeal. They are my favorite band of all time and I couldn’t even guess how many times their music has helped me through rough times and lifted my spirits. There’s one album, POINT OF ENTRY, in particular that I turned to during a traumatic time in my life, when I was 13, and I honestly believe it helped save my life. That’s the real effect heavy metal can have.

    1. I remember being seriously pissed off when this all went down. The parents went hard after Priest and seemingly didn’t acknowledge their issues as parents based on their respective children drinking and smoking pot in their own homes getting absolutely wasted with access to weapons. I remember reading that the boys claimed they heard the words ‘do it’ on Stained Class and interpreted that as a message to commit suicide. These guys were clearly lost and the prosecution tried to present them as normal kids who all of a sudden got drunk and stoned one afternoon and decided to kill themselves. That seems logical. I admire Rob’s comments that he just wanted to go hug one of the mom’s and apologize for her loss. Rob Halford has always been a pure class act on and off the stage. He handles everything with a grace that no other performer has ever shown. That is why he’s the Metal God, now and throughout eternity. The greatest rock singer the world has ever known….period. Happy Birthday Metal God.

    2. Yes James,

      I saw Dream Deceiver at a movie theater, and had a very heavy heart watching my idol, Rob Halford, sing on the stand. That case was nothing but an attempt at a money grab, or what I would call, legal blackmail. Very sad all the way around.

      Also, as someone who has been touched by suicide, to suggest that a certain genre of music, specific song or “subliminal messages,” was cause of one’s death, only trivializes those that suffer from severe depression, mental illness and brain injury. If one is so highly suggestible, then trust me, there are far deeper mental and emotional issues, at play.

      D 🙂

    3. Dana,

      When Rob was made to sing on the stand, my first assumption was that they were possibly implying that Rob somehow did something vocally that may have contributed to the so called “subliminal messages” being inserted into the song. Just thinking that was the case pissed me off big time. They analyzed Rob’s vocal technique, asking about the noise he made after singing a line, which he explained was just a release of breath and it was just his vocal style. Rob is such a classy, down to earth guy who wears his heart on his sleeve and it must have been killing him inside that someone may have thought he’d done something that led to this tragedy. They didn’t ask Glenn and KK to stand up in court and play the guitar parts of the song, it was just having Rob sing. But he was humble and very genuine and professional while on the stand and I think that really helped Priest’s case. It’s was still a sad situation all around.

  3. Happy Birthday Rob….I remember this trial like it was yesterday also…..what a joke!!!
    I felt sorrow for the two guys families…..but I’ve spent hours on end with all my Priest albums….and I am fairly normal…hahahahaha….but metal is all I’ve ever listened to since 1969….and the Priest is top 5

  4. Heavy Metal doesn’t take lives,
    Heavy Metal saves lives.
    I should know.
    And if you don’t believe that,
    You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’!
    Thank you Rob, Happy Birthday!

    1. Thanks DR. Well, I’m about to be “Heading Out To The Highway To Hell,” on my way to see the Gods Of Thunder From Down Under, AC/DC! It’s “Rock Or Bust,” cheers! 🙂

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