Andrew Hearn

In 1990, one of the most ridiculous trials ever to arise in the American legal system began in Reno, Nevada. The parents of two men who committed suicide in 1985 served a lawsuit to the British heavy metal band Judas Priest, claiming that the lyrics in their songs contained subliminal messages that drive their sons to kill themselves. What followed was a legal circus whose ending was bitter for all parties involved outside of their legal teams.

On December 23, 1985, James Vance (20) and Raymond Belknap (19) were engaging in activities that many teenagers do. They listened to heavy metal, drank under age, and smoked marijuana. After supposedly hearing the phrase ëdo ití while playing the Judas priest album Stained Class several times, the pair trashed the room they were in and departed to a local park with a shotgun in tow. Having entered into a suicide pact, Ray was the first to kill himself. Vance attempted to follow in his friendís final footsteps, but his shot only disfigured his face. He lived on in near constant pain until dying of a suspicious methadone over dose in 1988 (The Mahou Blog).

In the five years since that fateful day, the parents of the deceased had been searching for answers. Around this time, particularly in the conservative christian circles that the Vance and Belknap families were apart of, there was a moral panic over whether certain genres of music had evil or satanic messages if played backwards. Fundamentalist preachers like Gary Greenwald would hold public lectures and sell audio tapes where they presented the supposed evidence for this (Vokey and Allen, 258-259). The Vance and Belknap families latched onto this explanation and in 1990 served a subpoena to the band as they were about to go on stage while touring in Reno, Nevada (The Mahou Blog).

The prosecution initially went after the forward lyrics of several songs on the album Stained Class, however, a trial involving similar circumstances that was decided around the same time concerning the song "Suicide Solution" by Ozzy Osbourne, concluded that song lyrics fell under first amendment protection (Vokey and Allen, 260). Taking a different tactic, the prosecution decided to go after the subliminal message angle, alleging that the song "Better by You, Better than Me" contained the phrase "do it" when played backwards and that this had served as a trigger for the deceased (The Mahou Blog).

This tactic served two purposes. First, it turned the lawsuit from a free speech case into a product liability lawsuit, a case governed by a liability science that seeks to find as simple a causality as possible. This allowed the prosecution to reluctantly admit that the deceased lead sad and miserable lives that already put them at risk for suicidal ideation, while keeping their subliminal messages claim in play (Moore). Secondly it dulled claims of censorship, as it was subliminal messages that could not be reflected on that were on trial rather than the overt lyrics. The presiding judge commented on this in his closing statements, concluding that subliminal messages were not under first amendment protection (Powers).

However, the defense had far better expert witnesses that with little effort tore apart the credibility of the expert witnesses for the prosecution. The first expert witness called for the prosecution was William Key, a man who most likely "undermined his own credibility in court by opining that subliminal messages could be found on Ritz crackers, the Sistine Chapel, Sears catalogues, and the NBC evening news." That said, his involvement was limited to pre-trial testimony so his impact was limited. Howard Shervin, on the other hand, had more main stream credentials and lent credibility to the effectiveness of subliminal messages due to the fact that the recipient is unaware of the source. However, he was hard-pressed to find any research confirming this (Moore).

From here, the trial became a surreal legal nether world where during court recesses, the legal team for the plaintiffs would request autographed records for their kids from the band they were suing (The Mahou Blog). Outside the court house, showed up with signs and cheered on in much needed moral support for the embattled band (Grow). At one point, lead singer Rob Halford had to perform "Better by You, Better than Me" a cappella, a moment that seemed to drive home to the presiding judge just how ridiculous this case was (Giles).

Ultimately the judge ruled that there was no causal connection between the song and the suicide (Blecha, 55). Nonetheless, none of the parties left the court room happy. The band continued to have accusations of subliminal messages thrown at them from time to time given that the trial had left the matter of their existence neither confirmed nor disproven (Giles). Still they made the best they could of the outcome by advertising their next LP as "Awesome! Backwards or Forwards (Blecha, 55)!" Though charges of hidden evil messages in popular music continue to pop up, lawsuits from them have largely been discouraged by the results of Vance and Belknap v. Judas Priest and CBS Records. Now they mostly show up in YouTube videos where, much like their counterparts from the 1980's, the supposed message is pointed out by those involved in the production.

Bibliography

Blecha, Peter. Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2004

Jeff Giles, "When two Judas Priest fans attempted suicide, and their parents blamed the lyrics," Ultimate Classic Rock, Jan. 20, 2018, http://ultimateclassicrock.com/judas-priest-suicide/.

Grow, Kory. "Judas Priest's Subliminal Message Trial: Rob Halford Looks Back," Rolling Stone, Aug. 24,2015, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/judas-preist-subliminal-message-trial-rob-halford-looks-back-20150824

"Judas Priest Suicide Trial Article," The Mahou Blog, Last modified Dec. 1, 2006, Accessed Jan. 20, 2018, https://mahou.wordpress.com/2006/12/01/judas-priest-suicide-trial-article/

Timothy E. Moore, "Scientific Consensus and Expert Testimony: Lessons from the Judas Priest Trial," Skeptical Inquirer 26, no. 4, (1996), accessed Jan. 20, 2018, www.csicop.org/si/show/scientific_consensus_and_expert_testimony?/si/9611/judas_priest.html

Powers, Lenita. "The JUDAS PRIEST Trial: 15 Years Later - July 1, 2005," Blabbermouth.net, July 1, 2005, accessed Jan 20, 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20071001005604/http://www.roadrunnerrecords.com/blabbermouth.net/news.aspx?mode=Article&newsitemID=38769

John R. Vokey and Scott W. Allen, eds., Psychological Sketches. 7th ed. Lethbridge, Alberta, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, The University of Lethbridge. 2005