JUDAS PRIEST singer Rob Halford says that an “incredible display of love ” between the members of the band is what got them through their subliminal-message trial in Reno, Nevada.
In August 1990, a judge ruled that JUDAS PRIEST was not liable for the deaths of two young men who cited the band’s music as the reason they killed themselves.
Just before Christmas, 1985, 19-year-old James Vance watched his best friend Ray Belknap shoot himself to death with a .12 gauge shotgun in a churchyard outside Reno, Nevada. Then Vance pulled the trigger on himself. He survived but was severely disfigured. Vance later claimed his actions had been influenced by the heavy metal music of JUDAS PRIEST, prompting his family to sue the band.
At the heart of the lawsuit was the claim that JUDAS PRIEST‘s “Stained Class” album’s songs contained messages that, when played backwards, said “try suicide” and “let’s be dead.” Lawyers said it was the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” with its subliminal command of “do it, do it, do it” that pushed the two men over the line to end their troubled lives.
Vance told attorneys that he and Belknap were listening to JUDAS PRIEST when “all of a sudden we got a suicide message, and we got tired of life.” In a letter to Belknap‘s mother, he later wrote, “I believe that alcohol and heavy-metal music such as JUDAS PRIEST led us to be mesmerized.”
“JUDAS PRIEST and CBS pander this stuff to alienated teenagers,” the Belknaps‘ attorney argued. “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.”
Halford looked back on the Reno trial while promoting his recently released autobiography, “Confess”, on “The Radical With Nick Terzo” podcast.
Rob said (hear audio below): “This, to me, was just this incredible display of love between all of us in the band. We never talked about it, ’cause that’s the kind of guys we are and the generation that we’re from. But that’s what got us through it — loving each other and caring for each other and supporting each other, and being extremely focused on the elements of the trial.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll never stop saying it, those two beautiful heavy metal guys took their lives,” he continued. “[It had] nothing to do with metal. They loved their heavy metal music. They were just totally locked into experience — it gave them a lot of connectivity; it was who they were as persons with the music that they loved. But the horrible side issues of what was going on with their family, plus the state of mind, which was messed up terribly that particular fateful day, with alcohol and other chemicals, it was like a ticking time bomb.
“But, yeah, we were literally fighting for our lives, weren’t we?” Rob added. “We were accused, firstly, of killing somebody. How do you cope with that? But we did. And it was an incredibly strong, tough part of the life of JUDAS PRIEST that I would like to say we got through unscathed, but we didn’t, because we all carry that with us, as do a lot of other people. And because of the context of the story, it’s very important to have it included in ‘Confess’.”
Halford also talked about the fact that PRIEST returned to Reno at some point after the trial to play a show for the community which supported the group during one of its darkest periods.
“We went back to Reno some years later, as just a validation of us all getting through that and still being together, and still not having any hate,” Rob explained. “‘Cause hate is a horribly destructive, corrosive, mean, nasty, terrible thing to have to go through, because it doesn’t have any value whatsoever — it’s just pure negativity. So for us to go back and to celebrate, it was important.”
Other lawsuits at that time sought damages because of violent lyrics in music, but the JUDAS PRIEST case was one of the first to claim that subliminal messages hidden behind those lyrics caused the deaths of young men.