In a recent interview with the Laredo, Texas radio station Hot 106.1, JUDAS PRIEST singer Rob Halford was asked how things have changed since the infamous 1990 trial in which PRIEST was accused of inserting subliminal messages into its music.
"You put somebody in front of me that can absolutely say to my face that rock and roll or metal is destructive, and I'll tear that idea to pieces, because it's not, man," Halford responded. Everything that we do in rock and roll, in metal, it doesn't matter how extreme it is, it's all about good vibes, it's all about energy. It doesn't matter whether it's aggressive energy or any other kind of energy. We're not in this business to do anything other than make the best music that we can give you, the best times that we can give you, the best memories that we can. I think everybody in music does that — it doesn't matter whether it's rock or metal or folk or R&B, soul, blues; it don't matter, man. We're all out there having the best opportunities that we have with our music and with our fans. So anything that's come to us that has been from a negative source has never been directly related to what we do with our music."
According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, 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."
JUDAS PRIEST's manager, Bill Curbishley, stated before the trial began: "I don't know what subliminals are, but I do know there's nothing like that in this music. 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."
"It's a fact that if you play speech backwards, some of it will seem to make sense," JUDAS PRIEST guitarist Glenn Tipton said. "So I asked permission to go into a studio and find some perfectly innocent phonetic flukes. The lawyers didn't want to do it, but I insisted. We bought a copy of the 'Stained Class' album in a local record shop, went into the studio, recorded it to tape, turned it over and played it backwards. Right away we found, 'Hey ma, my chair's broken' and 'Give me a peppermint' and 'Help me keep a job.'"
Speaking about the case in a 2007 interview, Halford said: "The American reaction was phenomenal — the support we had from the fans every day, to and from the courthouse. But it was very difficult to sit there and listen to the attorney basically saying: 'These guys over there killed these kids.' [We thought] 'What are you talking about?' It was surreal, but we knew we had to stand up for what we believed in: We had absolutely no association with their death. We kept them alive for a good period of their lives. We were a lifeline (from) the shit life that they were living."
Halford went a step further in a 2008 interview with RockBand.com, telling the site: "We flatly refute any accusation or allegations that music of any thought or style can have the power to take someone's life. At the end of the day, that's the individual's choice, and if you're messed up on booze or drugs — or you have some kind of mental instability — that's got to be addressed. But music in and of itself can't kill you and never will."
"It tore us up emotionally hearing someone say to the judge and the cameras that this is a band that creates music that kills young people," Halford later admitted. "We accept that some people don't like heavy metal, but we can't let them convince us that it's negative and destructive. Heavy metal is a friend that gives people great pleasure and enjoyment and helps them through hard times."
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.
"It was the first time there had been a judicial determination of whether subliminal messages were or were not protected speech under the First Amendment," former Washoe District Judge Jerry Whitehead told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2005.
Whitehead, who heard the case after the lawyers agreed not to have the civil suit decided by a jury, ruled it was not.
"Because speech is basically the expression of thoughts and ideas that a person can reflect upon and accept or reject, but a subliminal message is a surreptitious attempt to influence the subconscious and, therefore, is not something you could reflect upon and accept or reject," he said.
His final decision: There was no conclusive evidence of subliminal messages, Whitehead dismissed the case against JUDAS PRIEST and its record company, CBS, in 1990.
"Dream Deceivers", the 1992 documentary about the trial, was finally released on DVD and digital on August 5.