The Truth About Judas Priest And Subliminal Messages

In 1990, English heavy metal band Judas Priest found themselves sitting in a court room being blamed for the deaths of two young men who committed suicide while listening to their music. According to BBC, on Dec. 23, 1985, Raymond Belknap (18) and James Vance (20) agreed to kill themselves using a shotgun after bingeing on drugs, alcohol, and Judas Priest's Stained Class album. Belknap died at the scene while Vance passed away three years after the incident, per The New York Times. When it was discovered that they were listening to Judas Priest during the mayhem, the young men's parents decided to dig deeper into the music they felt was the reason for their sons' deaths.

After a lengthy investigation, the parents and their lawyers concluded that Judas Priest had hidden subliminal messages in their cover of Spooky Tooth's "Better by You, Better Than Me," which they claimed included the phrases, "do it," " try suicide," and "let's be dead," in the song, per Rolling Stone. They ended up suing the band and their record label (CBS Records) for $6.2 million in damages.

Judas Priest defend their music

According to Ultimate Classic Rock, around the same time that Judas Priest was on trial, metal singer Ozzy Osbourne was on trial for a very similar case. Another young man's parents had taken Osbourne to court saying the suicide of their son was brought on by Osbourne's music. Freedom of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment, was what helped get Osbourne's case dismissed. However, the judge in the Judas Priest trial ruled that "subliminals" didn't constitute actual speech and thus were not protected (via Far Out Magazine). The trial proceeded, and the band spent a month going to court trying to plead their innocence (per Rolling Stone).

"Their lawyers were good, too — there were times we thought maybe we had done it!" Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill told Metal Hammer. Per Ultimate Classic Rock, the parents' lawyer wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and said the subliminal messages were an "invasion of privacy" and misquoted Jimi Hendrix by using a quote from Charles Manson's brother, Eddy Manson, saying: "You can hypnotize people with music and when they get at their weakest point, you can preach into their subconscious minds what you want to say."

However, one of the band's defense witnesses, Dr. Timothy E. Moore noted how the prosecution went off the rails, saying: "It is possible that he undermined his own credibility with the court by opining that subliminal messages could be found on Ritz crackers, the Sistine Chapel, Sears catalogues, and the NBC evening news."

Judas Priest are exonerated

In an interview with Metro, Judas Priest's Rob Halford said the band was able to debunk the use of subliminal messages with the help of "Ol' Blue Eyes," saying: "I said to the guys, 'Let's prove them wrong.' We got some Frank Sinatra albums, played them backwards in the hotel, and these unusual messages started appearing. One was, 'I gave her a peppermint.' It was ludicrous. I played them to the judge, who was a very conservative Mormon, and when he listened, he physically moved." According to BBC, the band also pointed out that if they were going to use subliminal messages in their music, they wouldn't tell kids to kill themselves, they'd tell them to buy more records.

Eventually, the band was exonerated. Following the verdict, Halford said they were relieved but also felt that the ruling still "left the door open to some extent" (per Rolling Stone). In Timothy E. Moore's article on the trial for Skeptical Inquirer, he said the prosecution had to prove: "1. An inaudible (but technically identifiable) 'message' was physically present on the recording. 2. The message was deliberately placed there. 3. The message was subliminal. 4. The message contributed to the suicides."

The trial's judge ruled out the fourth proposition but determined that there were subliminal messages on the record, stating, "... the 'Do It's' on the record were subliminal because they were only discernible after their location had been identified and after the sounds were isolated and amplified. The sounds would not be consciously discernible to the ordinary listener under normal listening conditions."