One of the strangest yet most well-known court cases blaming a band for a fan’s suicide concluded 30 years ago, on Aug. 24, 1990. On trial was the British heavy metal band Judas Priest, who released the album Stained Class in 1978. That record came out several years before the group broke internationally with British Steel, yet in legal circles Stained Class remains far more significant, since it spawned the precedent-setting case Vance v. Judas Priest. After a court battle that lasted more than six weeks, the band emerged victorious.
“It was crazy for us, because we were a British metal band being taken to trial in a country that we loved so dearly over an incident that we thought was preposterous,” frontman Rob Halford tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And we had to go through the motions of this monthlong trial. It was absolutely ridiculous. It really was. We love our fans. We would never put anything in our music with the intent of harming them.”
Here’s the background story: On Dec. 23, 1985, after repeatedly listening to Stained Class, Sparks, Nev., residents James Vance, 20, and Raymond Belknap, 18, grabbed a 12-gauge, sawed-off shotgun and entered the nearby courtyard of the Community First Church of God to carry out a suicide pact. Belknap shot himself and died instantly; Vance was severely facially disfigured from his subsequent self-inflicted shotgun blast, but he survived. Four months later, Vance wrote his mother a letter, which read in part, “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music, such as Judas Priest, led us or even mesmerized us into believing that the answer to life was death.”
Vance’s mother immediately contacted several lawyers to see if she had a case. Since the First Amendment of the Constitution protects free speech, and would therefore render inadmissible any claims that Judas Priest’s lyrics caused Belknap and Vance’s suicidal acts, attorneys looked for a back door. They examined Stained Class forward and backward — literally. When they played the record backward they decided “Better by You, Better Than Me,” a cover of a song by the English hard rock band Spooky Tooth, contained subliminal messages, including the phase “do it,” which “mesmerized” Belknap and Vance into wanting to take their own lives.
During a pretrial hearing, Justice Jerry Whitehead ruled that “non-decipherable sounds below the conscious threshold of awareness” are not protected by the First Amendment. Almost five years after the tragedy, the members of Judas Priest were subpoenaed to appear for a hearing in Washoe County Court House in Reno, Nev.
“As we got off the tour bus, we were told that we were going to be subpoenaed by the local police department and that we didn’t have to say anything,” recalls Halford. “We just had to take the envelope that was handed to each of us and carry on walking into the gig. We walked in single-file and the sheriff came up and said to each of us, ‘You’re served.’ That’s when the official legal process kicked in.”
Vance’s mother, Phyllis, sued the band and CBS Records for $6.2 million. Her suit alleged that the backward “messages” in “Better by You, Better Than Me” were responsible for her son and Belknap’s actions, and that the record company shared the blame, since Stained Class was a “defective product” that attacked the listener’s subconscious and compelled them to commit acts against their will. Before the trial, Judas Priest insisted that there were no subliminal messages on the song, but Phyllis Vance refused to drop the case. With the court date pending, Judas Priest were given an option of having the trial heard by a jury or a single judge and opted for the latter. On July 6, the case began and Judas Priest entered the Nevada courtroom.
Originally, James Vance was scheduled to take the stand against one of his favorite bands. However, on Nov. 29, 1988, he died from a methadone overdose during a stay at the psychiatric unit of the Washoe Medical Center. Still, the prosecution felt it had enough evidence to win the case. Judas Priest thought the whole experience was surreal and Kafkaesque.
“It was just like being in a movie,” Halford says. “It didn’t seem real. The opening accusations by the prosecution started off with some guy going, ‘Your honor, the whole point of this is to receive justice and we will be screaming for vengeance and standing by the sad wings of destiny as we will ram it down.’ We just looked at each other going, ‘Oh my God, the prosecution is starting their accusations using our album titles in their argument!’ We were just stunned.”
To win the case, the prosecution would have had to prove that an inaudible message was willfully hidden in the recording, that the message was subliminal, and that it clearly caused Vance and Belknap to shoot themselves. During the case, Vance’s attorneys relied on expert witnesses in the field of subliminal persuasion, including researcher Howard Shevrin and author Dr. Wilson Key. Some who were present felt that Key, who wrote four books about subliminal advertising, damaged his credibility by stating in his opening argument that subliminal messages could be found “on Ritz crackers, the Sistine Chapel, Sears catalogues, and the NBC evening news.”
The case became stranger as it progressed. Members of Priest have said that between sessions some of the lawyers asked the members of the band for autographs to give to friends and family members. In addition, while Halford was on the stand, he was asked to sing an a cappella version of “Better by You, Better Than Me,” as performed on the album.
The expert witness for the defense was Anthony Pellicano, who had previously analyzed the Watergate tapes and the video of the Kennedy assassination. Pellicano testified that the backward passage that sounds like the phrase “do it” was a fluke caused by the combination of Halford exhaling after a vocal line, coupled with the noise of an effects-laden guitar.
Halford says the turning point in the case came when the he took the stand and played various backward passages from Stained Class that the band members scrutinized, using their imaginations in an effort to detect anything that sounded like a sentence. After finding a handful, including, “I-I-I asked her for a peppermint/I-I-I asked for her to get one,” “Hey ma, my chair’s broken,” and “Help me keep a job,” they played them for the judge, advising him what to listen for before they played the backward passages.
“We wanted to prove to the judge that these sounds and ideas can be manufactured in the mind more than anything else,” Halford says. “If you can drop a seed of what something might be, then you can convince your brain that that’s exactly the sound or the phrase that you’re listening to. And as we played those passages back, you could see the judge’s mannerism change on the spot. He realized that the phrase [‘do it’] was there as a trick of the mind more than anything else. And I think he realized you can take anything from anybody and play it backward and create these imaginary phrases and sentences. Everything seemed to change that day.”
In the end, Judge Whitehall ruled that Vance and Belknap were predisposed toward self-destructive behavior long before they heard Stained Class, and that even if the album contained backward masking, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that the messages in and of themselves were enough to cause the young adults to consider suicide.
“The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude,” Whitehead said. “The strongest evidence presented at the trial showed [that subliminal messages would cause] no behavioral effects [on an individual] other than anxiety, distress, or tension.”
Judas Priest won the case, but the victory wasn’t as overwhelming as defenders of the First Amendment might have hoped. Judge Whitehead may have ruled that Judas Priest and CBS Records played no role in the suicide pact between Vance and Belknap, but he stated that the Stained Class contained subliminal messages, even if the messages were mere audio anomalies. In addition, it cost the band approximately $250,000 in legal costs and the judge ordered CBS to pay $40,000 to the prosecution, since the label did not provide master tapes of Stained Class to Vance’s lawyers.
In 1992, director David Van Taylor released Dream Deceivers, a documentary about the story of Vance and Belknap and the lawsuit that followed, which features interviews conducted with Vance before his death.
“Going to court is still a strong memory, because at the heart of it for us was a great sadness that these young guys who were hardcore Priest and metal fans had lost their lives through a combination of drugs and alcohol,” Halford says. “And we’ll have to live with that for our whole lives. But the state of mind that they were in had nothing to do with Priest and nothing to do with the music. They were in an unfortunate state mentally at the time that they did what they did.
“If you look through the history of these situations, whether it’s us, Ozzy Osbourne, Randy Blythe [of Lamb of God], or any of the other artists that have been taken to court in the past with these crazy accusations that we are somehow responsible for these incidents, not one has been thoroughly convinced or proven,” Halford continues. “There are always these mitigating circumstances that lead to these kinds of tragedies, but there are people that continue to blame metal music, which is really quite sad, because I’ve always felt that our music helps people escape the difficulties in their lives.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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