The Judas Priest Suicide Pact – a tragic agreement between two kids who should have had their entire lives ahead of them is a shocking tragedy. But the aftermath turned that tragedy into a weird soap opera with no winners – only increased pain.
At the same time, the legal aftermath had the potential to change forever the way we record and consume music. It also slammed the brakes on the release of Judas Priest’s best ever album until the dust setlled. Let’s hear the whole story.
James Vance was 20 years old and Raymond Belknap only 18. Both were from a small town in Nevada.
On a normal day in the run up to Christmas of 1985, they met up at Belknap’s house, and spent time drinking beer, getting stoned and listening to heavy metal music – Judas Priest’s ‘Stained Class’ album among others. For reasons that remain unclear to this day, they agreed a suicide pact, and put it into action immediately. They took a shotgun to a local park where both in turn put the barrel to their heads and shot themselves.
Belknap died instantly, but horrifically, Vance botched his attempt – he shot off the lower part of his face, and survived with horribly disfiguring injuries. Well over 100 hours of surgery followed, attempting to repair the damage, but it was hopeless. Vance was in constant pain and eventually died from a methadone overdose a few years later.
Before his death, though, Vance gave some clues as to what he believed had led to the suicide pact in the first place. In a letter to Belknap’s parents, he said made a claim that would set in train the events described here.
‘I believe alcohol and heavy metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized.‘James Vance
And more, in an interview with a local journalist.
‘It was like a self-destruct that went off. We had been programmed. I knew I was going to do it. I was afraid. I didn’t want to die. It was just as if I had no choice.‘James Vance
Judas Priest Sued
So, Vance apparently believed that heavy metal music had played a role, but hadn’t made any specific claims as to how or why. That part remained very vague. The parents decided in any case to sue both Judas Priest and their record label, CBS, for a total of $6.6 million and their lawyers came up with a novel line of attack – that the songs contained subliminal messages which led to the ‘mesmerizing’ effect and the suicide pact. The messages were alleged to be phrases that could only be heard when playing the songs backwards – but that when played forwards in the normal way, they could still have the effect of hypnotizing vulnerable young listeners such as Vance and Belknap. The legal team claimed that their audio experts had found several hidden messages including:
‘Sing my evil spirit’.
‘F*** the Lord, f*** all of you.’
The last of these was said to be the command that pushed the boys over the edge.
Judas Priest denied planting any such messages in their songs and were flabbergasted about the prospect of a trial. Any words that could be heard when playing a song backwards were coincidental, and only there by chance, they claimed. But the case went to trial anyway, after a landmark ruling by the presiding judge that subliminal messages of this type (if they even existed) were not protected by First Amendment free speech rights. (This explains why, in spite of all the hype, previous songs covering controversial topics such as suicide or the occult had never been brought to court until then – the lyrics were held to be protected by free speech rights guaranteed by the US constitution.)
Coming to Trial
Needless to say, there was a media circus, both in the run up to the trial. Rob Halford appeared on the Howard Stern radio show, where Stern ridiculed the allegations, but then skipped a TV talk show after it turned out that the producers wanted ambush the band by bringing them face to face with the dead boys’ parents. So, by the time the trial actually got underway, there was a great deal of apprehension on all sides.
The plaintiffs duly brought in their audio ‘experts’ to play the songs in question backwards to the court. Could the words ‘F*** the Lord, f*** all of you’ really be heard on Priest’s song ‘White Heat, Red Hot’? Most people thought not, with one reporter commenting that it sounded ‘like an evil dolphin chanting.’
Most debate was over the alleged ‘Do it’ line. Could the phrase really be made out, or was it just a sharp exhale from Halford? The inscrutable judge wasn’t giving any clues.
Things went even further down the rabbit hole, as the plaintiffs’ lawyers attempted to put heavy metal music itself on trial with claims that were either obvious or outlandish, depending on your point of view.
‘On stage, they wear leather, chains and handcuffs, and wave whips!’ ‘They are experts at creating illusions and images. They make their living by these illusions; by making things appear to be what they are not.’Plaintiff Lawyer
Judas Priest’s legal team tried to keep things more grounded when presenting their defence, bringing in their own audio team to make the point that any supposed messages were either figments of the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ imagination, or else audio accidents.
Much was made by the defence of Vance and Belknap’s troubled backgrounds as high school dropouts who’d had a history of family abuse and domestic violence, and gone on to pick up criminal records. That all put them in a dark place, further exacerbated by alcohol and drug abuse.
Rob Halford himself presented as a convincing witness in the band’s own defence. He described the style of certain Judas Priest lyrics – yes, there were good versus evil messages, but the good always came out on top. From the witness stand, he even sang the offending passage of ‘Better by you, Better by Me’, the ‘Stained Class’ song alleged to feature the ‘Do it’ exhortation, and demonstrated the notorious exhalation. Perhaps most convincingly, he had prepared in the studio beforehand by playing more songs backwards, and listening out for any other ‘accidental’ messages. That exercise produced some nuggets which were duly played to the court, including:
‘Look Ma, my chair is broken,’ and
‘I asked her for a peppermint.’
That could have been seen as a risky strategy if the judge had decided that these more humorous messages were planted alongside the ‘evil’ ones, but the feeling in court seemed to be that the whole idea was getting ludicrous.
And sure enough, the judge found in Priest’s favour. Any messages heard were ‘a chance combination of sounds,’ and there was ‘no proof’ of subliminal messages being added intentionally. There was a technical award of $40,000 against CBS Records for being too slow to fulfil their disclosure obligations, but that was as good as it got for the parents and their lawyers.
But as so often happens with litigation, nobody walked away from the case with any sense of satisfaction. The losing side’s lawyers claimed the judge had got it wrong, one commenting that ‘Our expert reverse-engineered the songs and said they were packed with subliminals in the lyrics. [The defence] had Anthony Pellicano, who came in with his $2,000 suit and Italian loafers and he said, ‘No, that’s just breath exhalation that sounds like the words do it,’ and [the judge] bought it. We weren’t saying the band was some kind of Svengali who hypnotized them into doing this, but these two boys were in the suicide zone. We never said they were Presbyterian Sunday school teachers, but they were up on the bridge teetering and Judas Priest said ‘jump.’ This was a product liability case, and they were putting hidden poison in their product.”
Judas Priest themselves were left feeling bitter, an emotion that pours from the pages of Rob Halford’s autobiography, ‘Confess.’ He felt deeply for the parents and their tragic loss, but also considered that they were manipulated by showboating lawyers, possibly by parasitic religious groups as well. He had never put any of the alleged content into any of Priest’s records. It would be ridiculous for any entertainment act to encourage suicide among its own fans. Above all, he wanted the court to provide him with full exoneration, to say that ‘Judas Priest had nothing at all to do with these poor young people losing their lives. These charges were entirely false, 100 percent.’
Unfortunately, that isn’t the role of the courts, who can merely pronounce on whether the claims have been proven to the required legal standard, which in this case, they had not been.
The Power of Music
The Judas Priest case is infamous because it resulted in a full trial, but similar claims have been made in respect of quite a few heavy metal songs – that they incite vulnerable people to suicide. There’s Metallica’s ‘Fade to Black’. Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Suicide Solution.’ Paradise Lost’s ‘As I Die.’ The list goes on, and of course Classic Heavy Metal is famous for exploring dark themes, going right back to Black Sabbath and their horror-movie inspired creation.
But incitement is very rarely an intention, and indeed, it’s striking how many fans say they when they are in mentally difficult places in their lives, they might well come away feeling better after listening these songs – they find them mood lifters, not the reverse.
One knock-on effect of the court drama was that it delayed the release of Judas Priest’s new album, ‘Painkiller’, widely regarded by both fans and critics as one of their best ever, and certainly the best since ‘British Steel’.
In the meantime, thanks to the miracle of the internet, it’s now possible to listen to the backwards version of ‘Better by You, Better By Me’, and make up your own mind whether the phrase ‘Do it’ appears. Classic Metal Hawk has listened to it quite a few times and can’t hear anything like that. So, for the Hawk’s money, the judge got it right all those years ago.
The Wrong Focus
Blaming a song for the deaths of 2 kids who had clearly found themselves in a very dark and messed-up place is simplistic. An enormous amount of energy and resource was directed towards the trial and surrounding media fest. Had the plaintiffs won, had they established liability for accidental audio, it could have altered the way music was produced and consumed in unimaginable ways, and not just in the heavy metal genre. If only the same zeal could be directed towards providing better mental health provision to those people crying out and in desperate need – at that time and at least as much today. In the meantime, those people must find succour wherever they can – including in the words of a song.
Who still remembers the acrimonious scenes? The tired old attempts to make young people’s music a scapegoat? Or do you see a grain of truth in the accusations?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.