Judas Priest Subliminal Message Trial

Ramifications of the Judas Priest Trial

In December, 1985, 18 year old Raymond Belknap with his 20 year old friend James Vance spent six hours drinking, smoking marijuana, and listening to the Judas Priest album, “Stained Class”. That to them was a great way to spend an afternoon. However, neither of them knew what would occur afterwards. Both young men loaded and fired a shotgun into themselves attempting suicide. While Belknap died instantly, his friend Vance lived while suffering from awful disfiguring injuries, only to die three years later.

Before Vance died, he and his parents sued CBS records and Judas Priest for $6.2 million in damages because as Vance claimed the band hid subliminal messages into the song “Better by You, Better than Me” which was a cover from the band Spooky Tooth. In June, 1990, the lawsuit went to trial in Reno, Nevada, and the result was exoneration for Judas Priest and CBS Records, although the judge did leave some room for doubt in his findings.

Why the Trial Resonates Today

Although the trial occurred nearly 17 years ago, it remains seared in the minds of those who lived and grew up during that time. In the 1980s, Judas Priest was arguably at the height of their career thanks in large part to MTV which helped bring their form of metal to a larger audience. It could be argued while watching their dated videos today, they might be somewhat hokey, and not include the latest special effects and video production quality… like their MTV version of “Breaking The Law”. While the band survived the trial and went on to perform in sold-out shows around the world, lead singer Rob Halford temporarily left the band a year after the trial completed and Judas Priest has yet to regain the popularity that they once enjoyed.
Even though the trial ended in the favor of the band, the effects have tainted the metal scene ever since. Metal itself, especially the leather-clad brand that Judas Priest employed to great effectiveness in the early 1980s, has died down somewhat and been replaced by other trends that have enjoyed varying degrees of success.
Basically, while the trial may not have changed anyone’s mind directly about subliminal messages and their presence or lack of presence in metal, it had a similar effect. Today, metal seems to almost embrace the lonely head-banger who finds solace in the pounding beats and heavy guitar licks while eschewing the more mainstream approach that Judas Priest was starting to break open at the height of their success.

The Future of Metal

Young Guitar players continue to study Metal Guitar riffs, metal licks and the genre. That is the good news, this along with Classic Rock are studied by the latest young musician’s to keep Rock Music alive. As the internet helped to open up and broaden and at the same time many segmented audiences into different categories (IE: death metal, grindcore, neoclassical metal, symphonic metal etc.), making it even more difficult for any artist or band to find mainstream success without otherwise “popular music” credentials, the trial serves as a reminder to everyone that fame is a fickle beast and that success can be turned and shaped by forces that are unexpected and come from the most unlikely of sources.
It’s accepted today that subliminal messages do not have nearly the effect once touted when first used (Like “Stairway to Heaven”) long before Judas Priest was accused of using them on their Stained Class album. And, while many believe that the combination of alcohol, marijuana, youth, and internal forces that even James Vance did not fully comprehend led to his death along with Raymond Belknap. The impact of the trial itself influenced a new generation into directions that subliminal messaging could never really achieve.