“Why would a band tell their fans to kill themselves? We’d be better off hiding messages like, ‘Buy more Judas Priest records’”: Rob Halford reflects on 1990 lawsuit surrounding suicides of two fans

Judas Priest had to defend themselves in court in Nevada after a lawsuit claimed the boys’ deaths were the result of subliminal messages in one of their songs.

Judas Priest performing live

Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

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Metal is sometimes poorly understood by those outside of it, but particularly in the first few decades of the genre’s life, that misunderstanding could be taken to extremes. It was the subject of moral panics and even blamed for violent incidents, in particular the Columbine school shooting in 1999, after which Marilyn Manson became the subject of scrutiny after the two perpetrators were alleged to be fans of the band. Indeed, Judas Priest found themselves having to defend themselves in the early ’90s when they were blamed for the suicide pact of two young men, which even brought them to court.

The band were sued in 1990 after the pair, Raymond Belknap and James Vance, agreed to end their own lives together. One died as a result, while the other received life-changing injuries. The prosecution in the case alleged that the men had felt compelled to make their suicide pact by a supposed subliminal message in the 1978 Judas Priest song Better By You, Better Than Me, originally written by Spooky Tooth in 1969.

As can be heard in the video below, a low-volume “do it” is audible at approximately the 2:30 mark.

Frontman Rob Halford recalls the trial in a new interview with Record Collector, pinpointing it as the moment where the band was “most seriously in trouble”.

“I’d hate for anybody to go through the lawsuit we went through,” he says, “because at the heart of that matter were these two beautiful lads that lost their lives, you know, and they loved metal and they loved Priest. But it’s still an interesting story to talk about, because it’s about having dysfunction in your family and your kids being so unhappy. And you know, you can have a great time with metal, but at the same time, you can have one too many drinks and maybe whatever else, and it creates this terrible place. I still feel that what happened to those boys was a horrible, horrible tragedy.”

Halford continues: “Why would a band tell their fans to kill themselves? We’d be better off hiding messages like, ‘Buy more Priest records’ or ‘Buy more T-shirts’, wouldn’t we? But that’s the insanity of it. You think, how on God’s earth can something so ridiculous get so much traction that these lads have to come all the way over from England and sit in a courtroom in Nevada and defend themselves – and not only ourselves, but our music and the label and our fans.”

Fortunately for Judas Priest, the lawsuit was eventually dismissed, after the judge found that any alleged subliminal messages in the recording could not have been responsible for the suicides. The suit did, however cost the band around $250,000 in legal fees.

Further on in the Record Collector interview, Halford reflects on what the ramifications could have been for the music industry had Judas Priest been found in any way responsible for the deaths of the two boys.

“If the judge had found completely on the side of the prosecution, all hell would have broken loose,” he says. “Every time a radio station played a record, they’d have to say, ‘We disclaim any possible subliminal messages in today’s show.’ But if this happened again tomorrow, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.”

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