"I may be naive, but what performer wants his audience dead?": Watch comedian Bill Hicks point out the absurdity of Judas Priest's subliminal message trial

Judas Priest/Bill Hicks
(Image credit: Getty Images/ Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images/YouTube/HBO)

In 1991 comedian Bill Hicks was invited by HBO to create a comedy special. The release - titled One Night Stand - was only half an hour, but covered a lot of ground as Hicks honed in on everything from anti-smoking sentiment to the war on drugs, advertising and pornography. 

Among his observations was the patent absurdity in conservative America's targeting of rock and metal at the tail-end of the 80s, focusing in particular on the well-publicised court case Judas Priest were embroiled in when they were accused of using subliminal messaging in their songs

Almost six years earlier, two young men in Nevada had attempted suicide in a playground. The younger of the pair - 18-year-old Raymond Belknap - had died instantly. But 20-year-old James Vance initially survived, succumbing three years later to complications from his injuries. 

Lawyers acting on behalf of Vance's parents alleged the pair had been listening to Priest's 1978 album Stained Class the morning of the attempt and that the phrases "let's be dead" and "do it", apparently hidden in the song Better By You, Better Than Me, had directly influenced their actions that day. 

The three-week-trial saw the band in court forced to justify not only their music and the lyrics - even though the song Better By You, Better Than Me was actually a cover of 60s rockers Spooky Tooth - but also vocalist Rob Halford's singing style and method, Halford at one point being questioned about pauses in delivery. The case was ultimately dismissed, but saw the band lumbered with around $250,000 in legal costs.

So when Hicks addressed the subject on his comedy special, he had misgivings. "I may be naive, but what performer wants his audience dead?" Hicks asks. "I'm having trouble with the whole fuckin' theory." 

He then goes on to point out just how bizarre a conversation it would be to actually enact something. "What if we kill the fuckin' audience?" he asks in a mock English accent. "Could I go back to my day job? I could sell shoes again!"

Watch the full clip below. 

Hicks would later tour with Tool in 1993 as an opening act. He passed away on February 26, 1994 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which had spread to his liver. The band dedicated their 1996 album Ænima to Hicks. 

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.