Halford recalls Priest subliminal messages trial

Rob Halford has recalled the “tension and sadness” of appearing in court after Judas Priest were accused of encouraging two fans to form a suicide pact in 1985.

Legal action was launched after Raymond Belknap, 18, and James Vance, 20, shot themselves in Nevada, following a night of drinking, taking drugs and listening to the band’s albums. Belknap died instantly while Vance lived for three years with major injuries.

Vance and his family alleged that Priest’s cover of Spooky Tooth track Better By You, Better Than Me included subliminal messages that, when played backwards, included the phrases “Try suicide,” “Do it” and “Let’s be dead.”

Priest attended court in 1990 while prosecutors attempted to prove they’d been an influence in the shootings. The charges were dismissed 25 years ago this month.

Halford tells Rolling Stone: “It feels like it was just yesterday – I remember walking up the steps at the courthouse and feeling the incredible fan support that we had every day.

“Then there was just the tension and the sadness in the courthouse, because at the heart of the matter were these two guys that lost their lives tragically.

“These two boys were massive Priest fans, and that made it even more heart-wrenching that this terrible combination of the night and the drugs and the booze and their state of mind turned into something quite terrible.”

He recalls feeling “baffled” by some of the arguments he heard in court, adding: “The trial shook us up because it came from a country that we love dearly. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity for a band like Priest to show the judge and the public – that was clueless about metal – that we had a bunch of guys who could string sentences together, be logical and intelligent, and have a deep conversation.

“I think there was the misguided belief that that wasn’t going to happen. But we’re not idiots, and we never will be.”

Halford says he had to repress the urge to hug Belknap’s mother and invite her for a private conversation. He says: “The deeper end of the story was that the prosecution was a very tangled web. We heard there was infiltration from extreme, right-leaning Christian groups that were urging them to pursue the case, telling them that we were responsible.

“I would have loved the opportunity just to be with that family and let common sense prevail and talk it out. But you can’t – it’s a highly-charged, emotional circumstance when you’ve lost your children. You’re bound to be angry. You’re bound to be upset. You’re bound to be looking for some explanation.”

The singer said in his defence that the alleged subliminal messages were the sound of his breathing between lyrics. He remains disappointed that the judge’s final ruling didn’t close down the argument for good.

“He didn’t flatly say, ‘What the prosecution was suggesting actually did not take place.’” Halford recalls. “He basically said, ‘This is still a nebulous area, but it is my opinion that this band did not put these words on to this song and the outcome of those words created this tragedy.’

“So we as a band were exonerated – but the whole thing as far as what subliminal messages have the potential to do was left in limbo.”

He continues: “It would be horrible to think that it might occur again, but you just have to wait and see.”

Priest continue their world tour in support of 2014 album Redeemer Of Souls, with North American dates beginning in October and a return to the UK and Europe in November. They plan to start work on their 18th record next year.

Freelance Online News Contributor

Not only is one-time online news editor Martin an established rock journalist and drummer, but he’s also penned several books on music history, including SAHB Story: The Tale of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (opens in new tab), a band he once managed, and the best-selling Apollo Memories (opens in new tab) about the history of the legendary and infamous Glasgow Apollo. Martin has written for Classic Rock and Prog and at one time had written more articles for Louder than anyone else (we think he's second now). He’s appeared on TV and when not delving intro all things music, can be found travelling along the UK’s vast canal network.