When it comes to music, there are those who say it’s art – anything goes. Then, there are those who take artists and their songs a tad more seriously. Regardless of which camp you fall into, I think we can all agree that music has meaning and songs have a tendency to really resonate with us. And in this case of two teenagers, one particular song resonated with them in the most severe of ways.
In 1985, 18-year-old Raymond Belknap and 20-year-old James Vance tried to take their own lives, after spending hours in a dark stupor of smoke and bottles. The music they were listening to? Judas Priest’s Stained Class album.
On December 23, 1985, Raymond Belknap and James Vance spent six hours drinking, smoking, and listening to Judas Priest. They then went to a church playground and each boy took a shotgun and shot himself. Raymond died instantly, but Vance survived. He sustained horrible injuries that left him disfigured. This tragic incident begs the question: why?
Aunetta Roberson and Phyllis Vance, the boys’ mothers, asked themselves that very question. The families had lived in Sparks, Nevada, for years. Their husbands were frequent visitors to the local casinos. Their sons went to – and dropped out of – the same school.
But other than their sons’ academic (and later legal) problems, the two moms’ paths never really crossed. What these moms had in common was their mutual hatred for the obnoxious, heavy-metal music (what they thought was more along the lines of noise) that their sons played for hours in their bedrooms.
Come that December night in 1985, Phyllis and Aunetta’s lives met in tragedy. On that day, Aunetta’s son Raymond placed a sawed-off shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger. Phyllis’ son James was next; he re-loaded the gun and turned it on himself. Raymond died on the spot.
James wasn’t so “lucky” (depending on how you see it, of course). His wound completely disfigured his entire face (the photos are not for the faint of heart). His deformity shocked the town, but not as much as the message that he later delivered.
His message: Heavy metal music led him and his closest friend to create and carry out a suicide pact. He wrote to Raymond’s mother: “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music, such as Judas Priest, led us or even ‘mesmerized’ us into believing that the answer to ‘life was death.’” (He quoted Judas Priest’s lyrics).
He suffered three years of unimaginable pain (both physical and mental) as well as experimental plastic surgery before entering an unexplained coma on Thanksgiving Day in 1988. He passed six days later. His message, though, remained alive. Four months later, Raymond’s mom took James’ letter to her attorneys, connecting the boys’ death pact to heavy metal music.
James’ parents sued the heavy metal band and their label at the time, CBS Records, for $6.3 million in damages (the deaths, medical bills and child support for James’ daughter). The claim? That Judas Priest embedded hidden subliminal messages in one song in particular: Better by You, Better Than Me from their Stained Class album.
Reno attorneys Ken McKenna and Tim Post got to work, examining the music deeply. They say they found references to blood and killing and even implications of suicide in the lyrics, but no direct messages to take one’s life.
Still, they believed they had a case in that they found subliminal messages in both the music and the album’s cover. Subliminal messages – if you want an actual definition – are the projection of sound (or light) so quickly or faintly, that they’re perceived subconsciously.
The cited lyrics included “try suicide,” “do it” and “let’s be dead.” Better by You, Better Than Me was actually the Judas Priest’s cover of Spooky Tooth’s song of the same name. The main issue here was that the Vances blamed the band and their lyrics for influencing the teenagers to form a suicide pact.
The trial began in July 1990, and the courtroom heard the song played forward, backward and sped up – all in the prosecution’s attempt to prove that the group effectively brainwashed the two young men into killing themselves.
What about the members of Judas Priest? What did they have to say when they found themselves in the middle of a lawsuit? And how did they even get involved? When speaking to Rolling Stone about the case, Judas Priest’s frontman, Rob Halford, said they were “baffled by some of the things that were coming out in the courtroom.”
The British lads were shaken by the whole ordeal, because it “came from a country that we love dearly.” The way he put it, they had always had a “fantastic” relationship with America.
To get such hate from a place they love so much was a “shock.” Halford shared that the trial was “very interesting” since it was about subliminal messages, “plain and simple.” For him, the whole subject of subliminal messages is intriguing, in that it’s based in psychology.
“But I haven’t got a clue,” he admitted. “I’m just a f***ing singer in a heavy-metal band.” More so, it was about what subliminal messages have the potential to do or not do.
Halford noted that the first instance of so-called “backward masking” was in a Led Zeppelin song. He stated that the Beatles were also accused of doing the same thing. The only difference is no one shot themselves (that we know of) while playing the Beatles on a loop.
Luckily for the band, their label, CBS, covered the costs. They understood that the musicians weren’t the only ones on the line; the label was, too. Halford testified in court that the “backward masking” in the song was just the sound of him exhaling while singing.
At the end of the day, we all need to find someone to blame, don’t we? Judas Priest’s attorneys weren’t out to blame – they were out to defend. They made a case by drawing attention to both Raymond and James’ troubled childhoods and substance abuse problems.
Citing sworn statements, police reports and psychological experts’ testimonies, the defense portrayed the boys as violent substance abusers, tormented by their childhoods. For many reasons, Aunetta and Phyllis had a truly difficult time dealing with the aftermath of the incident.
While 43-year-old Phyllis attended the trial daily (she was the one suing, after all), 44-year-old Aunetta avoided the courthouse as much as possible. “Burying my son at such an early age was an awful experience,” Aunetta said.
“Sometimes I still expect him to come walking through the door. It’s difficult to accept that I will never see my boy again.” Aunetta was a single mom who still had three daughters to take care of. And while the trial was going on, she avoided all newspaper and TV reports in fear of the negative press.
It didn’t help that the defense was using longstanding personal troubles and the motivation of greed as their argument. Both mothers held extended interviews, defending their motives and what they believed was their sons’ honor.
“We’re not the ones making the big bucks here; CBS is,” Phyllis said as the trial was underway. After her testimony, the casino card dealer escaped to the mountains for ten days of camping. The mothers weren’t afraid to be outspoken when interviewed, especially regarding the way their sons were being presented in the media.
“They act like our kids were lunatics living on the fringe,” Phyllis said, explaining that experimenting with drugs is common among teenagers. Aunetta was humiliated by how they made her son “out to look like some despicable drug-crazed loser and it’s just not true.”
Still, Judas Priest and CBS’s lawyers pointed to the boys’ background. “These weren’t just ordinary young men,” Shawn Meador, one of the attorneys representing CBS, stated in the trial. But Raymond and James would never have intended for their suicidal deed to set in motion a series of events.
Drunk and high, the boys weren’t really thinking about the consequences of their actions. After hours spent in a haze, James and Raymond started trashing everything in Raymond’s bedroom. Afterward, the boys grabbed a sawed-off shotgun, jumped out the window and ran to a local churchyard.
When the shooting took place, Roberson was separated from her fourth husband, meaning Raymond had seen men come and go in the family. As a child, one of his stepfathers would whip him with a belt and abuse the boy, as was mentioned in court.
Raymond developed a distaste for authority and hated school. Like James, he dropped out in the 10th grade. He started getting construction jobs, and along the way, he got his hands on several weapons, including a sawed-off shotgun, a pellet gun, a .22 rifle and a dart gun.
According to James’ testimony, Raymond drank alcohol, smoked marijuana, and experimented with amphetamines and cocaine. Aunetta, however, insisted that her son was not a drug abuser. “He paid room and board, helped around the house and always took part in family activities such as fishing, swimming and backpacking,” she explained.
But it looks like his mom was in denial. Court records showed that in 1984, Raymond stole $450 from his employer and took a bus to Oklahoma to visit his birth father. He eventually turned himself in for the theft and was placed on probation.
A week before the suicide, authorities reported an incident in which he was shooting darts at a neighbor’s pet. To make matters even worse for Aunetta, her eldest daughter, Rita, also took her life in February 1989.
Looking back, Aunetta admits that her son had one obvious fault: “When it came to making decisions, Ray did not know how to take the lead. He was always a follower.” And his best friend in the world was James.
Court documents also revealed that James’ biological father abandoned Phyllis when she was just 17-years-old and pregnant with the boy. James was Phyllis’ only child. James was then held back in school – to repeat the first and second grades. When he was seven, he was sent to a therapist for a troubling incident that occurred in school.
During class, James tied a belt around his forehead and ripped out handfuls of his own hair. A year later, he tried to choke his own mother while she drove him home from school. Phyllis had a bone to pick with the school system…
“My biggest problem with the school system was that they would say James’ behavioral problems came from home.” She claimed that nobody acknowledged the fact that he had a “learning disability until the sixth grade.” It was also mentioned in court that Emmit (Tony) Vance, James’ stepfather, was a “weekend alcoholic” who had a severe gambling addiction.
Even Phyllis went through a period where she “drank more than people thought was normal.” According to her, she gave up alcohol in 1973. Phyllis even testified that during James’ childhood, she repeatedly hit her son “more than a normal spanking.”
But she said she eventually sought help for her anger management. In 1978, a school psychologist warned her that there was a “high probability” that James would “respond violently to stressful situations.” In his teens, James had threatened his mother with a hammer, taking it so far as to aim a loaded gun at her. He also hit her.
It wasn’t just Raymond who experimented with drugs. James did all the same stuff, including heroin, angel’s dust, LSD and barbiturates. In the years preceding that night in December, James checked into rehab, went to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and ran away from home a total of 13 times.
But in Phyllis’ eyes, the music was to blame. “Heavy metal changed his personality,” she stated. “When James started listening to Judas Priest, he lost all respect for authority.” In fact, both of James’ parents believe music destroyed their son.
Emmit, a forklift operator for General Motors, did his research, reading books about the negative effects of rock music. Phyllis said her son would “quote lyrics just as if they were Scriptures.” On several occasions, she threw James’ music away because he was too moody and violent when listening to heavy metal.
According to Phyllis, the only things that weren’t broken in Raymond’s bedroom that night were the turntable and the albums. Contrary to the accusation that she was only suing Judas Priest for financial benefit, Phyllis said she aimed to alert parents to the “dangerous influence of heavy metal music.”
Aunetta agreed and mentioned that their case had “finally” brought public attention to the issue of heavy metal music. “Bands are beginning to be censored and I’m happy about it,” she explained. “I think the record industry is going to be more careful from now on.”
Phyllis, who prefers Christian music (especially Barry McGuire), actually shared that she feels no animosity towards the members of Judas Priest. in fact, she prays for them daily. “He was my life,” she said, referring to her son. “All the money in the world couldn’t bring him back.”
Decades later, Halford reflected on what became a landmark case in recorded music history. For the lead singer, it feels like it was just yesterday that he and his bandmates were in court, accused of inspiring a heinous incident.
“I remember walking up the steps every day at the courthouse in Reno,” he began in an interview with Rolling Stone, “and feeling the incredible fan support that we had every day.” He remembers all the local metalheads standing there in support. The band’s fans would chant and hold up signs for them to be exonerated.
But in direct contrast to the positive support was the utter sadness and tension that permeated the courthouse. At the end of the day, they were all there because two young had lost their lives tragically. And Halford and the band members couldn’t ignore the fact that the boys were massive Judas Priest fans.
That fact alone made it “even more heart-wrenching.” Halford said that the “terrible combination of the night and the drugs and the booze and their state of mind turned into something quite terrible.”
One of the outcomes of the case was that, for Halford, it was an opportunity for his band to show the judge – and the public that was seemingly clueless about heavy metal – that they weren’t some dumb band.
They were actually a group of guys who knew how to conduct logical and intelligent conversations in a courtroom. “We’re not idiots, and we never will be,” Halford declared. They were, after all, in court from 9 to 5, every day of the trial.
They basically lived out of a facility near Reno in order to avoid the press. On the weekends, the guys to were able to “switch off,” cook some food, and hang out – and essentially support each other. But they still had to prepare for whatever the next week was going to bring them, because we were “just a bunch of musicians.”
They were asking themselves, “Why are we here?” We’re British metal musicians.” They couldn’t believe that they were thrust into this scenario where they had to defend themselves, their music and fans about the “ridiculous, absurd accusations.”
The idea of planting hidden messages in their music to apparently make people kill themselves? Absurd. “I really wanted to go over to the mother of the boy who killed himself and give her a hug,” Halford said.
He wanted to tell her, “I’m sorry for the loss of your kid. Let’s go have a coffee and talk this over.” But, of course, lawsuits don’t usually work that way. According to Halford, the “deeper” part of the story was about the people on the prosecution team.
The ones who were “working for Phyllis” – were involved in a very “tangled web.” According to Halford, the band heard of a sort of “infiltration from the extreme, right-leaning Christian groups that were urging them to pursue the case.”
They were steadfast on making Judas Priest – and heavy metal groups in general – the culprits. But all Halford wanted was to have had the opportunity to be with the grieving family and “let common sense prevail and talk it out.” But that isn’t how trials work…
The trial, which lasted 17 days, included more than 40 witnesses, including members of the band. The prosecution brought in expert witnesses, including a man who “found” subliminal messages in simply too many things – in everything from Ritz crackers to $5 bills.
These experts believed that the words “do it, do it” were subliminally embedded into the band’s Stained Class album. So, what was the verdict? The judge ultimately decided that Judas Priest was not responsible. The judge ruled that the alleged subliminal messages are not protected by the First Amendment.
When the verdict came in, the band was obviously relieved, but Halford points out that they were also “a little disappointed.” Why? Because the judge didn’t flatly say: “What the prosecution was suggesting actually did not take place.”
What the judge did say was that this is a “nebulous area” (I had to look the word up – it means “hazy,” “vague”). The band was exonerated, but the idea of what subliminal messages have the potential to do, that was left in the air.
It’s obvious that Phyllis and her team didn’t win the case, but before the trial ended, she shared her intentions if she were to win. She said she intended to use her share of the money to create a foundation that would finance scientific research of subliminal messages while also providing a facility for parents.
This shelter would be a place for parents to bring their at-risk, heavy metal-loving children to be deprogrammed. “I don’t think we would have ever gotten as far as we have if it hadn’t been God’s will,” Phyllis declared with a smile.
“The doctors told me James should have died immediately, but I believe God allowed him to live as long as he did so that the truth about this case could be revealed.” She also said, at the time of the 1988 interview, that she wasn’t worried about the outcome of the trial.
“The way I see it, all you have to do is tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” She concluded with: “And the truth will set you free.”
Ken McKenna, from the prosecution, said that even though they lost, the historic case has sent a signal to the music industry. “This certainly isn’t the last case like this,” he said. “Sooner or later, a case like this will win. It’s just a matter of time.”
He went so far as to state: “Everyone will know then that music like Judas Priest’s causes violence and death among young people.” In a post-trial interview, Halford declared they exited “without a blemish, and we’re absolutely thrilled and delighted.”
However, Halford expressed his concern for other musicians who could soon find themselves facing similar accusations – just as McKenna warned. Halford noted the fact that the judge “left the door open for future lawsuits of this nature.”
The judge, in effect, ruled that subliminal messages do indeed exist, and they can manipulate the unconscious mind. Some of the band’s other songs that were mentioned in the trial were Beyond the Realms of Death, which Halford wrote the lyrics for, which he said actually carried an anti-suicide message.
Realms of Death superficially “talks about the way people withdraw from society and refuse to communicate when they can’t stand things anymore, but says they shouldn’t kill themselves,” Halford pointed out.
Halford has insisted that they love their fans and would never put anything in their music with the intent of harming them. Still, the prosecution tried their best to relay that Judas Priest’s music had a “hypnotic” quality. It didn’t help that they had lyrics like “F*** the Lord,” but hey, music is art isn’t it?
The heavy metal band formed in Birmingham in 1969. In case you’re not familiar with them, they’ve sold over 50 million copies of their albums. Many metalheads will rank them as one of the greatest metal bands of all time.
Judas Priest has a certain style of head-to-toe leather and studs, but it’s mostly their music that’s influenced bands like Van Halen, Metallica, and Slipknot. According to The Guardian, Judas Priest’s British Steel album is the one that, more than any other, “codified what we mean by heavy metal.”
For the band, “metal” means more than just music. Halford’s father, for one, was employed at a metalworking company in the Midlands, making parts for nuclear reactors. Guitarist Glenn Tipton was also an apprentice at British Steel.
Judas Priest embodies the sound of those furnaces. “When we were kids walking to school,” Halford recalled, “we’d walk past these metal foundries and see the molten metal coming out of the big vats.” He remembers literally breathing in the fumes from the metal works.
They were breathing in metal before heavy metal was even invented. “I’d be in school trying to do English literature and the classroom would be shaking because of the machinery.” Tipton described his childhood as growing up in a “labyrinth of heavy metal.”
It also gave them the determination to get out, the guitarist admitted. Music was their way out. The band formed in 1969, taking gigs around the West Midlands. The original singer was Al Atkins, who sang with the band until 1973.
Judas Priest doesn’t only have troubling associations and controversies to their name. On a lighter note, people have noted similarities to the fictional metal band Spinal Tap from the mockumentary film This Is Spinal Tap.
“I loved it,” Halford said of the comedy. “Everything’s relative to that film. I went to Elvis’s grave. I’ve said, ‘Hello Cleveland’ when I’ve been in Detroit, and we’ve definitely got lost on the way from the dressing room to the stage.” Heck, the band even got lost on the way to the tour: “We got off a ferry and couldn’t find the bus.”
What fans might not know is that Halford is gay. And that’s probably because he kept it under wraps until 1998 – in the middle of his 1991-2003 hiatus in which he left the band. Who knows – maybe the macho man metalhead culture wasn’t so welcoming.
But, then again, he said that when he came out, he was away from the band. Still, “Back in the 1980s, though, I think there could totally have been a backlash. You protect your interests, don’t you? I was also thinking about the rest of the band.”