On the 23rd of December, 1985, two young men, Raymond Belknap, then 18, and James Vance, 20, had just finished a six-hour session of smoking marajuana and listening to heavy metal. At this point, seemingly out of nowhere, they wedged the door shut with a 2×4 and began thrashing the room. The two then climbed out the window, not before grabbing a 12-guage shotgun.
It was near dusk now, as the two boys ran down the alley behind Ray’s house and climbed a six-foot wall that lead to the yard of the Community First Church of God. It was there, on a small carousel in the corner of the courtyard, that Raymond Belknap shot himself in the head and was killed instantly. Vance attempted to follow suit, but survived the incident with horribly disfiguring injuries.
On looking through Belknap’s thrashed room, the only things left untouched were the record player and records. Including the one that was playing at the time of the incident, his brand new Judas Priest album.
The band were brought to court because the parents of the young men believed that, somehow the lyrics of the band’s album ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’ coerced them into taking their own lives. The court found that any artists’ lyrics are protected as free speech. After this, the prosecution changed tact and suggested that the band placed subliminal messages in the record.
It may seem like a stretch but, America was actually in the middle of another moral panic, the so-called ‘Satanic Panic’. This was a period in the eighties where fears of satanism and satanic cults were rife throughout America.
This was a period of great change in terms of popular culture. Teens were shunning their hippie parents’ sappy pop records in favour of harder, faster fare like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Judas Priest. Pop itself was getting more risque—Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Prince turned off the lights and turned up the sex. Family structure also changed dramatically as divorce rates surged and more women were working outside of the home. More and more children were being entrusted to daycare and babysitters which enhanced the feeling of a loss of control over their children’s behaviour and influences. Such an enourmous change caused christian parents to believe that it was the devil’s work.
In court, it was claimed that the band used a technique called backmasking to insert the subliminal messages. This is where a piece of audio, usually spoken words, is reversed and inserted into another piece. When played normally the sound seems just like noise, but if played backwards, the message is revealed. Phrases like ‘Try suicide’, Let’s be dead’ and ‘Do it’, were said to be backmasked into the record. In defense, guitarist Glenn Tipton brought the album into a studio in search of other phrases in the reversed music;
'Right away we found ‘Hey ma, my chair’s broken’ and ‘Give me a peppermint’ and ‘Help me keep a job.' - Glenn Tipton.
Ultimately, the court case was dismissed due to lack of evidence proving the efficacy of subliminal messaging. It’s almost impossible to say the real reason the two men took their own lives but, it could be a combination of factors. Their broken families, history of substance abuse and fascination with guns at an early age.
“These two young men lost their lives because of their tragic involvement in drugs and alcohol and dysfunctional family units in which they weren’t given proper care, attention or guidance. I’m not making light of a tragic situation, but this trial was just an attempt to shift the burden of guilt to someone else’s shoulders. - Rob Halford, Lead singer, Judas Priest
https://web.archive.org/web/20070116124138/http://members.firstinter.net/markster/PAINKILLER.html (Reposted at https://mahou.wordpress.com/2006/12/01/judas-priest-suicide-trial-article/)