Which heavy metalband was accused of inducing a number of suicides by inserting subliminal messages into their music? On December 23, 1985, in Sparks, Nevada, Raymond Belknap, 18, and James Vance, 20, ended a night of drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana by driving to a playground next to a church and shooting themselves with a double-barrelled shotgun.
Belknap died at the scene, Vance maimed himself but survived for another three years before dying. Five years later, their families filed a lawsuit alleging they were driven to their desperate act by subliminal messages – alleged to include the phrases ‘let’s be dead’ and ‘do it’ – hidden in the song Better By You, Better Than Me, from the album Stained Glass by Birmingham heavy metal band Judas Priest. (In America, the album was retitled Hell Bent For Leather).
The legal protection of lyrics as free speech had already been tested in court (in a case about the Ozzy Osbourne song Suicide Solution), but the Judas Priest case proceeded because of a legal twist: that so-called ‘subliminals’ do not constitute actual speech and are therefore not protected by the First Amendment.
Some of the band were summoned to court – singer Rob Halford was asked to perform the song to the court a capella in public. After a month-long trial, the judge determined that there were subliminals on the album, but they were discernible only after their location had been identified and only after the sounds were isolated and amplified. They could not be discerned by the ordinary listener.
What mattered most in the judge’s view, however, was the question of whether subliminal messages could be used to make someone kill themselves. Judge Whitehead said: ‘The scientific research does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude.’ The case was dismissed.
Artists who have also been accused of putting subliminals in their songs include The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Electric Light Orchestra, Queen, The Eagles, Rolling Stones AC/DC, Jefferson Starship, Eminem and even Britney Spears.
A section of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven played backwards purportedly results in words beginning: ‘Here’ to my sweet Satan.’ Led Zeppelin issued a statement to the contrary: ‘Our turntables only play in one direction – forwards.’ Another alleged message – ‘It’s fun to smoke marijuana’ – from Queen’s song Another One Bites The Dust, is similarly disclaimed by the band.
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