Subversive Bands: Judas Priest

Among the legends of Heavy Metal Rock and Roll Bands, Judas Priest has stand alone status. The name carries such cache that the mention of Judas Priest needs no explanation. The band is known everywhere, even if their music may not be instantly recognizable to every ear.

Judas-Priest-Unleashed-in-the-EastThe importance of Judas Priest in the history of music is also significant, even if many people could not express exactly why they are so significant. Judas Priest was the bad boy band of Rock n’ Roll heavy metal bands when they came up the charts decades ago.

By today’s standards they may seem less controversial, especially considering the controversial acts that parade across the earbuds and iphone of youth now. But once upon a time the band was synonymous with outrageous lyrics and unforgettable shock value on stage. Judas Priest set the standard for pushing the envelope, back when people still used envelopes; before the age of email and the digital download.

Their on stage presence and their reputation for hard core lyrics and harder core antics was amplified by a sad passing of two of their fans, Raymond Belknap and James Vance, who chose to end their lives, yet whose parents sued the band for inspiring the suicide of their son. The case was novel in it’s audacity, and captured the attention of the media.

Rolling Stone Magazine reported on the lawsuit in this way:

Before his death, Vance and his parents sued the band and their label at the time, CBS Records, for $6.2 million in damages. They claimed that Judas Priest had hidden subliminal messages like “try suicide,” “do it” and “let’s be dead” in their cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better by You, Better Than Me,” influencing Vance and Belknap to form a suicide pact. The suit went to trial in July, 1990, and the prosecution played the song forward, backward and sped up in an attempt to prove the group had brainwashed these two young men into killing themselves.[1]

The argument that playing the song backwards would have a subliminal effect on the minds of the young people who listen to it is dubious, and not supported by any science at the time or in the years since the lawsuit. Nevertheless, the backwards subliminality argument reflected the traditionalists perspective that the modern lifestyle was perverse, even in opposition, to proper living.

President Ronald Reagan and Rev. Jerry Falwell
Culture Warriors: Reagan and Falwell

The interests of newspapers and cable TV was inspired by the culture wars that were starting in the late 1980’s encouraged by the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and the rise of evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Researcher Chrysanthi Papazoglou wrote about the opportunism of religious conservatives to manipulate the case to their financial and political advantages. She wrote:

Falwell exploited the misinterpretation of rock songs’ lyrics to raise awareness and to launch a fund-raising organization, which had a hidden political agenda. His goal was to use his earnings  for “political operations such as reversing the legality of abortion” and “replacing the theory of evolution in the schools with biblical creationism” [2]

The crusade against musicians reinforced in the minds of their followers that the modern American lifestyle was degenerating along with the adoption of non traditional morals and styles.

The New York Times reported on the complaint by Belknap and Vance’s families this way:

”Judas Priest and CBS pander this stuff to alienated teen-agers,” said Kenneth McKenna, the lawyer for Mr. Belknap’s family. ”The members of the chess club, the math and science majors don’t listen to this stuff. It’s the dropouts, the drug and alcohol abusers. So our argument is you have a duty to be more cautious when you’re dealing with a population susceptible to this stuff.”[3]

Pat Robertson

The idea that someone should be held accountable for inspiring violence has been largely abandoned by the Religious Right and the Republican Party. Today the conservative movement is led by an instigator who openly calls for violence and has inspired more than one violent attack in the past.

Compared to Judas Priest, the current language of traditional conservatism is far more incendiary than any song lyric could even aspire to be. Donald Trump has called the media “the enemy of the people.” He has described immigrants as disease ridden, drug smugglers and rapists. The Nigerian Army recently declared that their shooting of protestors was inspired by Trump’s rhetoric.

Nevertheless, there is a difference in the message and the messenger. Judas Priest sought to entertain their audience. Their message never called vor suicide by anyone. Their art form is one of sound and symbolism. The messages of political leaders is decidedly different. The entertainment factor may be one of the mixed messages that our current politics needs to examine.

Entertainment is not reality, yet politics today is often about outrageous behavior, the absence of thought, and the “wow” factor necessary to entertain people long enough to get them to vote.

Judas Priest became the poster child for everything that the Religious Right stood against. With a lawsuit alleging that their lyrics had inspired a suicide, the messengers of intolerance and traditionalism had a symbol that represented everything they were fighting against, which helped them to raise their profile in the eyes of the public as well as the size of their donations from their television audiences.

This argument is not new in history, however. The calling for a cultural rejection, even persecution, of new ideas and lifestyles started in the 1920’s as the United States was reacting to the changes brought about by the end of the First World War.

Back then is was a similar time of nativist fear mongering and cultural crusades. The fear of immigration led a Massachusetts court to sentence Sacco and Vanzetti to death for charges that were obviously unfounded even then. Their death has been seen as a stain on the impartiality of the legal system ever since, a mistake not to be repeated.

mendimug200-57447391c94a743dbe8b10fb3e473d5fac924682-s400-c85.jpgThen there was the Scopes Monkey Trial, largely seen as the greatests example of traditional vs. modern, science vs. religion in the 1920’s. This was the culture wars Waterloo before there was a modern conservative movement.

In the case of Tennessee v Scopes, the charges stemmed from a violation of the Butler Act in Tennessee. Under the law, it was illegal for anyone to teach Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in place of or in conjunction with Creationism. Scopes taught Darwin’s Theory, was charged, tried and convicted before having his charges tossed out on a “technicality.” Technically, one might suppose, he was right and the religious zealots who persecuted the teaching of science were wrong.

In the case of Judas Priest and the suicides of Vance and Belknap it ended in a similar fashion. The Courts denied the veracity of the lawsuits. Judas Priest, like any artist, is not responsible for the acts of people who view their art. Their intention was clearly not to harm anyone, but to merely entertain.

Unlike the President and other leaders, artists are not literal representations of reality, but symbolic and creative expressions of it. There is a difference.

The subversion seen in artists is a theme in history that offers us understanding. Society is a flexible thing, but it takes time to change. Resistance to toleration lies at the the art of conservatism. Protecting what was before comes with the hesitancy to accept the new. Time always sees to the cleaning out of the old and the ushering in of the modern. It is as the philosopher Schopenhauer once proclaimed:

All Truth goes through Three Stages:

First it is Ridiculed…

Second it is Violently Opposed…

Third it is accepted as Self Evident.







Become a supporter of Historydojo!

We can bring you more wonderful and amazing stories with a little help from supporters like you.


Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.