Today in 1985

TwitterNevada, USA: The death of a teenager when he turned a gun on himself in thirty years ago today ultimately led to legal case where pop music found itself on trial for inciting suicide – and not for the first time. In what newspaper reports described as a pact, two intoxicated friends went to a playground behind a church and attempted to take their own lives. One survived, but disfigured and in constant pain, died some years later. His parents sued the metal band Judas Priest, arguing that at the time of the ’85 suicide attempts both participants had been listening to the band’s records heavily. They believed that a subliminal message was contained in the song Better By You, Better Than Me, urging listeners to “do it”.

The song had been recorded by the band in 1977 and was released as a single in the UK on 27 January the following year, having appeared on their album Stained Class. The case didn’t properly resolve the issues of, do subliminal messages exist – and if they do, what influence can they have over people? Can they drive a person (of sound mind or otherwise) to suicide? What it did conclude was that Judas Priest were not responsible for these two deaths, just as Ozzy Osbourne’s 1980 song Suicide Solution wasn’t responsible for two other teenagers’ deaths at around the same time as the Nevada suicides. The second action taken against Osbourne relating to Suicide Solution, in 1988, again relied on ‘subliminal messages’ contained on the track, rather than the published lyrics. (Osbourne had argued at the first trial that the ‘suicide solution’ the song referred to was alcohol – solution as in liquid, which led to people losing their lives via alcoholism.)

The subliminal messages on the Judas Priest song, it was alleged, could be heard when the recording was played backwards. Guitarist Glenn Tipton argued that the chances were if you played recordings backwards for long enough, eventually you would hear something that sounded like intelligible speech. Although it did indeed sound at some points like the words “do it” were being spoken, quite what was being urged could not be determined as there was no context. The judge at the trial agreed that listeners could not take those words as encouragement to kill themselves. The band and their management were baffled: why should they want to destroy their audience anyway, wouldn’t that limit their future in the music industry? As singer Rob Halford later pointed out, if he was going to insert subliminal messages in his music then he would have given his audience the instruction, ‘Buy more Judas Priest records’.

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