If the devil tried to talk to us, he would probably choose the most appealing method possible. Dressing up as an ordinary person with an enticing offer, or perhaps using the gift of stage presence to seduce us with demonic pyrotechnics. After all, the devil is often the central protagonist in heavy metal, a genre known for its pageantry and theatrics. But again, if we were to hear the devil’s voice, as decades of specious reasoning have suggested, we might hear it backwards.
Backmasking, or the practice of intentionally taping messages backwards for broadcast forwards, has been a bee in the hood of moralists for decades. Since subliminal messages were found in songs recorded by the Beatles in the 1960s, fundamentalist Christian groups have launched campaigns against bands whose music may or may not contain subliminal messages placed there by Satan himself, including Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, Styx and Led Zeppelin, the latter being targeted by the Parents Music Resource Center, a committee apparently formed to wave fingers at unhealthy artists.
The concept and practice of backmasking has been around for over a century, and its dubious connection to Satan has been around for just as long. Aleister Crowley, founder of Thelema, embraced the practice as early as 1913, as a form of training for practitioners of magic. Which perhaps at the very least suggests that the Dark Lord was plugged into the idea, if not necessarily the one placing the messages himself. By the early 1980s, the insidious idea that subliminal messages were strategically placed on rock records had begun to infect American homes, and as it spread, campaigns to destroy suspected albums to contain these supposedly dangerous messages have spread. And in the case of Judas Priest, it led to a landmark lawsuit for trying to find the devil by looking too much into the details.
Judas Priest reached the peak of their powers as a heavy metal band in the 1980s, an era that saw countless innovations in heavy music, among other genres. And they were no exception, with the dawn of the decade seeing the release of some of their strongest tracks, including the 1980s. British steel and 1982 Cry out for revenge. But as creativity flourished in heavy metal, paranoia about its detrimental effects on listeners began to spread, much like similar panics about rap music, video games, etc. ., followed in the 1990s and beyond. No fewer than eight heavy metal songs were included in the PMRC’s list of songs it deemed worthy of banning, dubbed the dirty fifteen, including WASP’s “Fuck Like a Beast” and Mercyful Fate’s “Into the Coven,” for very different reasons. Judas Priest wasn’t spared judgment either, with their 1984 song “Eat Me Alive” landing on the list for its sexually suggestive lyrics. Yet the song that brought Judas Priest into a courtroom was the one they recorded in the 1970s on Tinted classand a song written by a completely different band, their cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better by You, Better Than Me.”
In December 1985, two young men, James Vance and Ray Belknap, got drunk and stoned and went to a playground outside a Lutheran church in Reno where they then attempted to kill themselves with a gun. of hunting. Belknap died immediately, but Vance survived, dying three years after the fact. In 1990, Vance’s family sued Judas Priest alleging responsibility for using hidden subliminal messages – specifically the phrase “do it” – in “Better by You, Better Than Me” to coerce their son into attempting to commit suicide. It is tragic, to be sure, and sometimes grief demands a scapegoat when there are no easy answers to find. But once you begin to understand how anyone could naturally have come to the conclusion that a song, played backwards with vague instructions, is responsible, the cradle of cat logic quickly crumbles.
The lawsuit lasted three weeks and cost the group a quarter of a million dollars in legal representation, and didn’t necessarily start out in their favor at first – that the judge didn’t consider the supposedly hidden messages. (whether they are there or not) recorded backwards in the music, “freedom of expression” is, more than 30 years later, still a difficult concept to understand. But it was the first lawsuit ever to broach the subject, and in turn it became a closely watched case in the industry, with potential future implications that could have opened a motherfucker out of a Pandora’s box.
Firm in their defense that they did not include such messages, the band conducted their own experiment to see exactly what kinds of messages they would hear on Tinted classthe album on which “Better by You, Better Than Me” appears.
“I asked permission to walk into a studio and find some perfectly innocent phonetic flukes,” Glenn Tipton said at the time. “The lawyers didn’t want to do it, but I insisted. We purchased a copy of Tinted class album at a local record store, went to the studio, taped it, turned it around and played it backwards. We immediately found ‘Hey mum, my chair is broken’ and ‘Give me a peppermint’ and “Help me keep a job”.”
In the end, the judge dismissed the case because, whether or not you hear “do it” on the recording, there is no frame of reference for what “it” even means. Like, maybe, “give me a peppermint.” What might have seemed like a victory now, but for the matter to move forward was a step backwards.
The argument doesn’t make sense on its face, and comedian Bill Hicks even gave a stand-up routine about the absurdity of a band wanting to eliminate their audience. Judas Priest, like any other band, are artists – and an artist needs a crowd to sustain themselves, which, as anyone in the music industry surely understands, takes a lot of work to cultivate. and maintain interest. Not to mention the incredibly offensive idea that someone writing a song secretly harbors a desire to kill. Although Rob Halford himself has suggested that if they really had the power to use subliminal messages to bend listeners to their will, it would be more to their advantage to tell the recipients of these messages to buy more discs.
There are no real winners here. A real tragedy has occurred, with blame being cast in the wrong direction. But there’s a connection here, hidden in plain sight, that’s been overlooked, and that makes it all that much sadder. Music can provide a source of comfort that, to those on the outside, can feel dark or dangerous. My colleague, Michael Pementel, has written about how doom metal has been a great source of therapy in his own experience, which is both a relatable and almost universal feeling. Music is a safe space, a place to turn to without judgment that may not be a long-term treatment, but at least offers an outlet.
In the case of “Better by You, Better Than Me” by Judas Priest, whether anyone heard hidden messages is, I suppose, open to interpretation, but no one was really listening.
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