Rob Halford forced to defend Judas Priest’s name against suicide lawsuit



By Steve Newton

You don’t have to be a riff-hungry young metal-head to know who Judas Priest is these days—all you’ve got to do is read the papers. The British band received world-wide publicity recently during its trial in Reno, Nevada, which questioned whether subliminal messages on the group’s 1978 album, Stained Class, prompted two young men to enter a suicide pact.

The families of the deceased sued Judas Priest and CBS Records for $6.2 million (US)  in damages, but the band was cleared in late August by a judge who ruled that the alleged subliminal message “do it”, on the song “Better by You, Better Than Me” was actually an unintentional exhalation of breath and a drum beat. Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford breathed one more time—a sigh of relief—when the verdict came down.

“That trial was an extremely difficult time for us,” says Halford, sipping a cup of tea while calling from Toronto last week. “Emotionally it was a real roller-coaster, and very painful to go through. But we had to defend Priest’s name and our music, and we did it admirably, in my belief.”

Halford suggests that there could have been a lot more to lose than just money if the verdict had gone the other way.

“I think the fall-out would have been horrific,” he says. “I’m sure that people like yourself realize the implications if the judge would have said, ‘Subliminals work, and they make people do things.’ I mean you would have needed to be told each time before you heard a radio broadcast that you weren’t going to be submitted to subconscious messages. But then again how do you find if there were any there in the first place when you can’t hear ’em?

“But quite frankly I can never see any scientific evidence coming up to support the fact that music has the power to do anything other than to entertain people. I think that if you’re gonna hurt yourself or hurt others then you have some mental defect there from day one, or it’s been placed there by drugs or booze or whatever, like what happened to these guys. That’s a tragedy that could have been helped.”

In the wake of the charges against Judas Priest and its record label, the time-worn “backward-masking” concept—the idea of conveying a subliminal message by recording it backward—became in vogue again. An Associated Press wire report—printed in the September 27 issue of The Province—stated that: “Halford testified on the stand he had put a backward message on one Judas Priest song, but it was not on the album or song cited by the plaintiffs.” Halford denies he ever said such a thing.

“They got that wrong,” he points out. “See, this is the power of the press to twist and distort the truth. What I stated in court was that if you listen to a song like ‘Love Bites’ on Defenders of the Faith, you’ll hear a lyric—which is part of the song—which we just simply reversed. So it’s not a backwards message, it’s a backwards lyric. A backwards message as I understand it is something that you’ve hidden into the song so that you can only understand it when you roll the record backwards manually.

“When I made that statement the prosecution started opening their cheap champagne and thought they would win the case, but of course it was just a sound effect that everybody’s been doing since tapes came into existence.”

The idea that heavy metal is a bad influence on young people is an old one, of course. Metal acts like Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden have been attacked by do-gooder organizations for supposed Satanic references; L.A.’s Nightstalker killer earned brownie points from anti-metal societies when he claimed he was a big AC/DC fan. Halford figures that metal’s scapegoat status is unfair but that it comes with the territory.

“Metal has always had that controversial attribute, and that’s what makes it so appealing to a lot of people. You can either be in the mainstream with New Kids on the Block or Paula Abdul or whatever, or you can go for a separate identity in a more rebellious form with something that’s got some meat and substance and to some extent a little bit of stimulation and aggression.”

When you consider the fact that there are a lot of metal bands releasing albums today that are much more preoccupied with death and destruction than the relatively mainstream Priest, it makes the harassment of the latter hard to justify. At any rate, Halford says that even bands that preach doom and gloom are okay in his books.

“I’ve nothing against ’em,” he says. “I think they should go ahead and do what they wanna do. In my opinion there’s no rules to what you can talk about and sing about in music. And if you want to go into areas of controversy and obscene language that’s fine by me, as long as you’re prepared to justify it.”

Lyrically, Judas Priest isn’t exactly Romper Room material, as the opening verse from the title track of the band’s new album, Painkiller, attests: “Faster than a bullet/Terrifying scream/Enraged and full of anger/He’s half man and half machine.” But Halford claims there’s more to the band’s messages than fury and violence.

“When you create characters like the ‘Painkiller’ or ‘Leather Rebel’ or ‘Night Crawler’, those are the kinds of things that a lot of Priest fans associate with us, and we ourselves are happy to construct that kind of material. But then you get a song like ‘Between the Hammer and the Anvil’, which is sort of an abstract comment on the trial in Reno, if you listen to the words well enough and think about what they mean.

“And songs like ‘One Shot of Glory’ and ‘All Guns Blazing’ have the familiar Priest qualities of believing that everybody’s able to overcome problems and difficulties as long as they have the strength and belief in themselves. So overall it’s a very positive and optimistic kind of record.”

In 1982 Judas Priest had its biggest hit ever with “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”, a song with a titular message that most anyone can relate to at some point in their life. On the day that Priest co-guitarist K.K. Downing was leaving Reno after the trial, he overheard an American soldier on his way to the Middle East request that tune for his friends in Nevada and his buddies in Saudi Arabia. Halford believes that the song is a suitable rallying cry for the U.S. Forces aligned against Iraq.

“I think that song works, and there’s a song on Painkiller called ‘Hell Patrol’, which is a direct reference to how the troops might see their situation over there. But if you listen to the lyrics of ‘Another Thing Coming’, it starts off with ‘One life, I’m gonna live it up…’ Oh…what are the rest of the words? I’ve put myself on the spot! Anyway, the general message is that if you’re gonna try and mess around with me you’ve got another thing coming, which I think is very pertinent to that madman Hussein’s attitude at the moment.”

Vancouver Priest fans shouldn’t worry about Halford forgetting any lyrics when his band—along with Megadeth and Testament—rolls into the Pacific Coliseum on Hallowe’en. “When I’ve got the music goin’ in my ears I’m on autopilot!” he laughs. And he claims that local concert-goers can expect quite the show.

“Well, not only do we have Megadeth and Testament—which is like giving everybody a cross-section of metal styles—but besides that we’ve spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars on a very elaborate stage set, pulling out all the stops as usual with millions of lights and speakers and bombs and all the other explosive attributes to make a memorable Priest concert.”

And what about the possibility that the mighty Megadeth just might blow Judas Priest off its own stage?

“Oh,” chuckles Halford. “Well, I’d like to see ’em try.”

To hear the audio of my interview with Rob Halford from 1984–and my interview with Glenn Tipton from 2005 as well–subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 200 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Mike Smith of Sandbox (and Trailer Park Boys), 1996
Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
Robert Randolph of the Family Band, 2003
Keith Strickland of the B-52s, 2008
David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 2005
Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon, 2003
Todd Kerns, 2016
Bill Payne of Little Feat, 2002
Robbin Crosby of Ratt, 1989
Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, 1998
Alejandro Escovedo, 1997
Billy Duffy of the Cult, 1989
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Jeff Healey, 1988
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joey Belladonna of Anthrax, 1991
Joe Satriani, 1990
Vernon Reid of Living Colour, 1988
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1994
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
John Doe, 1990
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, 2001
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1985
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001

….with hundreds more to come

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