ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 25, 1990
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.”