If the devil tried to speak to us, he’d probably choose the most appealing method possible. Disguising himself as an ordinary person with an appealing offer, or maybe using the gift of stage presence to win us over with demonic pyrotechnics. After all, the devil’s often the central protagonist in heavy metal, a genre known for its pageantry and theatrics. But then again, if we were to hear the voice of the devil, as several decades of specious reasoning have suggested, we might be hearing it backwards.
Backmasking, or the practice of intentionally recording backward messages that are meant to played forward, has been a bee in the bonnet of moralists for decades. Ever since subliminal messages were found in songs recorded by The Beatles in the ’60s, 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 of whom was targeted by the Parents Music Resource Center, a committee ostensibly formed to wag their fingers at unwholesome recording artists.
The concept and practice of backmasking has existed for over a century, and its dubious connection with Satan has been around 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 suggests at the very least that the Dark Lord was hip to the idea if not necessarily the one placing the messages himself. By the early 1980s, the insidious idea that subliminal messages were strategically placed in rock records had begun to infect American households, and as it spread so did campaigns to destroy albums suspected of harboring these supposedly dangerous messages. And in the case of Judas Priest, it led to a history-making lawsuit about attempting to find the devil by over-scrutinizing the details.
Judas Priest reached the pinnacle 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, the dawn of the decade seeing the release of some of their strongest material, including 1980’s British Steel and 1982’s Screaming For Vengeance. But as creativity blossomed in heavy metal, paranoia about its damaging effects on listeners began to spread, much in the same way similar panics about rap music, video games and so on followed in the ’90s and thereafter. No fewer than eight heavy metal songs were included in the PMRC’s list of songs it deemed worthy of being banned, dubbed the Filthy Fifteen, including W.A.S.P.’s “Fuck Like a Beast” and Mercyful Fate’s “Into the Coven,” for considerably different reasons. Judas Priest weren’t spared judgment either, their 1984 song “Eat Me Alive” landing on the list for its sexually suggestive lyrics. Yet the song that actually brought Judas Priest into a courtroom was one they recorded in the 1970s on Stained Class, and a song written by an entirely different band at that—their cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better by You, Better Than Me.”
In December of 1985, two young men, James Vance and Ray Belknap, got drunk and high and went to a playground outside a Lutheran church in Reno where they subsequently attempted suicide via shotgun. Belknap died immediately, but Vance survived, dying three years after the fact. In 1990, Vance’s family sued Judas Priest alleging their responsibility in using subliminal backmasked messages—specifically the phrase “do it”—in “Better by You, Better Than Me” to compel their son to attempt suicide. It’s tragic, certainly, and grief sometimes demands a scapegoat when no easy answers to be found. But once you begin to pull at the thread of how anyone could have naturally reached the conclusion that a song, played backwards with vague instructions is responsible, the cat’s cradle of logic soon collapses.
The trial lasted three weeks and cost the band a quarter of a million dollars in legal representation, and didn’t necessarily start in their favor at first—that the judge didn’t consider supposedly hidden messages (whether they were there or not) recorded backwards in music “free speech” is, more than 30 years later, still a rough concept to wrap one’s head around. But it was the first ever trial to even broach the subject, and in turn it became a closely watched case in the industry, with potential future implications that could have opened one motherfucker of a Pandora’s Box.
Firm in their defense that they included no such messages, the band conducted their own experiment to see just what kinds of messages they’d hear on Stained Class, the album on which “Better by You, Better Than Me” appears.
“I asked permission to go 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 bought a copy of the Stained Class album in a local record shop, went into the studio, recorded it to tape, turned it over and played it backwards. Right away we found ‘Hey ma, my chair’s broken’ and ‘Give me a peppermint’ and ‘Help me keep a job’.”
Ultimately the judge dismissed the case because, whether or not one hears “do it” on the recording, there’s no frame of reference for what “it” even means. Like, perhaps, “give me a peppermint.” Which might seem like a victory now, but the fact of the case going forward at all was a step backward.
The argument makes no sense on its face, and comedian Bill Hicks even gave a standup routine about the absurdity of a band wanting to eliminate its audience. Judas Priest, like any other band, are entertainers—and an entertainer need a crowd to sustain itself, which as anyone in the music industry surely understands, takes a lot of work to both cultivate and to maintain interest. To say nothing of the incredibly offensive idea that someone who writes a song secretly harbors a desire to kill. Though Rob Halford himself suggested that if they really had the power to use subliminal messages to have listeners bend to their will, it’d be more to their benefit to tell the recipients of those messages to buy more records.
There are no real winners here. A real tragedy happened, with blame cast in the wrong direction. But there is a connection here, hiding in plain sight, that’s been overlooked, and it makes the whole thing that much more sad. Music can provide a source of solace that, to those on the outside, might seem dark or dangerous. My colleague, Michael Pementel, wrote about how doom metal has been a great source of therapy in his own experience, which is both a relatable and nearly universal sentiment. Music is a safe space, a place to turn without judgment that maybe isn’t a long-term treatment, but offers at least an outlet.
In the case of Judas Priest’s “Better by You, Better Than Me,” whether anyone heard hidden messages is I suppose open to interpretation, but nobody was really listening.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.