On Dec. 23, 1985, in Sparks, Nev., a suburb of Reno, two shots were fired from a shotgun--killing Ray Belknap and maiming the face of James Vance.
The boys were listening to the heavy-metal album “Stained Class” by Judas Priest. James Vance, who survived for three years, initiated a lawsuit against the band and CBS records.
Consider those shots as warning shots for the music industry.
As the attorney and ultimately the close friend of James, I have some thoughts concerning the importance of this lawsuit.
The most misunderstood facet of this celebrated case is that it affects the record company’s First Amendment right of free speech. On the contrary, this lawsuit is a product liability case wherein a defective product was placed in the stream of commerce causing harm.
The fact that there is language involved in the packaging (here, the lyrics) does not provide a defense. Sure, speech was involved, but it is the non-speech element, subliminal messages, which is the basis for the liability.
Although the trite, vulgar and violent lyrics are protected, they are actionable only in that they mask the poison accompanying them. This was prophetically explained in a statement by the late Jimi Hendrix.
“You can hypnotize people with music and when they get at their weakest point, you can preach into their subconscious minds what you want to say.”
Did he know about subliminals?
Psychologist Howard Shevrin of the University of Michigan, who testified for the plaintiffs in the Judas Priest trial, stated that it’s no joke to trifle with people’s subconscious minds. He explained how the music and lyrics set the victims up by causing a conflict, a conflict that became a compulsion--and subliminals triggered resolution of that compulsion.
Thus, subliminals don’t communicate, they invade the privacy of the mind and manipulate. It’s unpredictable and dangerous.
Those in the music industry who might be employing subliminals should stop the practice immediately. Of course, they would then have to rely on talent alone to sell their albums.
If they believe that the technology of detection will never catch up with the technology of deception, then they might continue to dabble with subliminals as a marketing ploy. This trial has exposed Judas Priest and CBS Records as entities who will try novel devices in an attempt to jazz up their product.
Heavy metal has been characterized as white man’s blues and even the bad boy of rock. Now, it may be the Achilles’ heel of rock. If the fans of Judas Priest resent their idols for using subliminals, then the band may be wounded by a severe drop in its popularity. If so, the wound was self-inflicted.
On a large scale, the public is becoming more aware that not only nonsense but harm comes out of much of rock music. No amount of parental control can counteract hidden messages that have unpredictable effects on different people. This mind intrusion is the worst kind of invasion of privacy.
We are not censoring Judas Priest one iota. If they and the other artists who use subliminals don’t develop more self-restraint and a concern for their consuming public, then it may turn out that there were actually three shots fired on Dec. 23, 1985.