years ago, the rock group, Judas Priest, was sued
because their records supposedly contained
backward messages. Here is one of the reversals.
The forward, played first, says "Beyond the
Realms Of Death". The speech reversal is
clearer than the forwards and it says: I took
Subliminal messages, heavy metal music and
Friday, September 29, 1989
By Candy Cooper San Francisco Examiner
Sparks, Nevada - After James Vance
demolished his face with a sawed-off shotgun at a
church playground, he rode his bicycle around
town shocking people with his grotesque
Plastic surgeons had been able to restore his
ability to eat and breathe, but were not able to
restore his smooth, youthful face.
James' physical deformity stunned the town,
but not as much as the message he later delivered:
Heavy metal music drove him and his closest
friend to strike a suicide pact, one that only
"I believe that alcohol and heavy metal
music, such as Judas Priest, led us or even
'mesmerized' us into believing that the answer to
'life was death,'" James wrote to his best
friend's mother in 1986, quoting some of the
James, depressed and addicted to pain
medications after the shooting, died last year in
the psychiatric unit of the Washoe Medical Center
from drugs and complications from his numerous
His message, though, remains alive. Reno Judge
Jerry Whitehead decided last month that the First
Amendment's freedom of speech guarantees can't
protect CBS Records and Judas Priest from a
lawsuit filed against them by the two boys'
families. A jury should hear the case, the judge
The historic case revolves around the idea of
subliminal messages - the projection of light or
sound so quickly, or faintly that they are
perceived below the level of conscious awareness.
Those messages, Judge Whitehead ruled, are not
protected by the First Amendment.
Expert witnesses for the families, including a
man who has found subliminal messages in
everything from Ritz crackers to $5 bills, have
studied the music literally backwards and forward.
They contend that the words "do it, do
it' -- subliminally embedded in the Judas Priest
album Stained Class -- and other messages
that can be consciously heard only when the
record is played backward, precipitated the
CBS and the rock group deny the claim, citing
instead the boys' own desperate lives. "I
don't think music causes you to commit suicide"
says attorney Suellen Fulstone, representing CBS
Records an Judas Priest. "If the
circumstances of life make your outlook so
hopeless, it has nothing to do with what you hear
see or read."
Phyllis and Emmit Vance don't believe that,
even though their son had a long, troubled
history, according to court records.
James Vance had fled from his home 13 times in
the two years before the shooting. An only child,
he had no contact with his biological father and
frequently tangled with his adoptive father,
Emmit Vance, a recovering alcoholic.
James' mother also conceded that she had hit
her son too often when he was young. James, in
turn, assaulted his mother several times and
choked her when he was 8. He once pointed a
loaded gun at her head and threatened to shoot
her, she said.
James' grade school once suggested that he and
his mother receive psychiatric counseling because
the boy was pulling his hair out and tying belts
tightly around his head.
Another school psychologist later said there
was a good chance that James would "respond
violently to stressful situations" as he
grew older, according to court records.
Admitted to a drug and alcohol addiction
center the year of the shooting, James said he
used LSD, speed, cocaine, heroin, PCP,
barbituates and marijuana.
Despite these problems, the Vances think music
destroyed their son. Emmit, a forklift operator
for General Motors, read books about the negative
effects of rock music. Phyllis keeps busy with
jigsaw puzzles, sewing and church work.
"He would quote lyrics just as if they
were Scriptures," says Phyllis Vance, who
several times threw her son's music away because
the young man was moody and violent when he
listened to heavy metal.
Two days before Christmas in 1985, 20-year-old
James and 18-year-old Raymond Belknap spent hours
listening to heavy-metal music in Raymond's room.
They drank a twelve-pack of beer and smoked
marijuana. They made a suicide pact, then went on
a rampage, tearing at the room's walls and
"The only things not broken in the room
were the turntable and the albums," says
Near dusk, the two went to the playground of a
local church with Raymond's sawed-off 12-guage
shotgun. Raymond Belknap, seated on a merry-go-round,
placed the end of the shotgun under his chin and
pulled the trigger, killing himself. A few
minutes later, James pointed the same gun at his
chin and fired. Somehow, the blast missed his
brain and he lived.
Four months later, Raymond Belknap's mother
went to attorneys with James Vance's letter
connecting the death pact to heavy metal music.
Reno attorneys Ken McKenna and Tim Post began to
examine the music, lyrics and album cover for
suicidal messages. They say they found references
to blood, killing and the implications of suicide
in the lyrics, but no explicit directives to take
one's life. Those they claim to have found in the
music and album cover's subliminal messages.
Mr. McKenna and his experts say they have
detected words like "kill" and the
image of male genitals in the album cover, which
is a head with a projectile moving through it.
The attorney says a musical engineer played the
album backward and discovered the phrases "Sing
my evil spirit" and "(expletive) the
"Once you see and hear the subliminals,
they're unmistakable," Mr. McKenna says.
Ms. Fulstone, the rock group's attorney, says
there are no subliminal messages in the music.
The so-called subliminals are nothing more than
"a combination of incidental noises,"
she says. Even if subliminals are present they do
not cause suicide, Ms. Fulstone says.
"People write about, sing about serious
subjects." she says, "I don't think
anyone would accuse Shakespeare, Picasso or
writers and artists of various kinds with the
intent to harm anyone. I just don't think art
causes anti-social activity."
The reasons for the shootings may be more
easily found in the lives of the two hopeless
young men already deeply marked by broken
families, family violence and failure.
Raymond Belknap's life, like James Vance's,
was hard. He had three stepfathers and was beaten
by the third, according to the court records. He
was on probation for stealing money and under
investigation for animal torture after shooting
at neighbor's animals with a dart gun.
Both young men had dropped out of high school,
drifted from job to job and had been fascinated
"They were two young men with nowhere to
go, no strong relationships, no futures."
says Ms. Fulstone.
Whatever the roots of their suicide pact, the
effects of a trial could be far-reaching for both
sides. Ms. Fulstone believes the case already has
had a "chilling effect" on free
expression and could only get worse.
Worried parents have begun to phone attorney
McKenna's office with horror stories of heavy
metal and violence.
Emmit Vance is waiting to retire so the couple
can tour the country talking about the ill
effects of music. "(President) Bush is
always talking about drugs," Emmit Vance
says. "People don't realize what an effect
music has, too."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
to read REUTERS article on outcome of trial
Excerpt from Reverse Speech Book:
Hidden Messages in Communication
The second case centers around the heavy metal
rock group Judas Priest and their album, Stained
Class. A lawsuit lodged in Reno, Nevada in
1986 initially sought unspecified damages from
CBS records and Judas Priest, claiming that two
youths, James Vance and Ray Belknap, were driven
to shoot themselves in a suicide pact after they
repeatedly listened to this album while smoking
marijuana and drinking alcohol. Belknap died.
Vance severely disfigured himself in the attempt
and died three years later.
Lawyers for the relatives of Vance and Belknap
told Nevada Judge Jerry Whitehead that the band's
music had a "hypnotic" quality and its
records contained subliminal messages. They
particularly focused on the words, Do it,
which they claimed were subliminally inserted
after key stanzas that related to suicide, and
also the phrase, Fuck the Lord, which they
claimed promoted an anti-Christian mentality.
The court hearing took one month and on August
24, 1990, Judge Whitehead handed down his verdict.
He concluded that the backward phrases did exist,
but no evidence had been put forward to suggest
that they were caused by anything other than
coincidence of sound. Nor was any convincing
evidence put forward to suggest that they could
be subliminally suggestive. The 6.2 million
dollar lawsuit was rejected.
I contacted the judge before the trial began
and he referred me to the respective attorneys.
After deliberation, both attorneys decided not to
use the research evidence compiled using Reverse
Speech technologies. Neither side felt that it
was beneficial to its case.
The plaintiff claimed that Judas Priest had
intentionally placed reversals on the album
whereas the defense claimed that reversals didn't
exist. The truth, of course, is that speech
reversals did exist on the album, but they
were a naturally-occurring phenomenon.
Until people accept that reversals occur
naturally, the debate will continue. At this
writing, there are four similar cases pending
that relate to backward messages in rock 'n' roll.
Regarding the Judas Priest album, I believe
that the album's forward lyrics tell a metaphoric
tale about a fight between good and evil, the
confusion that results from this struggle, and a
hero's death. Not surprisingly, the reversals
tell a similar story.
The reversals could have been subliminally
suggestive, given the teenagers' state of mind at
the time and a reported history of drug abuse and
petty crime. I found over 72 speech reversals on
this album, only two of which were quoted at the
trial (see above). The attorney for the plaintiff
completely overlooked the most striking reversals:
God is evil. / An innocent man help us. Get
out of it, get out of it. / Say, am I sexy. Give
us the truth. / You silly fuck. I took my life.
(A powerful complementary reversal, which occurs
on the last stanza of, "Beyond the Realms of
Death"). Take me out. / We died for glory.
/ We died sad.
It would appear that people can unconsciously
hear reversed messages and, in some cases, be
affected by them. I have uncovered no evidence to
indicate this to be the case if the listener is
not predisposed to be affected. For
example, an advertisement containing reversals
might influence someone who drinks to buy a
particular brand of liquor, but wouldn't
necessarily influence a non-drinker to rush out
and grab a bottle of that brand. Likewise, if
someone were emotionally disturbed, repetitive,
negative reversals might reinforce his or her
state of mind.
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