Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill recalled how their 1990 trial over alleged subliminal messaging had put the band in doubt over its own innocence.
The metal icons were summoned to court in the aftermath of a tragic shooting five years earlier. Two men, 18-year-old Raymond Belknap and 20-year-old James Vance, had shot themselves after a night of drinks, drugs and music, with Belknap dying on the scene and Vance passing three months later.
The parents filed a lawsuit, claiming that voices recorded backward in the Priest song “Better by You, Better Than Me” from their 1978 album Stained Class had somehow forced the pair to shoot themselves. The case was ultimately dismissed.
“‘Better by You, Better Than Me’ caused us a lot of problems down the line, when we got pulled into court for subliminal messaging,” Hill told Classic Rock. “We thought they were joking when someone first told us. … Next thing we knew, we were on a plane to Reno to appear in court with all these people with placards chanting outside.”
He noted that “their lawyers were good, too – there were times we thought maybe we had done it! Even worse, the song was only on there because CBS asked us to add it after the recording … and it didn’t even get released as a single in the end.”
Listen to Judas Priest’s ‘Better by You, Better Than Me’
During the interview, Hill tracked Priest’s rise to fame via some of their most notable songs, citing 1974’s “Dying to Meet You” as an example of the wide-ranging abilities that enabled their success.
“People think heavy metal happened overnight, but it took almost a full decade to get full-flow,” he said. “In the beginning, it was all very eclectic. … It was all pop music, even the blues. ‘Dying to Meet You’ is an extension of that – it really shows the versatility of the band with soft passages, fast passages, quiet-loud – rock, funk and jazz all in one song!”
He reflected that 1982’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” was the track that “broke us on radio – Europe, the U.S.A., Japan … you name where, they were playing the hell out of it.” The bassist recalled that they even had to abandon a tour they’d been planning because a larger road trip had suddenly become possible. “We got financially secure and there was a big breath of relief that we could take more time to finesse things between records,” he said.
Hill went on to note that the success of “Freewheel Burning” from 1984’s Defenders of the Faith nearly derailed them. “We became very close to becoming a fad at that point, and the thing with fads is they eventually go out of fashion,” he said. “It was a great time, though – some of the shows we did were absolutely enormous. We could play up to 20,000 people a night.”