Judas Priest, Ray Belknap, and James Vance: 25 Years Later
This is the most powerful story in the history of Heavy Metal.
Either before or after reading this article, you may want to see the documentary about the Judas Priest trial. The documentary is called Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest.
To view this powerful documentary on YouTube, click on the link below:
Today is the 25th anniversary of the day that Ray Belknap and James Vance shot themselves after listening to the Judas Priest album, Stained Class. On December 23, 1985, Ray Belknap gave James Vance a copy of Stained Class, which they listened to in Ray’s room while drinking beer and smoking pot. Afterwards, they trashed Ray’s room. After trashing the room, they took Ray’s shotgun to the playground by a church. Ray put the shotgun under his chin and fired. He died immediately. James picked up the shotgun which was covered in blood. He put it under his own chin and fired.
When James fired, the shot missed his brain and eyes, but blew off his mouth and nose. He lived for three more years disfigured. While he was alive and disfigured, he sent a letter to Ray Belknap’s mother in which he blamed the music of Judas Priest for him and Ray deciding to commit suicide.
James Vance died in 1988. The lawsuit against Judas Priest went to trial in 1990.
As Ken McKenna, the lawyer for the families, planned the lawsuit against Judas Priest, his team of experts listened to the Stained Class album and examined it closely. They could not blame the lyrics for the suicide, because the courts have already ruled that musicians cannot be sued for lyrics because song lyrics are covered by the First Amendment. This was tested and when Ozzy Osbourne was sued over the song “Suicide Solution” that a boy listened to as he committed suicide.
There was a loophole….. subliminal messages. In the song “Better By You, Better Than Me,” there was a sound several times that could be heard throughout the song that sounded like someone saying “Do it!” The judge ruled that the case can move forward because he viewed subliminal messages were not covered by the First Amendment
Throughout the case, it was shown that Ray Belknap and James Vance had horrible upbringings. They were from broken families. Both of them had violence families. They used drugs, had police records, and both of them were high school drop-outs. They did not have promising futures. Feeling that life was not going in a positive direction, they were depressed.
Can anyone really blame the music for this? Should the parents have sued themselves? Or at least maybe they should they have taken some of the blame for the raising of their children?
The case was dismissed when it was proven that the sounds that caused the “Do it” sound came from two different recording tracks. The “Do it” was considered an accidental sound.
Now here’s my take. I do not believe that hearing “Do it” in the middle of “Better By You, Better Than Me” would drive anyone to commit suicide. Let’s say the sound was actually intentional. Let’s say instead of a soft sound, Rob Halford sang “Do it” out loud. The message of the song is about a man asking a friend (gender not identified) to express the feelings of the man to the man’s girlfriend. Kind of like a boy in class asking his best friend to express his love for a girl. If you have seen Steve Martin in the movie Roxanne, Steve Martin’s character was used to express the feelings of another man to Roxanne because Steve Martin’s character was better at finding the right words. Saying “Do it”…. Do what? The singer of the song wants his friend to go express his feelings to a girl. He wants the friend to do that. The song is not about suicide.
When you listen to sad songs, you may think about sad feelings. I do think that listening to the album may have made them think about their own mortality, but not in a way that can be blamed on Judas Priest. One of the songs, “Beyond The Realms Of Death” is a haunting song about life not being worth living. The song after that “Heroes End” has the line “Why do you have to die to be a hero?” They were also the last two songs on the album. Maybe hearing two songs about death (especially at the end of the album) made Ray and James think about not wanting to live.
On this day in 1985, two friends were in a room using substances and talking about their depressing lives. They hear two songs about death at the end of the album. They decide together to commit suicide. What breaks my heart about this story is that in a suicide pack, two people encourage each other to end their lives together, convincing each other that this is the decision to make. Suicide is a serious issue. It should be discouraged. I wonder if one of them convinced the other one to commit suicide. It is possible that the discussion treaded lightly on the topic of suicide and then they may have convinced each other that this was the right decision to make. Maybe both of them were willing to pull the trigger because each one felt that he would not be making this choice alone. Maybe had they listened to a different album that night, they may be alive today.
Let’s say I am right. I don’t know if I am, but for the sake of discussion, let’s say that my theory is correct that listening to “Beyond The Realms Of Death” and “Heroes End” made them think about suicide instead of “Better By You, Better Than Me.” Can we truly blame Judas Priest? As a society, should we ban every song, every film, every play, every book that discusses death? Will lives be perfect, or better, if we ban art discussing death? Will our society be happy and will our problems be solved by censorship?
If James and Ray did not have access to songs that discussed death, would their parents and stepfathers not beat them? The two of them listened to Judas Priest because they could identify with Heavy Metal and loved the music. If they identified with the theme from “Beyond The Realms Of Death” then maybe their mothers should have tried harder to give them happy upbringings without violence.
This is protective speech. I think that hearing these songs when someone is depressed can make them think about death, just like seeing Top Gun in the theaters led to many young men deciding to sign up for the Air Force. Judas Priest did nothing wrong by recording the songs on the album. If we change the Constitution to allow any artist to be sued for someone listening to depressing songs before committing suicide, then we might as well ban any songs about love and loss. If those men listened to “Only The Lonely” and committed suicide, would it have been right for their parents to sue Roy Orbison?
This is the greatest story of Heavy Metal because it has all of the elements. Depressed youth, drugs, suicide, families blaming the music for the problems of the young men. What is most fascinating is how one of the victims lived to blame the music personally. Had both men died that night, this would be another story of youth and suicide. Hearing one of them talk about the events and living to tell about it is a rare look into the sadness and desperation of those without hope. I don’t fault James Vance for blaming the music, but I think he took issue with the wrong song. They would have no case against the song “Beyond The Realms Of Death” so they blamed the only song that they could (Better By You, Better Than Me).
It is ironic that the song they blamed was “Better By You, Better Than Me” because the song is about placing actions in the hands of another. Multiple stepfathers, violence, drug usage, arrest records, and discontinued education led to two young men seeing no future. Better blame the music. Better than the families blaming themselves.