Type of Media: Music Album
Probably one of the most ridiculous moral panics to rear its stupid head was the fear of backmasking. Backmasking is a technique where a band (stereotypically allied with that nasty, child-corrupting scamp The Devil) hides subliminal messages and commands in a song by dropping them in backwards. Supposedly your brain takes in the message even though you aren’t consciously aware of it, which makes you more susceptible to suggestion. This is, as you might have guessed using common sense, a load of bullshit, and it’s been thoroughly disproven in scientific experiments.
However, that didn’t stop parents and religious groups from accusing bands of using the technique to worm their way into kids’ skulls. Electric Light Orchestra, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles all had to deal with backmasking accusations at some point, but they were able to brush them off. It wasn’t until 1990 that a backmasking charge was brought to court, when the parents of two metal fans who entered a suicide pact sued Judas Priest for forcing their kids to take their own lives by hiding messages promoting suicide on one of their albums. That album was Stained Class, and though it was known for being lyrically dark, it has another, more important reputation: it was the blueprint for the evolution of heavy metal throughout the 80s.
Stained Class is sharp, gleaming, pristine metal, paving the way for the “new wave of British heavy metal” bands that would tear up the 80s like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Motӧrhead. Unlike previous heavy metal albums that dabbled in psych, blues, and prog rock, Stained Class stripped almost all of that away for a fast and intense pure metal sound featuring double bass drums, soaring vocals, and blistering guitar solos, all with crystal clear production. Listening to the opening track Exciter (ADD LINK) you can pick out every drum hit, every guitar strum, and every lyric, even through the speed.
Thematically the lyrics on Stained Class are bleak, dealing with sin, depression, and conquest. Exciter continues lead singer Rob Halford’s obsession with messianic figures, describing a fiery savior who comes to bring order to mankind. Title track Stained Class seems to be about civilization bringing about class warfare and the illusion of justice. The song Savage is clear inspiration for Iron Maiden’s Run to the Hills, describing native people being slaughtered and raided by technologically superior invaders and questioning who the true savages were in the process of colonialism. And Beyond the Realms of Death, an experiment in turning a prog rock ballad metal, talks about a young man who can’t deal with the world and wills himself to die.
The album ultimately didn’t sell very well, as the dour themes and lack of singles turned off mainstream audiences. Not long after, though, Judas Priest would simplify their songwriting and produce a string of massive hits starting with their 1980 album British Steel. It was five years after that, in 1985, that Reno metalheads James Vance and Ray Belknap went to a playground while drunk and attempted suicide via shotgun. Belknap died instantly, but Vance survived. He would later blame Judas Priest for driving him to try to kill himself, specifically citing the song Better By You, Better Than Me (which, ironically, was a cover of a Spooky Tooth song added at the last minute to give the album more commercial appeal), before dying of a painkiller overdose in 1988.
Since song lyrics are free speech protected under the first Amendment, the parents of Vance and Belknap sued Judas Priest for hiding backmasked messages (subliminal messages are not considered free speech) throughout Stained Class encouraging suicide. The case went to trial, and after both pointing out that Vance and Belknap had led lives consistently troubled by child abuse and arguing that it wouldn’t make financial sense for heavy metal bands to intentionally kill off their fans, Judas Priest were found not guilty. The album that led a revolution in the sound of heavy metal became the death knell of the backmasking panic.
Though it has a morbid history and isn’t as commonly recognized as Judas Priest’s later work, Stained Class is a monumental album for rock and roll. If you’re a hard rock fan and only know Priest for singles like Breakin’ the Law and Living After Midnight, give Stained Class a try. It’s also a great album for fans of prog rock as it’s a bit more complex than Judas Priest’s later work, and is best enjoyed with a nice pair of headphones and your full attention.