Operation Rock & Roll

#597: This is the Painkiller

GETTING MORE TALE #597: This is the Painkiller

Two things happened in the summer of 1990 that changed my musical trajectory forever.

1. There were too many ballads out! It seemed the only thing rock bands were doing to have hits was write ballads. Some were good, such as the heartfelt “Something to Believe In” by Poison, or “More Than Words” by Extreme . Most faded into a generic, boring ballady backdrop. Remember Alias?  With all these rock bands putting out ballads, something had to give. If it wasn’t the ballads, it was limp albums with weak, over-commercial production.  I didn’t get into rock music for ballads.  I got into it for that rock and roll rush!

2. Judas Priest were currently in court, fighting two families who blamed the band for the deaths of their sons.

It was a high profile case.  Raymond Belknap and James Vance were two troubled young men who decided to take a shotgun to a park one night in 1985 and kill themselves. Both were into heavy metal music, but there was far more to the story. Abuse, drugs and alcohol certainly took their tolls on both.  James Vance survived, horrifically disfigured.

Vance stated, “I believe that alcohol and heavy-metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized.” And so, Priest were taken to court.  (Vance did not testify, as he died in hospital in 1988 after a methadone overdose.)

The victims’ families blamed backwards messages on the band’s Stained Class album, which the two boys were listening to some time prior to the suicide attempt. Lawyers claimed there was a backwards “do it” embedded within the Judas Priest song “Better By You, Better Than Me”.

Given the fact that “do it” can mean anything from “do your homework,” to “get a gun out of the basement and shoot yourself,” that argument held little water.  In 2015, Miley Cyrus released a single called “Dooo It!”  Nobody died.

The band demonstrated in court that if you played another song backwards from the same album, you’d get a completely different message.  The chorus of “Exciter” is “Stand back for Exciter, salvation is his task.” Played backwards, Rob could heard singing what sounded like “I asked for her to get a peppermint, I asked for her to get one.”

You could tell from the look on the judge’s face that he knew the backwards messages were hooey.

Another flaw to the plaintiffs legal argument is that there is no scientific evidence that backwards messages in music can be detected by the brain and understood, let alone command you to take actions against your will.  Not to mention, as Ozzy Osbourne once observed, killing all your fans with hidden suicide messages isn’t a practical way to make a living as a musician.

That summer, the case made the newspapers daily, not to mention the evening broadcasts. It didn’t seem that Priest were likely to lose, but as a fan, I supported them vigorously. Trying to prove a point, I played the Stained Class album over and over again, without ever having the urge to get one of my father’s guns and put it in my mouth.  It was bizarre seeing television broadcasts of Rob Halford wearing a suit jacket, on the stand defending himself.  He even had to sing for the judge.  The point of this was to demonstrate how exhaling at the end of each sentence creates an audible sound.  “Better by you, better than meee-ah.”  Of course the band conducted themselves with the professionalism that the situation warranted. None of that changed the headlines. In the year 1990, the words “metal band” and “suicide” did not make for good headlines if you happened to be in one of those metal bands.  Being a fan was hard enough already, without seeing this stuff on TV after Cheers.

Arguments were wrapped and the verdict was revealed:  case dismissed.  Judas Priest resumed business as usual.

A week before school returned, Metal Edge magazine did a Priest article with loads of information on the forthcoming Judas Priest album. I bought the issue and devoured the article on my walk home.  I remember running into Trevor the future Security Guard on the way, and we flipped through the pages together.

The Metal Edge article returned the focus back to the music.  I knew that drummer Dave Holland was out, replaced by a guy named Scott Travis from Racer X. Travis was known for his speedy double bass work. The new album promised to be Priest’s heaviest yet. The trial had them seething. Songs like “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” were directly inspired by their court experience. In the interests of change and taking things heavier, long time producer Tom Allom was dropped. He was replaced by Chris Tsangarides who was an engineer on 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny.

It was clear that Judas Priest were intent on turning the ship around. 1986’s Turbo divided the fans with its synth-metal. 1988’s Ram It Down underperformed, with fans slagging the weak songs and sound in general. Ram It Down was not the “return to heavy” that the band promised and the fans craved, though it certainly did have three or four good and heavy songs. They would have to do better to reignite the weary fanbase.

Painkiller was the right album for the right time. While bands like Poison were eager to say, “Our new album is our heaviest yet,” when Priest said it, it actually meant something. Painkiller really did live up to the hype. A magazine ad claimed it was “Awesome! Backwards or forwards.”

MuchMusic debuted the new Judas Priest video “Painkiller” on a fall episode of the Pepsi Power Hour, co-hosted by Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo of Queensryche. They were on hand promoting their new album Empire. The Priest video was a rapid-fire assembly of black and chrome images, unholy screams, and the fastest drumming heard yet on a Priest single. When the video concluded, DeGarmo said he had to catch his breath!

I hit rewind, and watched that video over and over again.

Nobody else seemed to get it. My sister, who was a New Kids fan, hated it. She already hated Judas Priest but “Painkiller” took it to a new level. To deserve that kind of hate, Priest must have been on the right track. A lot of my school friends and rocker buddies also disliked the track, preferring the likes of Cinderella and Winger. That too was a good sign. I thought that to stay relevant, Priest needed to stay as far as away from those bands as possible. Priest chose Megadeth and Testament to open for them, both bands supporting new albums (Rust In Peace and Souls of Black). The tour began in Canada, but when they came to the UK they brought with them a band with a big future called Pantera.

The Painkiller cycle ended where it began, in Canada. The final date was on a package called Operation Rock & Roll (the name was a spoof of Operation Desert Storm).  The final date was Toronto, August 19 1991. Priest were second on the bill, following Motorhead and opening for Alice Cooper. Something strange happened that night. Rob Halford rode his Harley Davidson motorcycle on stage to start the show, but this time hit his head on a lighting rig. He was knocked out cold, while the band played the newly instrumental “Hell Bent for Leather”! Halford recovered in time for the second song, but it was Rob’s last appearance with the Priest for 13 years.  Earlier that day, Rob told MuchMusic’s Michael Williams that Priest were planning a 1992 “greatest hits” album.  This hits album would afford a nice well deserved break.

Rob didn’t plan on wasting his time, so he set to work on a new solo project, inspired by the heavy direction that metal was going on. If Painkiller was heavy, his new band Fight was even heavier. That Toronto show was the last time Rob saw his bandmates until the reunion.  The solo project led to a management dispute, and ultimately Rob’s resignation.

As Priest fractured, my own musical life blossomed, thanks to the fallout from Painkiller. Priest cracked open a heavy, iron door. Thrash bands like Testament had the metal goods that was the exact opposite of the wimpy music that I was getting sick of. Grunge came soon after, with a new kind of heavy. I ignored new releases by Enuff Z’Nuff, Trixter, Danger Danger, and even The Cult.  They weren’t going heavy like Priest did, and in some cases they went backwards. Other bands, like Skid Row, knew which way the wind was blowing and turned up the volume.

The 1990-1991 period of Priest history is one of the most interesting of their entire career. It featured a trial that could have had real freedom of speech consequences, if the verdict had gone the other way. The same time period introduced their longest serving drummer in Scott Travis, and Priest have since never recorded nor toured without him. Their music took a turn away from hard rock and back towards heavy metal, permanently. They toured with Megadeth (who were also on a roll musically), gave Pantera some exposure in Europe, and shared the stage with the legendary Alice Cooper. And it ended with a split that nobody saw coming; just one of many splits in 1992 that changed the face of metal for an entire decade.  Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, Judas Priest….

My own personal history was intertwined with Priest’s. It might be safe to say that in highschool, Judas Priest were my favourite band.  Their turn back towards heavy in 1990 changed everything for me. It was exactly what I wanted, by the exact band that I wanted to deliver it. Perfect simpatico!

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