For sixteen years, fans of heavy-metal band Judas Priest have been accustomed to seeing lead singer Rob Halford in his trademark stage dress, a menacing armor of black leather and silver studs that even Attila the Hun might have found a bit too butch.

But a few months ago, as Halford attended court proceedings in Reno, Nevada, to defend Priest against accusations that subliminal messages on one of the band's albums had led one teen to commit suicide and another to attempt it, fans got to see a much more mild-mannered metalhead.

Nattily attired in smart pinstripe suits and constantly jotting down notes on which to build the band's defense, Halford looked more like a nebbishy tax attorney than the high-decibel screamer of annihilistic anthems like "Breaking the Law" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming." To the hundreds of fans who'd turned the Washoe County District Courthouse steps into a mini rock festival by the time the judge finally cleared Judas Priest of all charges on August 25, the sight of a herringboned Halford was surely a campy kick, like catching Darth Vader in pajamas or Freddy Kruger in formalwear.

But to Halford, who showed up early for court each day during the four-week trial and sat attentively while lawyers and audiology experts sifted through reams of numbingly statistical evidence for both sides of the case, the GQ get-up was no put-on.

"We went in looking that way because the situation demanded it," says Halford during a Canadian stop on the band's current 42-city North American tour. "It was a serious situation, sitting in an American courthouse, going by the rule books."

Halford's businesslike demeanor was appropriate for another reason. This was, after all, a business matter, although the real nuts and bolts of the case were overshadowed by the media's fixation on the First Amendment issue it raised. In the end, the judge's decision that Priest did not deliberately place subliminal messages on its 1978 album Stained Class was not all that groundbreaking. Rather, the most significant outcome of the trial was the definition it ascribed to rock 'n' roll albums. Stripped of all the "music on trial" hysteria, here's how the case was actually regarded in the books: as a common "product liability" matter, alleging that certain features of a mass-produced consumer product--in this case, the passages on Stained Class that seemed to contain suggestive messages--contributed to the wrongful death of its end users.

In this light, Judas Priest was being accused not so much of satanic music making as of shoddy workmanship. Somebody should've caught that dangerous "Do it" backward message (accidentally produced, according to Priest's expert witness, by a combination of breathing noises and guitar strums) before the product rolled off the assembly line.

For the majority of rock 'n' roll artistes, the very notion that their creative, soul-baring musical statements could be described in the same terms as a Suzuki Samurai is more offensive than any charge of Satan worshiping. And Halford, too, clearly favors phrases like "my art" and "artistic communication" over industry jargon like "product" and "merchandise."

Nevertheless, the well-spoken Englishman and Phoenix resident takes no offense when asked if he sometimes felt more like a watchful chief executive defending his company's primary product on that witness stand than a singer explaining his songs' lyrics.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," he says without hesitation. "Well, I mean, they were attacking our work, weren't they? They were attacking what we offered on record, saying this was evil, deadly music that killed people. And it was important for us to prove that there was absolutely no scientific evidence that a communication between an artist and a listener could be so overpowering that the listener could take his or her life. I mean, it was just an absolutely ridiculous claim."

IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, Halford and company have been defending their product--and their product category--for most of the past ten years. "Defenders of the Faith," the appellation coined in the title of the band's 1984 album, has long been their euphemism of choice. But as Halford made clear in interviews at the time of that album's release, "`The faith' [is] heavy-metal music. We're defending it both from the people who will knock it and from it ever going out of style or out of fashion."

Certainly, over the course of fourteen uncompromisingly hard-hitting albums, Judas Priest has raised the practice of heavy-metal music making to something of a fine art. But it doesn't require any great leap of imagination to extend the image of CEO Halford and picture Judas Priest as a kind of corporate entity, leading manufacturers of a musical product favored ten-to-one by America's teens for almost twenty years.

Indeed, the current CBS press package being circulated on the band goes out of its way to position Priest as a kind of Coca-Cola of heavy-metal. "If you want to know what heavy-metal sounds like," reads the biography's opening sentence, "all you have to do is listen to Judas Priest." Celebrity testimonials ("Metal will always be synonymous with bands like Judas Priest," raves Lita Ford) combine to paint a strong picture of Priest as heavy-metal's leading brand. What Crayola is to crayons, what Hershey is to chocolate bars--that's what Judas Priest is to heavy-metal.

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