On June 15, 1966, Capitol Records released a Beatles’ album without the Beatles’ consent entitled Yesterday and Today
. This featured an image that has become known as the Butcher Cover and has become the most infamous picture of the Beatles.
Alan W. Livingston, President of Capitol Records (USA), decided to pull the "butcher cover" Yesterday & Today album issue a day before release issuing the following statement: "The original album cover, created in England, was intended as pop art satire. However, sampling of public opinion in the United States indicates that the cover design is subject to misinterpretation....For this reason...Capitol has chosen to withdraw the lp and substitute it for a more generally accepted design."
Below is the story of the 'Butcher Cover'
On 25 March 1966, The Beatles went to Whitaker’s Chelsea studio for a photo session, intending to take photos for the cover of (and/or to promote) their forthcoming single, "Rain"/"Paperback Writer"
. The band and their photographer were determined to create something more than the run-of-the-mill publicity shots, and among the resulting images was one which has since become known as the "butcher" photo, in which The Beatles
are depicted wearing white coats, draped with dismembered doll parts, slabs of meat and false teeth.
This now-legendary image, probably the single most famous image of the group, was originally conceived as one of a triptych of photographs, and intended as a surreal, satirical pop art observation on The Beatles’ fame. Whitaker’s inspirations for the images included the work of German surrealist Hans Bellmer, notably his 1937 book Die Puppe (La Poupée). Bellmer’s images of dismembered doll and mannequin parts were first published in the French Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1934.
"It's an apparent switch-around of how you think. Can you imagine actually drinking out of a fur tea cup? I did a photograph of the Beatles covered in raw meat, dolls and false teeth. Putting meat, dolls and false teeth with The Beatles is essentially part of the same thing, the breakdown of what is regarded as normal. The actual conception for what I still call "Somnambulant Adventure" was Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments. He comes across people worshipping a golden calf. All over the world I'd watched people worshipping like idols, like gods, four Beatles. To me they were just stock standard normal people. But this emotion that fans poured on them made me wonder where Christianity was heading".
It has often been claimed that The Beatles intended the "butcher cover" as a protest at the way their music was being "butchered" by their American label, Capitol Records. In a Nov. 15 1991 interview with Goldmine magazine, Whitaker discussed the butcher cover at length, and unequivocally put the protest claims to rest:
"How did that photo, featuring the Beatles among slabs of meat and decapitated dolls, come about? Was it your idea or the Beatles'?
"It was mine. Absolutely. It was part of three pictures that should have gone into an icon. And it was a rough. If you could imagine, the background of that picture should have been all gold. Around the heads would have gone silver halos, jewelled. Then there are two other pictures that are in the book [The Unseen Beatles], but not in colour.
"How did you prepare for the shoot?
"It was hard work. I had to go to the local butcher and get pork. I had to go to a doll factory and find the dolls. I had to go to an eye factory and find the eyes. False teeth. There's a lot in that photograph. I think John's almost-last written words were about that particular cover; that was pointed out to me by Martin Harrison, who wrote the text to my book. I didn't even know that, but I'm learning a lot.
"Why meat and dolls? There's been a lot of conjecture over the years about what that photo meant. The most popular theory is that it was a protest by the Beatles against Capitol Records for supposedly "butchering" their records in the States.
"Rubbish, absolute nonsense. If the trilogy or triptych of the three photographs had ever come together, it would have made sense. There is another set of photos in the book which is the Beatles with a girl with her back toward you, hanging on to sausages. Those sausages were meant to be an umbilical cord. Does this start to open a few chapters?
"Were you aware when you shot it that Capitol Records was going to use it as a record cover?"
"Were you upset when they did and then when they pulled it and replaced it with another photo?"
"Well, I shot that photo too, of them sitting on a trunk, the one that they pasted over it. I fairly remember being bewildered by the whole thing. I had no reason to be bewildered by it, purely and simply, because it could certainly be construed as a fairly shocking collection of bits and pieces to stick on a group of people and represent that in this country.
Quoted in 1966 in the British music magazine Disc and Music Echo, Whitaker said:
"I wanted to do a real experiment - people will jump to wrong conclusions about it being sick, but the whole thing is based on simplicity -- linking four very real people with something real. I got George to knock some nails into John’s head, and took some sausages along to get some other pictures, dressed them up in white smocks as butchers, and this is the result -- the use of the camera as a means of creating situations."
Whitaker was later quoted as saying that the basic motivation for making A Somnambulant Adventure came from the fact that he and The Beatles were "really fed up at taking what one had hoped would be designer-friendly publicity pictures". In the interview conducted just before his death in 1980 (referred to by Bob), John Lennon confirmed this.
John Lennon - "It was inspired by our boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session and another Beatles thing. We were sick to death of it. Bob was into Dali and making surreal pictures."
Whitaker had intended the triptych to be his "personal comment on the mass adulation of the group and the illusory nature of stardom … I had toured quite a lot of the world with them by then, and I was continually amused by the public adulation of four people".
The images in the triptych were actually intended as the foundation of a much more elaborate work. He had planned to retouch the photos to give them the appearance of a religious icon. The background was to be painted gold like a Russian icon and to have the Fab Four’s heads surrounded by jewelled halos, with the photos bordered in rainbow colours. This decoration, contrasted with the bizarre situations of the photos themselves, was evidently intended to create a surreal juxtaposition between the band's image and celebrity, and the underlying fact that they were just as real and human as everyone else.
"John played with all sorts of bits and pieces before we actually did the picture. I did a few outtake pictures which were of them actually playing with a box full of dolls which they pulled out and stuck all over themselves. There was an enormous amount of laughter. There was even George Harrison banging nails into John's head with a hammer. The actual conception of what is termed the ‘Butcher's Sleeve’ is a reasonably diverse piece of thinking ..."
" ... the [butcher] cover was an unfinished concept. It was just one of a series of photographs that would have made up a gate-fold cover. Behind the head of each Beatle would have been a golden halo and in the halo would have been placed a semi-precious stone. Then the background would have contained more gold, so it was rather like a Russian icon. It was just after John Lennon had said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. In a material world that was an extremely true statement."
The first photo shows The Beatles facing a woman who stands with her back to the camera, her hands raised as if in surprise (or worship) while The Beatles hold a string of sausages. This was meant to represent the 'birth' of the Beatles, with the sausages serving as an umbilical cord. Whitaker explained: "My own thought was how the hell do you show that they've been born out of a woman the same as anybody else? An umbilical cord was one way of doing it."
The centre panel of the triptych is the image nowadays referred to as the "butcher" photo. It shows the (obviously stoned) Beatles dressed in butchers’ coats, draped with slabs of red meat, false teeth, glass eyes and dismembered doll parts. This picture was actually titled "A Somnambulant Adventure" and Bob’s intention was to add other elements to it which would create a jarring juxtaposition between idolisation of The Beatles' as gods of the pop world and their flesh and blood reality as ordinary human beings, but he was never able to realise this.
The photograph that would have been used for the right-hand panel of the triptych is one of George Harrison standing behind a seated John Lennon, hammer in hand, apparently driving nails into John's head. Whitaker explained that this picture was intended to demonstrate that the Beatles were not an illusion, not something to be worshipped, but people as real and substantial as "a piece of wood".
A fourth picture taken at the same session, but apparently not intended to be part of the triptych, is also included in Whitaker’s book The Unseen Beatles. It shows John framing Ringo's head with a cardboard box, on one of the flaps of which is written "2,000,000".
"I wanted to illustrate that, in a way, there was nothing more amazing about Ringo than anyone else on this earth. In this life he was just one of two million members of the human race. The idolization of fans reminded me of the story of the worship of the golden calf."
Like the famous 1963 nude photo of Christine Keeler taken by his contemporary Lewis Morley, Whitaker's "butcher" photo soon passed out of his control and took on a life of its own. The Beatles themselves seem to have been behind the use of the photo in British trade advertisements and then on the cover of the Capitol album Yesterday and Today. The prime mover seems to have been Paul McCartney. In his book Shout, Beatles biographer Philip Norman claims that Brian Epstein had misgivings about the picture and felt it would disrupt the band’s meticulously managed image, which had taken a hammering in the wake of the recent "bigger than Jesus" controversy. But according to Norman, the band overruled him.
Interestingly, the butcher photo made three appearances in print in the UK before it was released in the USA on the cover of Yesterday And Today. It was first published on page 2 of New Musical Express on 3 June 1966' in an EMI advertisement promoting the forthcoming single. The same ad was published in Disc and Music Echo the next day, June 4. Both these versions were in B&W. Its third appearance (and its first in colour) was on the front page of Disc and Music Echo on 11 June 1966 under the headline, "BEATLES: WHAT A CARVE-UP!"
It can also reportedly be glimpsed in photos taken during the making of the "Rain" and "Paperback Writer" film-clips, filmed on 19 May, in which Paul McCartney can be seen inspecting transparencies from the 25 March photo session. None of these appearances seem to have caused any appreciable comment in the UK, even though they were published only days before Capitol’s promotional release of Yesterday And Today in th U.S.
It should be noted that, up to and including Revolver, all The Beatles' American LPs (released by Capitol Records) differed markedly from their original EMI UK releases. The Capitol LPs were collections of material culled from the Beatles' previously-released British albums and singles, selected and packaged by Capitol especially for the American market. Yesterday and Today included songs from the earlier Help! and Rubber Soul LPs plus, unusually, four songs from Revolver, which would not be released in Britain for another three weeks. It was Capitol’s habit of cherry-picking album tracks and singles to compiled their own albums that was the origin of the urban myth (referred to above) about the butcher cover being some kind of protest against the American label.
Capitol printed the cover in early June, using the "butcher" photo, and the release was scheduled for 15 June 1966. Estimates of how many copies of the album were printed and/or distributed vary considerably. Whitaker put the number at 250,000, but other sources range from as high as 750,000 to 400,000 to as low as 60,000. According to another estimate, about 25,000 copies were sold prior to the recall. Mojo magazine reported that 60,000 copies were distributed to radio, media and Capitol branch offices, who showed it to retailers.
"Having finished that particular picture, it was snatched away from me and sent off to America. It was reproduced as a record cover without ever having the artwork completed by me. The cover layout was somebody else's conception. It was a good idea to ban it at the time, because it made no sense at all. It was just this rather horrific image of four Beatles, whom everybody loved, covered in raw meat, the arms, legs and torsos of dolls, and false teeth. But they are only objects placed on the Beatles, rather like making a movie. I mean what you want to read into it is entirely up to you. I was trying to show that the Beatles were flesh and blood."
It has been suggested that Lennon was the main impetus behind the photo being used, but according to Alan Livingstone, Capitol’s former president, (quoted in Mojo magazine in 2002), the decision to use the photo Yesterday And Today was mainly at the insistence of Paul McCartney:
Alan Livingston - "The reaction came back that the dealers refused to handle them. I called London and we went back and forth. My contact was mainly with Paul McCartney. He was adamant and felt very strongly that we should go forward. He said 'It's our comment on the war'. I don’t know why it was a comment on the war or if it would be interpreted that way."
Capitol were understandably touchy and could ill afford another Beatles-related controversy -- they were still reeling from the public-relations disaster of John Lennon’s notorious "bigger than Jesus" comment in March that year, which had sparked a wave of protests and record burnings in conservative areas of the U.S. The company reacted swiftly, issuing letters of apology, and on Tuesday 14 June PR manager Ron Tepper issued an official letter of recall in which he quoted a statement from Capitol’s President Alan W. Livingston:
"The original cover, created in England, was intended as a ‘pop art' satire. However a sampling of public opinion in the United States indicates that the cover design is subject to misinterpretation. For this reason, and to avoid any possible controversy or undeserved harm to the Beatles' image or reputation, Capitol has chosen to withdraw the LP and substitute a more generally acceptable design."
The albums with the butcher cover were withdrawn and returned, and a new cover was hastily prepared at a reported cost of $250,000. The offending photo was replaced by an unremarkable Whitaker shot of the Beatles gathered around a large steamer trunk, taken in Brian Epstein’s office. It was rushed to America, where Capitol staff spent the following weekend taking the discs from the returned "butcher" sleeves and putting them in the new sleeve.
Several thousand copies of the original cover were destroyed and replaced by the "cabin trunk" sleeve, but Capitol eventually decided that it would be more economical to simply paste the new cover photo over the old one. After the album was released, news of the paste-over operation leaked out, and Beatle fans across America began steaming the cabin trunk photos off of their copies of Yesterday And Today in the hope of finding the "butcher" cover underneath.
The butcher cover is now one of the most valuable and sought-after pieces of Beatle memorabilia. George Harrison himself called it "the definitive Beatles collectible" and Whitaker relates the story of a woman who came up to him with an unpeeled ‘paste-over’ cover in the U.S., had him autograph it, and then promptly sold it for US$40,000.
The scarcest copies of Yesterday And Today are the so-called "first state" versions, those still in their original shrink-wrapping, and the rarest and most valuable of these are the stereo pressings. Prior to 1987, there were only two sealed stereo copies and about six mono copies known to exist. Then, on Thanksgiving weekend 1987 at the Los Angeles Beatlefest convention, Peter Livingston, son of 1960's Capitol Records President Alan Livingston, walked into the Beatlefest dealer room at the show carrying a box of original first-state butcher cover albums. Nearly every copy was sealed and in mint condition.
It transpired that, after the recall in 1966, Alan Livingston had taken home a full box of the albums (five stereo and about twenty mono copies) from the inventory that was to have the new cover pasted over it. Stored in a cupboard under perfect conditions in the Livington's home, the albums lay untouched for twenty-one years.
At the convention, a canny collector instantly negotiated a purchase for one of the two stereo copies for US$2500 and a crowd quickly grew as word spread. The asking price for the mono copies was US$1000 and within a matter of minutes, the ten mono and two stereo copies were sold. Some of these copies were resold during the show for even higher sums; just one week later the prices had climbed to US$2000 for mono copies and US$10,000 for the stereo.