Inside Beatles’ Bloody, Banned ‘Butcher’ Cover
“My original idea for the cover was better – decapitate Paul,” John Lennon once cracked while discussing Yesterday and Today, a 1966 collection of assorted recent Beatles tracks cobbled together for the North American market. Joking aside, his concept is almost tame compared with the photo that ultimately graced the LP upon its release that June. Fans seeking the aggressively inoffensive hit “Yesterday” name-checked in the title were shocked to find a grotesque tableau starring the group, clad in white butcher coats, snickering like naughty (murderous, even) schoolboys while draped in slabs of raw meat and cigarette-burned doll parts. Lennon could have drawn and quartered his bandmates and it might have inspired less outrage.
Half a century later, the image of a cheerful Fab Four posing post-baby-slaughter remains unspeakably bizarre. Though the cover was immediately withdrawn, the fact that it was produced at all is a testament to the band’s unprecedented status. You couldn’t show a toilet seat on an album cover in 1966, and it would be a decade before punk rockers approached this level of public provocation. Yet there sat the Beatles, gleeful among the carnage.
The so-called “butcher” cover vaulted an otherwise unremarkable record into rock infamy and spawned what George Harrison once called “the definitive Beatles collectible” worth tens – and sometimes hundreds – of thousands of dollars. Still, the cover remains one of the most misunderstood chapters in the band’s chronicle. Was it their comment on the Vietnam War? A protest against their record company? A publicity stunt? A sophomoric prank by bored rock stars? The truth is more complex.
The image was the brainchild of Robert Whitaker, a 26-year-old Australian photographer whose dark humor and love of the surreal made him one of the band’s favorite cameramen. Responsible for some of the most striking images of the group, Whitaker won particular praise for his whimsical 1965 portrait of John Lennon posed with a dandelion over one eye. Drawn from the Greek myth of Narcissus and a quote from Euripides, the image beautifully captured the Beatles’ idiosyncratic sensibilities.
When the group arrived at his studio in London’s hip Chelsea neighborhood on March 25th, 1966, the well-read Whitaker had a more ambitious concept in mind. “I got fed up with taking squeaky-clean pictures of the Beatles, and I thought I’d revolutionize what pop idols are,” he told author Jon Savage. Having personally witnessed the biblical level of Beatle adulation, including their record-breaking concert at Shea Stadium, Whitaker was inspired to create a satirical photo series that would address the absurd degree of their fame and remind fans that these rock deities were actually flesh and blood. “All over the world I’d watched people worshiping like gods, four Beatles,” he explained. “To me they were just stock standard normal people. But this emotion that fans poured on them made me wonder where Christianity was heading.”
His piece would take the form of a triptych, retouched and manipulated to resemble a Russian religious icon. Influenced by a film collaboration between Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel called Un Chien Andalou, the work of conceptual artist Meret Oppenheim and the doll assemblages in Hans Bellmer’s book Die Puppe, Whitaker also drew upon images that occurred to him in dreams. The hypnagogic piece was to be called “A Somnambulant Adventure.”
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