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.
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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.”
Clearly this was no run-of-the-mill photo session, but the Beatles couldn’t have been better primed. The Whitaker shoot was the quartet’s first public outing since their final British concert in December 1965. The early months of 1966 had been booked to accommodate shooting their third feature film, but when a script failed to materialize they found themselves with their first sizable block of free time since achieving worldwide stardom. The result was an intellectual growth spurt as all four pursued individual interests and devoured books, plays, paintings, music and everything else available in London’s burgeoning counterculture.
Like Whitaker, Lennon had become fascinated by the role of religion in the modern world. “Christianity will go,” he famously opined to the Evening Standard‘s Maureen Cleave. “It will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – religion or rock & roll.” The quote would mushroom into a nearly life-threatening scandal when it was reprinted in the United States later that summer, but the Beatles entered Whitaker’s studio on March 25th filled with confidence and a strong desire to indulge their appetite for experimentation.
An irreverent take on religious iconography was certainly a selling point for the band, but it was the extraordinary prop list that held their notoriously short attention span. Sausage links, false teeth, joints of raw pork, glass eyes, hammers, nails, white coats, a bird cage, a severed pig’s head and doll parts were laid out like an occult flea market.
“We’d done a few sessions with [Whitaker] before this, and he knew our personalities,” remembered Paul McCartney in an interview for the Beatles Anthology. “He knew we liked black humor and sick jokes. And he said, ‘I have an idea – stick these white lab coats on.’ It didn’t seem too offensive to us. It was just dolls and a lot of meat. I don’t really know what he was trying to say, but it seemed a little more original than the things the rest of the people were getting us to do.”
George Harrison was less magnanimous in his assessment: “I thought it was gross, and I also thought it was stupid. Sometimes we all did stupid things, thinking it was cool or hip when it was naïve and dumb, and that was one of them. But again, it was a case of being put in a situation where one is obliged, as part of a unit, to cooperate. So we put on those butchers’ uniforms for that picture.”
Only Whitaker knew the exact manner in which the triptych would have been assembled, and he offered several different explanations prior to his death in 2011. The first image, slated to be the cover of a gatefold sleeve, depicted a woman with her back to the camera, genuflecting before the Fab Four, who stand clasping a string of sausages. According to Whitaker, this represented the “birth” of the Beatles, humans like everyone else. “The sausages are meant to be an umbilical cord,” he said in a 2004 Mojo profile. “And then that image was going to be inset inside a pregnant woman’s womb, and then there was going to be an illustration of a breast with a nipple and a big womb, and the four Beatles laying insider her tummy all connected to an umbilical cord.”
The second image, the famous “butcher” shot, conveyed the idea that the Beatles were in danger of being dismembered – both physically and psychically – by their celebrity. “It would’ve been two-and-a-quarter-inches square in the center of a 12-inch sleeve,” Whitaker told Mojo of the photo. “Around their heads would have been silver halos with precious stones and then the whole of the rest of it would’ve been like a Russian icon – silver and gold, so that I’ve sort of canonized them and put them into the church. That meat is meant to represent the fans, and the false teeth and the false eyes is the falseness of representing a god-like image as a golden calf.”
The third image shows George Harrison hammering a nail into a blissful John Lennon’s head. Unlike the illusion of fame, the musicians were as real and sturdy as a piece of wood. “John would actually have had a transparent film of wood grain over his face so that he looked like a wood block,” Whitaker later recalled. “There would also have been a horizon with the sky where the water should be and the water where the sky was.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, these grandiose concepts, the Mop Top icon was destined to remain incomplete. Reasons are unclear to this day, but only the “butcher” photo made it to the record label. “They didn’t have the other pictures – the keys to unlock it. So it was a cock-up, and I guess it upset a lot of people.” Whitaker lamented in Mojo.
As spring turned to summer, the label grew eager to release an album in advance of the Beatles’ North American tour that August. With the groundbreaking Revolver still far from finished, they improvised. It was common practice by Capitol to shave a few tracks off the Beatles’ British albums to create “new” LPs unique to the U.S. market. Both the Beatles and Capitol made serious money off of these bonus records, but the band resented the artistic interference.
The track list for Yesterday and Today consisted of songs elbowed from the abridged American versions of Help! and Rubber Soul, padded out with recent hit singles and three new Lennon compositions recorded for the Revolver sessions. When pushed to supply a cover, the Beatles’ promptly submitted the “butcher” photo. Today many fans insist this was a dig at Capitol for “butchering” their American albums by altering the track sequence. Whitaker categorically denied this, dismissing the claims as “rubbish, absolute nonsense.”
Label president Alan Livingston was apoplectic when the proposed album cover landed on his desk. “I looked at it and thought, ‘What in the hell is this? How can I put this out?'” he said in Mojo. “I showed it to our sales manager and a few other people and they turned green.” Livingston placed an emergency call to London and pleaded with the group to reconsider their choice. “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,'” he remembered. It’s debatable whether that meaning was clear to anybody outside of the Beatles themselves, but the cover marks their first overt protest of the Vietnam conflict.
While McCartney may have been the spokesman of the group, Lennon claimed to be the instigator. “I would say I was a lot of the force behind [the “butcher” cover] going out and trying to keep it out. I especially pushed for it to be an album cover, just to break the image,” he recalled in 1974. The shot had already been used without incident in England to promote the Beatles’ new single, “Paperback Writer,” but it was obvious that an album cover would attract more scrutiny. “There we were, supposed to be sort of angels. I wanted to show that we were really aware of life.”
Against his better judgment, Livingston ordered the sleeve into production. Three quarters of a million albums were printed, with a reported 60,000 copies sent to media contacts and retailers in advance of the June 15th release date. Predictably, most balked at the gory cover. “Word came back very fast that the dealers would not touch it. They would not put the album in their stores,” Livingston said. Lennon, however, remained defiant. “It’s as relevant as Vietnam,” he said during a press conference at the time. “If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover.”
Capitol Records found themselves in the unenviable position of either sitting on an album they couldn’t sell or pissing off their star attraction by changing the artwork. The Beatles could have flexed their formidable muscle, but to the surprise of all concerned, they backed down.
The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, was in the midst of renegotiating their American distribution contract. Though it’s hard to believe today, offers from other labels were not forthcoming. Industry insiders, including Columbia kingpin Clive Davis, felt the Beatles had peaked and weren’t willing to match Epstein’s figure. Rather than risk future negotiations with reps at Capitol, Epstein (who apparently loathed the photo) convinced the Beatles to substitute a new shot – also taken by Whitaker – showing the band crowded around an old fashioned steamer trunk. “They stuck that awful-looking picture of us looking just as deadbeat but supposed to be a happy-go-lucky foursome,” Lennon grumbled a decade later.
On June 14th, Capitol began a massive recall effort dubbed “Operation Retrieve.” They sent a letter to retailers and reviewers requesting that copies of the album be returned immediately. “The original cover, created in England, was intended as ‘pop art’ satire,” Livingston explained in the message. “However, a sampling of public opinion in the United States indicates that the cover design is subject to misinterpretation.” The strategy was largely successful, although a handful of stores jumped the gun and sold the illicit album for a single day.
Workers at Capitol’s four major pressing plants toiled through the weekend stuffing discs into new sleeves. According to an internal memo, 50,000 “butcher” sleeves were dumped into a landfill, where they were covered with layers of water, dirt, and trash. Rational minds ultimately hit upon a more efficient solution of pasting new cover slicks onto the existing sleeve. This saved time as well as money, and the inoffensive version of Yesterday and Today was in stores on June 20th, 1966, five days later than scheduled. The controversy didn’t dampen the public’s ardor for the Fab Four, and the album shot to Number One on the Billboard charts. Even so, the recall cost the label over $200,000, reportedly making it the only Beatles’ album to lose money for Capitol.
They could have saved themselves the trouble. News of the paste-over began circulating by word of mouth and in the underground press, and soon it became de rigueur to steam off the “trunk” cover to reveal the taboo picture beneath – a secret communication from the Beatles to their faithful. This forbidden fruit was made even sweeter by its scarcity, and the mythology of the album grew long after the band’s demise in 1970. “They made it into a really heavy collector’s item,” remembered Ringo Starr in the Beatles Anthology. “Which, I’m afraid to say, I don’t have a copy of, because in those days we never thought, ‘We’d better save this.'” But many did save it, giving rise to market that continues to thrive to this day.
Most sought after are the so-called “first state butchers,” original copies that missed the recall. Paste jobs, or “second state butchers,” are also extremely valuable. Entire websites exist offering tips on how to spot them, how much they’re worth, and how best to peel them into a “third state butcher.” It sounds ridiculous, but the money doesn’t lie. In February 2016, a shrink-wrapped “first state” sold for an astonishing $125,000. Even lowly “third states” regularly bring in thousand-dollar paydays.
The legacy of the “butcher” cover goes far beyond the financial. Whitaker was successful in his goal of humanizing the Beatles with his surreal photographs, but perhaps not in the way he expected. By publicly embracing the avant-garde and letting their freak flag fly, the band outgrew their role as the media’s golden children. Whitaker captured this crucial time when innocent fun gave way to something less cuddly: four rebellious young men questioning the status quo and finding their voices as risk-taking artists. The cover may be dark, ugly, even grotesque – but it was real.