This is a picture of The Beatles that I bet many of you haven’t seen. It’s the original concept for what became the infamous butcher cover for the initial pressings of the US LP “Yesterday and Today.” The idea was to give the impression that the woman was being disemboweled. Pleasant, eh?
The Beatles hated the way Capitol in America put out their records, and they felt their material was being butchered. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was the first LP that was released exactly as it was in the UK. Well, almost. It was missing the inner groove at the end of side 2
The story of the "butcher cover" has become the stuff of rock legend. Photographer Robert Whitaker was the Beatles' photographer between 1964 and 1966 and came up with the idea for this photo shoot. The Beatles were at the height of their fame and Whitaker bore witness to the hordes of screaming fans and prostrating females, and he wanted to shoot a concept image referencing the celebrity idolatry. Whitaker was also an admirerer of Salvador Dali and surrealism, which influenced his vision. The Beatles were game for the shoot, so Whitaker ran around to butcher shops to find the meat and then had to find the baby dolls and dismember them. "It was a lot of work.''
The photo wasn't originally intended for an album cover. It was meant to be part of a triptych, with the above image the last in the series. The plan was to doctor the image to include halos over the Beatles' heads, referencing religious iconography. Surprisingly, the image landed on the cover of the Capitol Records release of Yesterday and Today. Capitol ended up recalling the cover; they were feeling especially skittish in the wake of John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment.
A new cover for the album was produced and many of the "butcher covers" were destroyed. However, the record company eventually decided it would be cheaper to paste the new cover photo over the old one and once this leaked to the public, fans tried to steam the new cover off to see if the "butcher cover" was underneath. Needless to say, the original "butcher cover" has become a valuable collectable item.
The Real Butcher conceptWhitaker had the idea of creating a satirical commentary on The Beatles' fame, inspired by the German surrealist Hans Bellmer's images of dismembered doll and mannequin parts.
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 Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. He comes across people worshipping a golden calf. All over the world I'd watched people worshiping 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.
Q: How did that photo, featuring the Beatles among slabs of meat and decapitated dolls, come about? Was it your idea or the Beatles'?
Robert Whitaker: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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?
Q: Were you aware when you shot it that Capitol Records was going to use it as a record cover?
Q: 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.
Goldmine magazine, 15 November 1991
The 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 triptych's centre panel is the image now known as the 'butcher' photograph, and shows The Beatles dressed in butchers' white coats, surrounded by slabs of meat and doll parts.
The final panel was an image of George Harrison standing behind a seated John Lennon, holding a hammer as if he was driving nails into Lennon's head. This was intended to underline that The Beatles were real and substantial, not idols to worship.
The butcher photograph was used in advertisements for Paperback Writer in the British music press before it appeared on the cover of the Capitol Records compilation Yesterday... And Today.
Capitol pressed the cover in early June 1966, but upon its release that month it was swiftly recalled after an outcry from record retailers. Nervous after Lennon's comments about The Beatles being "more popular than Jesus", the label issued letters of apology and hastily issued the album with a replacement cover, also taken by Whitaker.
Eventually it was decided that it would be cheaper to paste the new cover shot over the withdrawn butcher sleeves. Unpeeled copies are now highly sought-after by collectors; however, the most valuable are the original 'first state' versions, particularly the stereo pressings.
I am going to devote a new section to this LP cover with all the pictures taken at the session, its an interesting concept album, as it was only just before the Revolver and the 'first' concept album of Sgt Peppers.