50 Years Ago: The Beatles Shoot the Infamous ‘Butcher’ Cover
On March 25, 1966, photographer Bob Whitaker produced one of the most controversial images in rock history, the infamous “butcher” cover for the Beatles‘ Yesterday and Today album. The LP, initially released only in the U.S. and Canada, was a compilation of singles and tracks from U.K. albums. Negative reaction to the image of the Fab Four in white coats surrounded by dismembered doll parts and raw meat led Capitol Records to immediately pull the LP from the shelves and replace the cover.
“It was inspired by our boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session and another Beatles thing,” John Lennon told Playboy. “We were sick to death of it.”
“We’d done a few sessions with Bob before this, and he knew our personalities: he knew we liked black humor and sick jokes,” Paul McCartney recalled in Anthology. “And he said, ‘I’ve had 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.”
“The photographer was a bit of a surrealist and he brought along all these babies and pieces of meat and doctors’ coats, so we really got into it,” Lennon told WNEW-FM. “And that’s how we felt – ‘Yeah!'”
Whitaker, who died in 2011, was influenced by German surrealist Hans Bellmer, who used dismembered doll and mannequin parts in his artwork. Whitaker was also inspired by surrealist Meret Oppenheim’s “Object” – a cup, saucer and spoon covered in fur.
The idea for the photo came to Whitaker in a dream. The butcher photo was to be one of three images, a triptych titled “A Somnambulant Adventure.” The photos would be a commentary on the Beatles’ fame and adulation. “All over the world I’d watched people worshipping like idols, like gods, four Beatles,” Whitaker is quoted on his website. “To me they were just stock standard normal people. But this emotion that fans poured on them made me wonder where Christianity was heading.”
Even by ’60s standards, Whitaker’s idea was bizarre. In the first image a woman faces the Beatles, her back to the camera and hands up in surprise. The band members hold a string of sausages that represents an umbilical cord. This demonstrated that the Beatles were not gods; they were born the old-fashioned way. The second was the butcher photo; its meat and doll parts signified that the Beatles were flesh and blood.
Whitaker intended the images to resemble centuries-old religious paintings. He planned to put halos with precious stones around the Beatles’ heads to finish the piece but didn’t get the chance before the photos were sent to Capitol.
“I thought it was gross, and I also thought it was stupid,” Harrison said in Anthology. “Sometimes we all did stupid things, thinking it was cool and hip when it was naïve and dumb; and that was one of them.”
The butcher photo appeared in the British press to promote the singles “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” before Capitol used the image for the Yesterday and Today cover. Capitol released tens of thousands of copies of the LP – the exact number isn’t known – to stores and radio stations in June 1966. Negative reaction from record distributors and the media was swift. Capitol immediately recalled the albums.
Capitol began to destroy all the copies of the LP. But to save money, the label decided instead to paste new images over the offensive covers. The replacement photo, also taken by Whitaker, showed the Beatles posed around an open steamer trunk.
The pasted-over albums became instant collector’s items. Fans tried to steam off the new covers with varying degrees of success. In 2016, Heritage Auctions set a world record when it sold a sealed copy of the butcher cover for $125,000.
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