The "Butcher" Cover: Concept and History

Contributors: saki@evolution.bchs.uh.edu
              Euan MacKenzie
              Frank Daniels

Last Update: 8 August 1995

Copyright 1995---no unauthorized use permitted

Basically, the "butcher" photo was configured as part of a tripartite photo arrangement, suggested by John Lennon and photographed by Bob Whitaker, illustrating several surrealistic images of the Fabs.

The Beatles used the "butcher" photo to illustrate an advertising campaign for the single release of "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" in England, though it's unclear how the photo was meant to sell the fine points of the song.

Capitol Records planned to issue an LP called "Yesterday...and Today", a semi compilation of "Revolver" tunes and several other scattered numbers. For its cover, EMI sent (at whose request no one knows) the photo now known a the butcher cover. Capitol pressed the LP, packaged it, and shipped about 200,000 to 400,000 copies to reviewers and distributors.

Those receiving advance copies were surprised and aghast, suggesting that someone at Capitol had lost their sense of propriety, and Capitol recalled the LPs. To save the sleeves that had already been printed, Capitol substituted a photo of the Beatles sitting and standing around an open packing trunk, which was pasted over existing butcher covers.

These paste-over covers could be carefully peeled by patient individuals, with mixed success (depending upon the glue used to fix them). Unpeeled covers (called "first state" by collectors) not subject to the recall have become extremely valuable.

The original photo was not taken to protest Capitol's alleged "butchery" of their British LPs, though this is a popular urban legend. Thanks to Euan MacKenzie, this is the story of the photographer's artistic concept that gave rise to the photo:

The 'butcher' picture was taken by Bob Whitaker as part of a photo session which he intended to be used in a project entitle 'A Somnambulant Adventure'. The picture was used out of context and without Whitaker's consent (this mistake it seems was down to Brian Epstein).

'A Somnambulant Adventure' would have been in gatefold form and the cover shot would have been the 'butcher' picture ... however it would have been altered. The image itself would have been much smaller with the background changed to gold. Gold, silver and jewels would have been interspersed with the Beatles, the dolls and meat. The boys would have had halos above their heads, and the edges of the picture would have had the colour of the rainbow.

Inside there would have been other photos taken at the same session. These were of:

  1. George hammering nails into John's head.
  2. Paul and George with their heads in a canary cage.
  3. John holding a cardboard box with '2,000,000' written on the side above Ringo's head.
  4. The 4 beatles holding sausages in front of a little girl.

These pictures would have been 'touched up' in similar ways to the front cover.

Why? Apparently Bob Whitaker wanted to represent the relationships between birth, life and death!

Whitaker got the idea for the 'butcher' picture from a German artist of the 1930's, Hans Bellmer, who had pictures of dismembered dolls in one of his books, 'Die Puppe'.

The following is a reprint from an article in Goldmine magazine, Nov. 15, 1991, concerning Beatles' photographer Bob Whitaker. Thanks to Frank Daniels for uploading it, and thanks to Goldmine for conducting it.

GM= Goldmine; W = Whitaker

GM: You photographed one of the best known photos of the Beatles, the one
originally used on the cover of their American album called Yesterday and Today, which Capitol Records quickly withdrew and replaced with one it found less offensive. The original album jacket has come to be called the "butcher cover" among collectors.

W: Beastly title.

GM: Does it have a real title?

W: It's in fact called "A Somnambulant Adventure."

GM: How did that photo, featuring the Beatles among slabs of meat and
decapitated dolls, come about? Was it your idea or the Beatles'?

W: 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, jeweled. Then there are two other pictures that are in the book [The Unseen Beatles. Collins Publishers, San Francisco, 1991], but not in color.

GM: It ended up being a formal portrait shot, with a white background.

W: Yeah, well in those days one would make a print and start splashing the gilt-edged paint around. That was what was going to happen; the whole thing was going to go into an icon. But it got snatched away and eventually was pretty well taken out of context. Why is this photo something that would be of interest to Goldmine?

GM: Because the album that it was used on was pulled from the market almost immediately and another photo was pasted over it. The cover with the meat and dolls has subsequently become one of the most valuable Beatles collectibles, worth several thousand dollars.

W: Is it really? I have the original printers' proofs of it. Plus the transparencies. That does astound me, and having really had little to do with the memorabilia of 25 years ago, I'm beginning to find all sorts of things out.

GM: How did you prepare for the shoot?

W: 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.

GM: 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.

W: 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?

I had toured quite a lot of the world with them by then and I was continually amused and amazed by the public adoration of four people who were no more nor less than THEY were as people. 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 other side of the triptych should have been George Harrison banging nails into John's head. Which just goes to show that they're as solid, or an illusion, as much as that of a piece of wood. Why worship?

Then there was something...at some stage John said they were more popular than Jesus, which I think offended an enormous number of people. John and I had had a conversation about that particular statement and how upset everybody was at it, as a statement. But it was possibly, in context, perfectly correct at the time. I think he probably got it slightly wrong.

That's how it all came about. I think we were all really fed up at taking what one had hoped would be designer-friendly publicity pictures. It gave me an enormous chance to continue putting my own thoughts on the paper. I just happened to have four pretty amazing guys to carry on with it. It was a good fun day.

GM: Were you aware when you shot it that Capitol Records was going to use it as a record cover?

W: No.

GM: Were you upset when they did and then when they pulled it and replaced it with another photo?

W: 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 [the "butchering" of the Beatles' records] in this country [the U.S.].

GM: It caused something of an outrage in this country.

W: Yes (laughs). If it had been taken with a bit of tongue-in-cheek then it might have perhaps come around in a more fruitful and fun way. I think even Time magazine wrote it up as a mistake the Beatles had made. But then over here it was written up as the only true pop-art cover ever to have been made. (Thanks to Goldmine for the above interview!)

A brief article on peeling a butcher cover

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