The Beatles decided to use this photograph for their Yesterday and Today album cover.
The four normally squeaky clean Beatles had dressed in smocks resembling butcher’s garb with dismembered dolls and pieces of meat dripping crimson. It was supposed to be a bit of fun. The Beatles “Butcher cover” ended up a big fiasco.
Maybe today this cover would not even raise an eyebrow. But in 1966 this album cover shocked the music industry.
Billboard Magazine June 25, 1966 ‘Salesman of the various Capitol records Distributing Corp’s branches are recuperating from a busy weekend spent stripping the latest Beatles album, “The Beatles Yesterday And Today’. Some 750,000 albums, which were pressed, packaged and shipped to the factory branches, have been recalled for repackaging. Reason for the recall is the cover art, which shows the Beatles in white smocks surrounded by what appears to be dismembered baby dolls and butcher shop cuts of meat. According to some reliable reports, none of these albums have reached dealer shelves, although some have been received by reviewers and rack jobbers. Capitol has a new cover printed, showing four nearly neatly dressed Beatles inside and draped around a trunk. Alan W. Livingstone, president of Capitol Records, explained the cover recall: “The original cover in England was intended as ‘pop art satire’. However, a sampling of public opinion in the United States indicates that the cover design is subject to interpretation. For this reason, and to avoid any possible controversy, or undeserved harm to the Beatles’ image or reputation, Capitol has chosen to withdraw the LP and substitute a more generally acceptable design. Meanwhile, Capitol is making a painstaking effort to recall the covers to make sure they are destroyed. Reviewers are requested to return the cover to Capitol, and dealers who have received streamers are asked to hold them until a salesman calls.
The butcher cover was and still is one of the most controversial record covers ever produced. So what is the story behind it?
Photographer Robert Whitaker had worked with the Beatles previously so he was no stranger to having them before his lens.
On March 25, 1966 Whitaker took a series of promotional photographs of the Beatles. Instead of the typical boring shoot, Whitaker had the Beatles doing wacky things with props in unconventional poses.
Whitaker posed the band holding sausages. George Harrison had his head placed in a birdcage. George held a hammer over John Lennon’s head while holding several large nails against Lennon’s head.
Whitaker also had the band play with dolls that were broken up into pieces. Then the Beatles were placed in smocks surrounded by pieces of raw meat.
The broken dolls combined with the raw meat was what became known as the butcher cover. They did several permutations of this shot.
The sort of silliness appealed to the Beatles. Later that day, Whitaker also shot the group in somewhat more conventional poses with the Beatles posed around an ocean steamer luggage trunk.
Soon after the photo shoot, the Beatles were informed that Yesterday and Today would be the next Beatles album released America by Capitol Records. The Beatles management were asked to provide some suggestions for the LP cover. Whitaker’s new photos of the Beatles were chosen. Capitol executives wanted to use one of Whitaker’s steamer trunk photos for the album’s cover. But John Lennon preferred the butcher shots. Beatles manager Brian Epstein conveyed Lennon’s preference to Capitol and the artwork.
Miraculously, Capitol obliged and 750,000 copies of Yesterday and Today were pressed and set to be issued with the butcher cover.
The album was scheduled to go on sale June 15th, 1966. Retailers and hundreds of radio station reviewers received copies before the release date. Many were aghast and told the reps at Capitol that the cover was in extremely bad taste. Capitol reconsidered putting out the record as is and put the release on hold. But the record had been shipped to some stores in preparation for the official release date. Contrary to Billboard magazine’s article where they stated that no copies had been sold to the public, a number of the albums made it into retailers record bins. A few large chain stores like Korvettes and Sears placed the Beatles butcher cover album out for sale before the official on sale date and recall.
Capitol discarded the butcher cover asking that any retailer who received it to return it. At breakneck speed Capitol produced a new album cover featuring the steamer trunk photo and placed the vinyl in the freshly made covers. But Capitol had also decided to save some money by merely pasting a new cover over the original butcher cover. By June 20th the newly printed album covers were put on sale. Beatles fans discovered that Capitol skimped on a handful of records and began peeling the pasted cover off to reveal the butcher cover. It became an art itself to remove the steamer cover without damaging the butcher cover.
It is unknown how many of the butcher album cover were sold to the public before the recall. Maybe it was a few hundred or a few thousand. But if you are fortunate enough to have bought a copy and preserved it in pristine condition you are very lucky and fortunate.
Excellent condition copies can sell for $5,000 to $70,000 for a first state copy (unpeeled original release). The price depends upon many factors including condition, whether the LP is stereo or mono and if it is open or still sealed.
Experts warn, if you find an old copy of Yesterday and Today that has the original butcher cover underneath the pasted new cover – do not try and peel it yourself. If you decide you want to have a butcher cover there are professionals who can peel the trunk cover without ruining the butcher over.