The Beatles as butchers

- May 27, 2011

"...the album sported a cover photo of the guys in butcher coats, surrounded by slabs of raw meat and doll body parts..."

In mid-1966, Beatlemania was still going strong and the grooves on the Fab Four’s album Rubber Soul had barely cooled. Expectations were predictably high for the Beatles’ new LP titled Yesterday And Today, scheduled to debut in June. In contrast to the band’s cheery mop-top image, the album sported a cover photo of the guys in butcher coats, surrounded by slabs of raw meat and doll body parts. And they appear to be reveling in this bizarre scene!

Few people had an opportunity to see that cover at the time. Capitol Records had sent out review copies to disc jockeys and writers, prompting shock, outrage and protest. The company quickly scrapped plans for further production and hastily came up with new cover art. Fans will recall the subsequent innocuous photo of the Beatles around a steamer trunk.

The shocking cover photo, taken on March 25, 1966, was intended to be part of a series by photographer Bob Whitaker. His vision was based on the Yesterday And Today theme and would combine elements of satire, pop art and surrealism. The series was to be a commentary on the mass adulation of the band and the illusionary aspect of fame. To Whitaker, the cover photo was completely out of context and not even completed, as he had plans to add paint, jewels and other adornments. Plus, as he envisioned them, the photos would’ve been fairly small on the inside of a gatefold album cover.

After years of tame and tedious photo sessions, John, Paul, George and Ringo were certainly open to something new. As Brits, they’d been exposed to plenty of black comedy and likely understood Whitaker’s vision. Beatles manager Brian Epstein, ever conscious of their image, had reservations about these pictures, The guys themselves, however, were sold on the artist’s concept and approved Capitol Records’ use of the (unfinished) single shot. (The oft-repeated story that the butcher photo was done in response to the Beatles’ UK albums being sliced up for the US market is untrue.)

Following the wave of negative reactions, Capitol chose to replace the artwork but certainly didn’t want to waste money scrapping all the copies of what’s become known as the “Butcher Cover.” At first, employees were directed to remove the records for repackaging while discarding the covers. That job was soon modified to stripping the front slick and substituting the replacement art. Finally, time-pressured workers simply glued the new “Trunk” cover over the offending original.

Later on in the year, while on tour in the US, the Beatles responded to press queries about the Butcher Cover brouhaha. Paul McCartney, not yet a vegetarian, said “Very tasty meat.” More notable was John Lennon’s statement: “It’s as relevant as Vietnam. If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover.” The public never got its chance to prove him right or wrong.

The Butcher Cover is often referred to as the most common Beatles “rarity.” Consider how popular the group was and you gotta figure Capitol was ready to ship a boatload of them. It’s been estimated there were 750,000 copies manufactured with the original art. Despite those destroyed by Capitol, hundreds of thousands still existed, mostly underneath the revised cover slick. Undoubtedly, a lot of those were unwittingly mutilated or tossed through the years. At any given time, you’ll likely find dozens of copies on eBay, but the Beatles’ Yesterday And Today original remains a coveted collectible. Since it was only issued in the States, it holds a particular cachet among overseas Beatles fans.

As information regarding the Butcher Cover circulated, more people discovered they had it lurking beneath the trunk art. And of course everyone wants to see it, so various methods of peeling the top layer were attempted. Unfortunately this was done with varying degrees of success, often resulting in a butchered Butcher Cover. In a twist, some collectors suggest unpeeled covers will be rarer and command some sort of premium (certainly, at least, in respect to disastrous attempts at revealing the original).

In 1966, most albums were offered in stereo and monaural (aka mono) versions, with the stereo issues generally costing a dollar more. Also at that time, stereo records were not supposed to be played with a mono/hi fi needle. Since young people were the biggest consumers of Beatles records, the cheaper, mono equipment-compatable copies are what tended to sell. Of the original Butcher Covers manufactured, something like only ten percent are thought to have been stereo.

In the hierarchy of Butcher Cover collectability and pricing, top would be a sealed stereo original (aka “first state”—one that never had the trunk cover added). Just such a copy, once owned by Capitol Records President Alan Livingston, sold for over $35,000! There’s a whole matrix of versions from mono and stereo originals to paste overs and peeled-cover copies. With any copy, condition is a significant factor for pricing. With the continuing interest in Beatles’ collectibles, it’s no surprise there are counterfeit Butcher Covers.

Throughout my career as a record dealer, I've been hired to assess and peel a number of butcher covers. To do it properly is tedious and time consuming, but I've always gotten a kick out of revealing that controversial Beatles image. If you are fortunate enough to own this coveted artifact, just remember....don't butcher the Butcher Cover.