The "Butcher" Cover: Concept and History

              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'.

Goldmine magazine conducted an interview with Robert Whitaker, published in their Nov. 15, 1991 issue. Relevant excerpts are included. We recommend you search for the original issue for the complete interview. (On "Yesterday and Today" or "The Butcher Cover")

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: 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?


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.].

A brief article on peeling a butcher cover

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