The Beatles’ Notorious Album Cover

As one would expect with cultural icons, the Beatles, in addition to being the recipients of fame, fortune and adulation, also had to endure criticism, controversy and wild speculation. One of the more bizarre chapters of the Beatles’ extraordinary career took place in 1966, when the Fab Four found themselves muddled in an incident that centered over a cover of one of their albums. Although the “Beatles’ butcher cover” is now a legendary artifact from Beatlemania era, the real story behind it is clouded in mystery, and also saddled with bits of misinformation. But 46 years later, evidence seems to disprove the notion that the original cover of “Yesterday and Today” was submitted by the Beatles to protest the way Capital Records was “butchering” Beatles albums in order to create additional releases.

For those who weren’t around, or don’t remember, here is a short version of the “Beatles’ butcher cover” story. In the late spring of 1966, Capital Records, the American distributer for Beatles music, was set to release “Yesterday and Today,” a Beatles album comprised of tracks that Capital had peeled off of previous Beatles albums released in Great Britain. The cover of the album featured the Beatles, wearing butcher smocks, surrounded by pieces of raw meat along with dismembered torsos and heads of toy dolls. After printing hundreds of thousands of covers for the album, Capital began receiving negative feedback from deejays and store managers who had been given advance copies of “Yesterday and Today.” Sensing public relations disaster, Capital discarded the offensive cover, and replaced it with a rather unremarkable image of the four Beatles gathered around a steamer trunk. Unfortunately for Capital, enough people had seen the original cover to keep the issue alive (and some copies had leaked into public hands…more on that later), and so speculation developed as to why the butcher cover existed in the first place, and whether it was the Beatles themselves who chose the butcher photo to be used for the album’s cover. Obviously, officials at Capital Records were more than happy to let the Beatles take the blame for the cover debacle, and the Beatles unhappiness over Capital’s methods of distributing their music seemed a convenient motive. At this point, fact and legend seem to part ways.

 There is no question that Capital Records was guilty of tampering with the Beatles musical output, in order to squeeze out additional albums. The typical Beatles LP released in England would contain 14 songs, but Capital, by limiting the amount of tracks on the American albums to 12, and by using the omitted selections, along with unused material, was able produce extra Beatles albums. From the time the Beatles were introduced to America on the Ed Sullivan Show, to early 1966, Capital had released eight Beatles albums, while only four had been put out in Great Britain. In early 1966, the Beatles most recent LP, “Rubber Soul,” had been released in November of 1965, and their next project, “Revolver,” would not be ready until later in the year. Capital, however, had enough material set aside to release another Beatles album in June of 1966. “Yesterday and Today” was comprised of two tracks from the British version of the “Help” LP (“Yesterday”, “Act Naturally”), four songs from “Rubber Soul” (“Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” “Drive My Car,” and “If I Needed Someone,”), both sides of a single (“Day Tripper,” “We Can Work it Out”) and three songs from the upcoming “Revolver” (“Doctor Robert,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing”). There does not seem to be any evidence that the four Beatles were upset with Capital’s practices, and in fact John Lennon would make jokes during concerts about his lack of knowing which songs had been on which albums in the U.S.

On March 25, 1966, the Beatles gathered at a Chelsea studio for a photo session with photographer Robert Whitaker. The purpose of the shoot was primarily to produce a picture sleeve photo for the next Beatles single, but Whitaker convinced the group to pose for several provocative shots, among them the infamous butcher photo. All of the pictures were handed over to the Beatles’ publicity department, and it was from that inventory that Capital selected the cover photo for “Yesterday and Today.” The three months between the butcher photo being taken, and Capital deciding to use it for an album cover suggests the Beatles were not very engaged in the process.

Whoever was responsible for giving the green light for the butcher cover probably did not advance much further with Capital. Over 750, 000 copies of the cover had been produced by the time Capital decided to change it, and 30,000 already had the album placed inside, ready for market. The 750,000 album covers sans the record itself, were destroyed, while the 30,000 albums that included the disc had the new cover plastered over the old one, meaning that thousands of butcher covers did hit the market, though hidden behind another photo. Word got around fast that the Beatles butcher cover was in circulation, and for many years, it was a rare copy of “Yesterday and Today” that didn’t have a torn front cover, caused, no doubt, by someone curious to see if the butcher cover might be lurking underneath.

Notes: 1966 was a troublesome year for the Beatles. During a March interview with British reporter Maureen Cleave, John Lennon made the statement, “We’re more popular than Jesus,” which, when reported in Datebook five months later, caused a firestorm that resulted in pickets at Beatles’ concerts, organized burnings of Beatles albums, and plenty of backlash from religious groups. More problems developed during a concert tour of the Far East, when the Beatles failed to show up at a luncheon Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos had arranged for the group after they played a show in Manila. The Beatles were unaware they were expected at the Presidential Palace, but the entire country, convinced that their President and wife had been snubbed, made the Beatles stay in the Philippines quite uncomfortable. Near the end of their 1966 American tour, the weary Beatles decided to no longer do live concerts, and their August 29, 1966 show at Candlestick Park was their final live concert appearance.