The Butcher’s Cover: The Story of The Beatles’ Most Controversial Cover

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After spending the first half of their career being airbrushed for mass appeal, in 1966 The Beatles began to go haywire on a massive scale. First there was Lennon’s “greater than Jesus” quote. A few months later came the notorious – and quickly abortive – cover of the 1966 bric-a-brac album for the American market, Yesterday and today.

For the latter, Robert Whitaker can take both credit and criticism. As the Beatles’ favorite photographer since a chance meeting in Australia in 1964, the band trusted him and were confident enough to make bolder suggestions than the standard “four in a row” photo shoot when they arrived at his studio in Chelsea. March 25, 1966.

That day, when Lennon grew bored of straight poses and eager to push boundaries, Whitaker launched what became known as the “Butcher” blanket.

The Beatles - Then and Now 'Butcher' Cover

(Image credit: Capitol Records)

“It was my idea,” he said Gold mine magazine. “It was part of three pictures, and if the trilogy had come together, it would have made sense.”

collectively doubled A Sleepwalking Adventure, Whitaker’s trilogy was intended to convey commentary on fame and adulation; the concept that for all their fame, The Beatles were just as human as anyone else.

Seen out of context and without explanation, however, the butcher shot was nothing short of heartbreaking. Dressed in white lab coats and draped in raw meat, dismembered doll parts and false teeth, the four Beatles smile maniacally into the camera, creating a mood between jovial and macabre.

Whitaker has always maintained that he was not trying to offend, and also that he had no idea Capitol Records would use the shot.

The Beatles - Then and Now 'Trunk' cover

(Image credit: Capitol Records)

“I wanted to do a real experiment,” he said in 1966. “People will jump to the wrong conclusions that he’s sick, but it’s all about simplicity – connecting four very real people to something real.”

Quite how the butcher’s photo became the cover of Yesterday and today is not clear. It is believed that Lennon lobbied for it to be used. Reaction to the original batch of US pressings was searing outrage, prompting the label to immediately recall all 750,000 copies.

A more benign photo of the Beatles sitting in a packing trunk (above) was hastily pasted over the offending cover on existing copies, and the ‘butcher’ cover was never officially printed again , although counterfeit reproductions are readily available.

It has, like most banned album covers, become a collector’s item. “First State” covers, which feature the original artwork, without the replacement photo, regularly sell for several hundred dollars on Discogs, with mint-sealed copies reaching tens of thousands. The “second state” covers – which feature the pasted images – are also highly collectible. And in 2019 John Lennon’s own copy of the album, signed by him, Paul and Ringo, sold for £179,000 at auction.

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