Subversive Art #3:
'The Butcher Cover'
(by Robert Whitaker)
Long thought erroneously to have been an act of protest by The Beatles toward the policy enacted by Capitol Records, the group's American distributor, of carving up their British LPs, mixing the leftover recordings with singles, B-sides and EP tracks, then tossing the results out onto the market as carelessly as possible, this cover of Capitol release T/ST 2553, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, was in fact an unfinished, semi-surrealist work by Australian photographer Robert Whitaker, hired in 1964 by Brian Epstein to act in part-time capacity as Court Photographer to the Fab Four; accompanying them on tour, in the studio, and in arranged photo sessions like this one, which was conducted on March 25, 1966.
He conceived this photo, provisionally entitled A Somnambulant Adventure, as part of an iconic triptych meant to convey the group's disgust at, in his words, "taking what one had hoped would be designer-friendly publicity pictures", and also as "a personal comment on the mass adulation of the group and the illusory nature of stardom". Toward that end, Whitaker's original intention was to augment this image with a golden background and optically-generated halos 'round the Mop Tops' heads. But before these finishing touches could be rendered, EMI siezed upon it . . . as they had siezed upon all Beatles-related product since the group had proven themselves a goldmine for whoever owned a piece of them . . . and started using it as Publicity fodder; first for print ads promoting the group's Paperback Writer single, then for a cover of Disc magazine that Spring. Soon after, Capitol Records in the U.S. began putting together one of their hodgepodge LPs of Beatle recordings and someone in the Art Department got the bright idea of using this somewhat hair-raising photo for its cover.
After the LP came off the presses and advance promotional copies were issued to radio stations and regional sales executives around the country for its projected release in June, people in the business were absolutely . . . aghast. I mean, imagine it: disc jockeys . . . the saddest, most jaded human beings on earth; the very lowest rung on the show business ladder . . . finding occasion for real outrage. Who would have thought such a thing possible? For them, for everyone who saw the cover initially, it was hard to credit this extravagant vision of The Beatles, the Fab Four, the Mop Tops, England's Newest Sensation of just three years prior . . . these four cheeky, chirpy lads who'd cavorted their way across the world's cinemas in two Richard Lester movies in as many years (one a masterpiece, the other an incoherent, if well-made, mess) and created music that sent the world into a state of excitement from which many did not emerge . . . sitting there wearing butcher's smocks like a pack of refugee thugs from Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, grinning and leering at the camera with an abandon no one would have though possible, and draped in a veritable shower of rancid meat, false teeth, glass eyeballs and dismembered baby doll parts, as though it were the most natural environment in the world for a Pop group!!
When executives at Capitol started getting word of the complaints this bizarre and gruesome Pop Art image of human excess was receiving at this stage of the LP's release (remember, the public . . . which had been slowly but steadily tiring of The Beatles over the last year; in fact, very few of the dates on their tour of the U.S. that year had been Sold Out . . . hadn't even seen the thing yet), they rapidly elected to withdraw the sleeve, substitute a much more benign image in its place (by the same photographer), and no doubt fire everyone in the Art Department who had the ghost of a hand in this near-debacle. Of course, since Capitol was one of those record companies which prided itself on always saving its own money whenever possible (just ask Frank Sinatra), they weren't about scrap the 750,000 units they'd called back, not when they could just slap the new cover over them and send them back out on June 15, 1966. Which is how the public caught wind of what finally came to be known as The Butcher Cover. Imagine that first wave of young Beatlemaniacs, though their numbers had started to dwindle by the summer of 1966, examining their copy of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and noticing gradually that something was . . . not right . . . with the cover. As I say, imagine them picking away at the corners ever so carefully (or not) until they saw something else was behind it, eventually resorting to common steam to peel it off, only to reveal that . . . image.
Though its status as memorabilia overshadows it in the public imagination, Robert Whitaker's 1966 photograph of The Beatles exulting in a state of Surrealist squalor was a watershed moment in the annals of Pop iconography. Some of the kids who managed to peel the new cover off were revolted or even horrified by what lay underneath (as they would be in the face of all such revelation throughout their lives), but others . . . the ones who, without their ever realizing it consciously, were searching for the jolt this image so powerfully delivered in order to wake them up and sharpen their vision . . . were undoubtedly charmed.
They probably thought it was the coolest thing they had ever seen in their lives.