Who Butchered the Beatles?
When Capitol Records created a new Beatles album by assembling various leftover tracks and releasing them as a record entitled Yesterday And Today on 15 June 1966, the phenomenon was nothing new. In the eighteen-month period between January 1964 and June 1966, Capitol Records (and the United Artists record label) had managed to release nearly twice as many Beatles albums in America as had been issued by Britain's EMI Parlophone, the Beatles' home label. Capitol (and UA) had accomplished this featthrough a variety of means: issuing fewer songs per album (typically 11, as opposed to 14 on UK LPs), adding tracks released as singles (typically not included on UK albums), and padding film soundtracks with instrumental versions of songs (see Notes on Capitol's Beatles releases for details).

The Yesterday And Today album was a typical example of this practice, comprising songs excised from the American versions of three other Beatles LPs, plus both sides of an earlier Butcher cover 45. What was not typical of this album, however, was its cover. Instead of the usual photos of four happy, smiling moptops, this album's cover offered something quite different indeed: the Beatles, sickly, sadistic leers on their faces, dressed in butchers' smocks adorned with slabs of raw red meat, glass eyeballs, false teeth, and nude, cigarette-burnt decapitated dolls. When disk jockeys and others who had received advance copies of the album began to complain about its gruesome sleeve, Capitol quickly withdrew the record. All promotional material for the album was destroyed, and it was reissued five days later with a substitute cover photograph of the Beatles gathered a steamer trunk. As most every casual Beatle fan knows, many of the 750,000 or so original "butcher cover" sleeves were sent back into record stores with a new covers pasted over the old ones, and thousands of unwitting record buyers ended up purchasing albums whose covers could be peeled or steamed off to create what would become one of most sought-after pieces of Beatles memorabilia.

What possessed the Beatles to create such a hideous, repulsive album cover? Over the years, the legend developed that the Beatles, tired of the way Capitol Records had been cutting up and rearranging their albums for the American market, deliberately planned the grotesque "butcher cover" as a means of protesting Capitol's "butchery" of their music. The truth is, however, that the ghastly photograph featured on the Yesterday And Today sleeve was not intended as a protest against Capitol Records by the Beatles In fact, not only was the "butcher photo" never intended to be used as an album cover, it wasn't even the Beatles' idea. A single photograph from an earlier photo session, taken for entirely different reasons, was used -- unfinished and out of context -- on the sleeve of Capitol's new Beatles album.

To understand why this tale of a Beatles protest against Capitol Records was believable, we must look at the way their music had been treated by American record companies up until then. Despite the fact that Capitol Records and the Beatles' Parlophone label were both owned by the same parent company (EMI), the executives at Capitol were decidedly uninterested in Beatles music from the start. After the Beatles recorded the single "Please Please Me" in late 1962, their producer, George Martin, sent a copy of the record to Jay Livingstone, Capitol's senior executive in New York. Livingstone refused the single, maintaining that Capitol didn't think the Beatles would "do anything" in the American market. After Livingstone and Capitol also declined to issue the Beatles' next single ("From Me To You"), Martin had no choice but to search for some other American label willing to release the discs, even though that meant shopping the records around to EMI's competitors. Two weeks after the UK release of the "Please Please Me" single in January 1963, Vee Jay Records, a small Chicago-based label, signed an agreement to distribute both singles, along with the Beatles' first LP (Please Please Me,, retitled Introducing The Beatles by Vee Jay) in America. Even though all three of these Beatles records had topped the British charts, none of the Vee Jay releases sold very well in America: "From Me To You" fared the best, briefly managing to rise to #116 on the Billboard charts. Even when the Beatles scored their third consecutive #1 single in Britain, Capitol still didn't think the Beatles had any prospects in the U.S., so (because of a licensing dispute with Vee Jay) "She Loves You" was given to an even smaller New York label, Swan Records. Not until November of 1963, when Beatles manager Brian Epstein brought a demo of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to Brown Meggs, Capitol's Director of Eastern Operations, did Capitol Records agree to release a Beatles record in America.

In the crushing success that followed the American release of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and the Beatles' appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Capitol Records made up for lost time by issuing every piece of Beatles music they could get their hands on. Despite their lack of prescience in rejecting the Beatles' music in the first place, Capitol still insisted on packaging Beatles records the way they thought would best appeal (and sell records) to the American pop music market. Thus began Capitol Records' "multilation" of Beatles albums.

The first Beatles album released in America by Capitol Records was actually the Beatles' second British LP, With The Beatles. Renamed Meet The Beatles! by Capitol, it was stripped of five cover versions of songs first popularized by US Motown artists out of Capitol's fear that the songs would sound old to American audiences. To make up for the deletions, Capitol added the hit single "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to the album, along with its British and American B-sides. Three months later, the five unissued cover versions from With The Beatles were combined with "She Loves You" (now that the Swan 45 was topping the charts), three earlier B-sides, and two new tracks taken from a British EP release to create another record for the American market, misnamed The Beatles' Second Album. Thus did Capitol manage to transform one UK Beatles LP into two American Beatles albums, a practice they would continue for the next few years.

The Beatles' third LP was A Hard Day's Night. In the UK, this album included all the songs from the movie of the same name, along with a second side of songs which did not appear in the film. In America, A Hard Day's Night was issued as a soundtrack album by United Artists (legend has it that a skeptical UA only agreed to distribute the Beatles' movie in order to obtain the rights to the soundtrack), and it contained only the eight songs actually used in the film, filled out with four instrumental versions performed by George Martin & Orchestra (plus one additional song that could not be fit into the film). A month later, Capitol Records also issued several songs from A Hard Day's Night, adding some of the non-film songs, the other two tracks from the aformentioned British EP, and the German language version of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to produce yet another American LP (once again appropriately misnamed), Something New. Even though two American albums had again been produced from one British LP, Capitol wasn't finished milking the American market. Not even the temporary lack of new Beatles material could slow Capitol down: in November of 1964 they released The Beatles Story, a double album compiled from interviews and song snippets. (The running time of the two-LP set totalled less than 50 minutes, which meant the entire double album could easily have fit on a single record. American teenagers had lots of discretionary income in those days, though, and Capitol meant to acquire as much of it for themselves as they could.) Four months later, Capitol placed yet another album on the market by repackaging the Beatles' first album (the one Vee Jay had issued after Capitol originally turned it down) as The Early Beatles. (Even then, it still had three fewer songs than the original British LP.)

It was business as usual for Capitol when the Beatles produced their fourth LP in late 1964, Beatles For Sale. (Under the circumstances, this was one album title Capitol should have retained.) Instead, Capitol's offering for the 1964 Christmas season was yet another misnamed album, Beatles '65, which was really eight of the fourteen tracks from the British Beatles For Sale album, with both sides of the Beatles' latest single and one leftover track from A Hard Day's Night thrown in for good measure. (All the tracks had been recorded and released in 1964, but Capitol didn't issue the album in the U.S. until ten days before Christmas, which meant that it had to be named Beatles '65 to ensure that it didn't seem out-of-date once the Christmas season buying rush was over.)

Up to this point (early 1965), Capitol's marketing greed in reshuffling already-recorded Beatles material into different record configurations had only impacted the American consumer. It was at this point, however, that Capitol's actions began to affect the Beatles' creative output as well. Not content that the Beatles' four British LPs had already been turned into six American albums, Capitol was itching to get yet another Beatles record on the market by early summer; however, the Beatles' next project, the film Help! and its accompanying LP, was months from completion. All Capitol had in the can was the six tracks from Beatles For Sale that they had left off its American counterpart, Beatles '65. Even by Capitol's meager standards, this wasn't nearly enough to justify an LP release. Gutting songs from the upcoming Help! soundtrack was out of the question, so Capitol was faced with a dilemma. Capitol's solution was to use the B-side of the Beatles' latest single, as well as a couple of songs that had already been recorded for the forthcoming Help! LP but were not slated to be used in the film. Still, Capitol now only had nine tracks, and they needed at least a couple more to round out the album. So, at Capitol's request, the Beatles were rushed from Cliveden in Berkshire (where they were filming scenes for Help!) back to London for a quickie recording session in order to produce two more tracks to fill out Capitol's new release. With no new material at hand, the Beatles recorded lackluster versions of two Larry Williams oldies ("Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "Bad Boy") to satisfy Capitol's requirements. Capitol rushed the album to market a month later, marking the first time that new Beatles material was released in the U.S. before it appeared in Britain. (Employing their usual lack of imagination and knack for misleading album titles, Capitol called the album Beatles VI.) At this point, the Beatles themselves could no longer keep track of which songs had appeared on what albums in America. A tape of the Beatles' August 1965 performance in Houston reveals John Lennon's attempt to introduce the song "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" by naming the LP on which it appeared: "I think the album's called Beatles . . . uh, '5' or '65' or '98' or something."

When the Beatles' second film, Help!, was released in the summer of 1965, the accompanying British LP once again included one side of songs used in the film, and another side of non-film songs. And once again, the soundtrack album issued in America (by Capitol this time, not United Artists) included only the seven songs used in the film, plus six more instrumental tracks. Not until December of 1965 did EMI and Capitol finally release the same Beatles album (Rubber Soul) on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time and with the same title. Even then, though, the two versions of the record were not the same. Four tracks were deleted from the British LP in its American incarnation (the more commercial songs were withheld as potential singles), and two leftover songs from the British Help! LP were added.

Since the full force of Beatlemania hit America in early 1964, Capitol Records, thanks to their ongoing rearrangement of Beatles LPs, had never gone as long as four months without releasing some sort of new Beatles product. In early 1966, therefore, Capitol had another problem on their hands: Their last release had been the previous December's Rubber Soul album, but since the Beatles were now putting more time and deliberation into their studio work, another LP wouldn't be ready until at least late summer. Capitol Records therefore faced the prospect of going a whole eight months with no new Beatles product to release, more than twice their previous longest interval. Capitol did have six tracks siphoned off the last two Beatles albums in reserve, along with both sides of the Beatles' previous single, but eight songs still weren't enough to satisy even Capitol's minimal standards for an album release. It was then that Capitol took the action that supposedly enraged the Beatles to the point of protest: they gutted the Beatles' unfinished Revolver album by rushing three of the completed tracks to America to fill out the album they issued under the title Yesterday and Today on 15 June 1966. This new release was supposedly seen by the Beatles as the ultimate in Capitol's butchery of their albums, consisting of tracks amputated from three different Beatles LPs (one of which wasn't even finished), plus both sides of their previous single. As producer George Martin later elaborated, Rubber Soul had been the first album to present a new, growing Beatles to the world. For the first time the music world began to think of albums as works of art, as complete entities, not just packages of individual songs. Not only had Capitol deleted four key tracks from the U.S. version of Rubber Soul, they had now siphoned off three vital songs from a work still in progress. In the years that followed, the rumor was born that the original Yesterday and Today "butcher cover" was a protest against the album itself, instigated by a group weary of seeing LPs conceptualized as integrated works of art cut up at the whim of an American record company. The truth was quite different, however.

Circumstantial evidence alone tends to indicate that the Beatles did not plan the butcher cover as a protest over Capitol's handling of their music. The photo session that produced the original Yesterday and Today cover shot took place on 25 March 1966. As Capitol did not yet have a sufficient number of tracks on hand for a new album at that time (and the three songs eventually used to fill out the album were not recorded until a month later), it is doubtful that they had any definite release plans at that point. Even if they did, it is extremely unlikely that the Beatles -- notoriously ignorant of business affairs, especially where EMI's American subsidiary Capitol Records was concerned -- were aware of them. Moreover, the butcher photos appeared in several places before the Yesterday and Today was released: in print ads for the "Paperback Writer" single, in the promotional videos made for the songs "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" (later shown on The Ed Sullivan Show), and on the cover of Disc magazine. If the Beatles had truly intended the photo as a protest, why dilute its impact by using it elsewhere? And why use it to promote one of their own UK single releases? If the Beatles were genuinely upset with the way Capitol Records was handling their music, why didn't they simply speak up about it, as they already had about other more controversial topics)? Even when the original Yesterday and Today album was recalled and re-released with a new cover, the Beatles said scarcely a word about it. There were no indignant howls of protest from the Beatles, no railing against Capitol Records and its policies. In fact, the Beatles' only public statement on the matter seems to be this snippet from an article about them in the 25 June 1966 edition of Melody Maker:

The Beatles thought that the furor in America over their LP cover was "a bit soft," to quote Paul.

"We were asked to do the picture with some meat and a broken doll," said Paul. "It was just a picture. It didn't mean anything. All this means is that we're being a bit more careful about the sort of picture we do. I liked it myself."

John Lennon gave a grin and roared: "Anyway, it's as relevant as Vietnam!"

Much more than circumstantial evidence exists in this case, however. The notion that the butcher cover was an original idea conceived by the Beatles -- John Lennon in particular -- has generally been taken for granted. Although the Beatles were certainly keen on the idea, and willing participants in the session that produced the bizarre photographs, the man who actually came up with concept behind the pictures was photographer Robert Whitaker. Whitaker, who ran a photographic studio in Melbourne, Australia, accompanied a journalist friend to an interview with Beatles manager Brian Epstein during the the group's trip to Australia in June of 1964. Whitaker shot photos of Epstein during the interview; when Brian saw the resulting prints, he was so impressed with the young photographer's work that he asked Whitaker to come work for him. Whitaker accepted the job three months later, and he spent the next few years traveling with the Beatles and shooting them on their tours, in the recording studio, during private moments, and in arranged photo sessions. (Robert Whitaker was also responsible for the steamer trunk photo that replaced the "butcher cover" on the Yesterday and Today, as well as the photograph that appeared on the back of the Revolver sleeve.

In a 1991 interview with Goldmine magazine, Whitaker put to rest any notion that the butcher cover was dreamed up by the Beatles as a way of protesting Capitol Records' handling of their albums:

Q: How did that photo, featuring the Beatles among slabs of meat and decapitated dolls, come about? Was it your idea or the Beatles'?

A: It was mine. Absolutely.

Q: 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.

A: Rubbish, absolute nonsense.

Q: Were you aware when you shot it that Capitol Records was going to use it as an album cover?

A: No.

What, then, was the point behind the photograph? As Whitaker explains it, the idea for the photo session came about because both he and the Beatles were fed up with taking market-friendly publicity pictures. John Lennon, in an interview shortly before his death in 1980, echoed this sentiment: "It George and John was inspired by our boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session and another Beatles thing. We were sick to death of it." Whitaker had intended the session, of which the butcher photo was only one part, to be his personal comment on the mass adulation of the group and the illusory nature of stardom. As he later said, "I had toured quite a lot of the world with them by then, and I was continually amused by the public adulation of four people . . . " To that end, what he had planned was a triptych of pictures, something resembling a religious icon, to make the point that the Beatles were just as real and human as everyone else. The "butcher" photos, along with the other pictures from that session, are included in Whitaker's books of Beatles photographs, The Unseen Beatles. There the photographs taken, and the reasons behind them, are explained as follows:

  • The first picture shows the Beatles, facing a woman who has her back to the camera, and hanging on to a string of sausages. This picture was supposed to represent the 'birth' of the Beatles, with the sausages serving as an umbilical cord. Whitaker explained: "My own thought was how the hell do you show that they've been born out of a woman the same as anybody else? An umbilical cord was one way of doing it."

  • The photograph that would have been used for the other side of the triptych is one of George Harrison standing behind a seated John Lennon, hammer in hand, pounding nails into John's head. Whitaker explained that this picture was intended to demonstrate that the Beatles were not an illusion, not something to be worshipped, but people as real and substantial as a piece of wood.

  • The center of the John and Ringo triptych (and the only pose taken in color) was to to have been the infamous butcher photo, showing the Beatles surrounded by slabs of red meat and dismembered dolls. This picture was actually titled A Somnambulant Adventure, and its intent was to present a contrast, something shocking and completely out of line with the Beatles' public image. As Whitaker revealed, the picture used on the Yesterday and Today cover was a rough, unfinished version: "If you could imagine, the background of that picture should've all been gold. Around the heads would have gone silver halos, jeweled. The finished picture would have offered a striking contrast between the Beatles' angelic image and the reality of the photograph."

  • A fourth picture, apparently not planned as part of the triptych (Whitaker isn't clear about this, mentioning only three pictures in his interview), can also be found in The Unseen Beatles. It features John framing Ringo's head with a cardboard box, on one of the flaps of which is written "2,000,000." Whitaker again: "I wanted to illustrate that, in a way, there was nothing more amazing about Ringo than anyone else on this earth. In this life he was just one of two million members of the human race. The idolization of fans reminded me of the story of the worship of the golden calf."

That's all there is to it. The butcher photo was, as Whitaker says, snatched away and eventually used out of context. As happened so many other times where the Beatles were concerned, someone retroactively invented an explanation for something that was mere coincidence or happenstance, and to a public largely willing to believe almost anything about the Beatles, it became an accepted truth. As usual, the reality was quite different.