7 - The “Beatles butcher cover”- Who butchered who?
7 - The “Beatles butcher cover”- Who butchered who?
In mid-June 1966, Capitol Records in Hollywood, CA, released the album Yesterday and Today which became known as the "butcher cover." It featured a grotesque photo of blood, chopped up baby dolls, and slabs of raw meat flung over the laps of the four Beatles.
Over the next 45 years the official story was that Capitol “made a mistake” and was forced to “recall” the albums so they could paste a new photo over the cover. Another part of the official story was that The Beatles themselves were instrumental in insuring that Capital used the photo cover - even though senior management at the company had serious doubts about it. This was done, according to yet another explanation of the mainstream version of events, in order to pay back Capitol for “butchering” their albums by changing the number of songs on the UK release in the American version to make more money.
The photo in question was taken on March 25th, 1966 by Australian photographer Robert Whitaker. For years Whitaker claimed the photo was based on his personal comment on the mass adulation of the group and the illusory nature of stardom, and that he was trying to show that The Beatles were flesh and blood. In 1991 he called the idea behind the album cover - as a protest against Capitol records - "Rubbish. Absolute nonsense."
As Capitol Records did not yet have a sufficient number of tracks on hand for a new album by March 25th of that year, it certainly did not have any need for a cover photo for an album that had not even been recorded yet.
The same photos appeared in several places before the Yesterday and Today album was released: in print ads and in the promotional videos for the May 1966 Paperback Writer/Rain single which was shown on The Ed Sullivan Show. If The Beatles had truly intended the photo as a protest, there would be little point to their diluting its impact by using it elsewhere, much less using it to promote one of their own UK single releases.
According to WikiPedia, John said that the cover was "as relevant as Vietnam” and McCartney that it was "very tasty meat.” (Yes, believe it or not, this was his response). Still talking about it 15 years later, in one of his last interviews before his death, Lennon said the picture was "inspired by our boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session and another Beatles thing." He went on to tell his interviewer how “it was my idea - it was our statement against Viet Nam.”
What he didn’t explain is how would anyone looking at this picture immediately perceive it to be a statement against Viet Nam? Or why neither he nor McCartney made any public statement of disapproval of Capitol replacing the picture.
Yet another tentacle of the “butcher cover legend” goes like this: The Beatles (especially Lennon) were able to “get back” at Capitol for “butchering” their albums by holding back a few songs from each record in order to turn three English albums into a more profitable four American ones.
This implies that if they wanted to, The Beatles could have a very controversial picture appear on the album cover - of which Capitol was unaware - and the company could be “tricked” into using it. It assumes that The Beatles were capable of pulling off a stunt which called for Capitol Records to issue an album with a cover of which they themselves were unaware of it or if they were- disapproved but couldn’t do anything about it.
Certainly such a feat was impossible - even for The Beatles, as the management at Capitol Records would not have allowed a picture to be used on the album cover if they knew it would be offensive, and damage record sales and their corporate image and reputation.
Capitol’s “official” version
The official version of events is that Capitol Records prepared the cover photo as The Beatles wished during May 1966, even though Capitol’s sales department strongly protested. By early June, advance copies of the album were being sent to disc jockeys and newspaper and magazine reviewers.
In a letter written by Ron Tepper, press and Information Services at Capitol Records, addressed to “Dear Reviewer”, dated June 14th, 1966 a day before the official release date:
In the past few days, you may have received an advance promotional copy of the Beatles’ new album, “The Beatles Yesterday and Today.” In accordance with the following statement from Alan W. Livingston, President, Capitol Records Inc., the original album cover is being discarded and a new jacket is being prepared.
The then President of Capitol Records, Alan Livingston, included his own personal statement in the letter which read: The original cover, created in England, was intended as “pop art” satire. However, a sampling of public opinion in the United States indicates that the cover design is subject to misinterpretation. For this reason, and to avoid any possible controversy or undeserved harm to the Beatles’ image or reputation, Capitol has chosen to withdraw the LP and substitute a more generally acceptable design.
Tepper then writes:
All consumer copies of The Beatles album will be packaged in the new cover, which will be available within the next week to ten days. As soon as they are, we will forward you a copy. In the meantime, we would appreciate your disregarding the promotional album and, if at all, possible, returning it, C.O.D. to Capital Records, 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, Ca. 90028.
With a photo of this type, it’s very hard to believe that a company as large as Capitol Records would not have foreseen such a reaction - and would have to wait until “a sampling of public opinion in the US” had been done - to take action. Are we really supposed to believe that in early June 1966, Capitol Records paid an outside “polling” firm to determine for them what a “sampling of public opinion in the United States” would or would not be a good cover design or the next Beatle album?
How Capitol handled their “mistake”
The letter itself - addressed to reviewers in the media - sounded more like a press release trying to drum up PR for the album in its original state, than a letter by Capitol hoping to retrieve a product that they did not want the public to know about.
Why didn’t Capitol just pull the album without issuing any statements and contact their distributors and wholesalers, explaining there was obviously a printing error on the album, asking them to return it? Why ask reviewers to return it? Surely Capitol could not have been worried about the extra cost of sending this small number of people a brand-new album once it was printed?
It would be logical to assume that this major record company would attempt some type of damage control; yet they did just the opposite. Their own press releases made sure everyone knew about the album cover even when there was no real threat of it becoming an issue. It was only after the album was released and the error promoted by Capitol did news of the paste-over operation leaked out, and Beatle fans across America began steaming the cabin trunk photos off of the to see if it contained the original cover picture. Why was Capitol so public about their mistake- and do everything they could to publicize their “mistake” rather than hush it up?
For instance, Tepper could have sent a letter to any of the stores, warehouses or media outlets that received a copy of the record which read: Obviously, as you can see, a gross error was made and the wrong picture was placed on the album. Please just take the record out- play it- and throw away the album cover and we will send you a new one with the right picture that should have been on the cover.
Would that not have made more sense, as it would have covered up their error?
Another peculiar aspect of the story is that there is no record of any DJ actually making a comment on the album after receiving pre-release versions. The official record is that right after receiving a copy of the album for advanced review, DJ’s across the country were appalled at the photo and told Capitol this - but did not announce it on their radio programs. Why not? Why didn’t even one DJ break the story, despite Trepper’s letter?
What really happened?
Already, by June 1966 there was a very well-established global market for Beatle memorabilia and valuable items associated with their phenomenon. The “butcher cover” became famous and valuable solely because of the legend associated with it- no other reason. Unlike most expensive Beatle items, they never owned or touched it. Without the accompanying “legend” there is no value in the vinyl beyond what was paid for it.
Estimates of how many copies of the album were printed and/or distributed vary considerably. Sources range from as high as 750,000 to 400,000 to as low as 60,000. According to another estimate, about 25,000 copies were sold prior to the recall. Mojo magazine reported that 60,000 copies were distributed to radio, media and Capitol branch offices, which showed it to retailers. Yet there is no figure on how many of these were actually returned so that a new photo could be pasted over it. Or, how many were sold to the public. However, it must have been a very tiny number or the album would not have retained its value as a collector’s item over the years.
For the next four decades, the original album covers without the covered-up photo had one value; the covered- up covers had a different one, and the vinyl itself in both cases had a different value.
This series of events could have been orchestrated. As the company was issuing the album, senior executives would be in a position to hold on to boxes of the original covers, and sell them over the years for a lot of money. For their compliance, The Beatles (and possibly Robert Whitaker) could have received their own boxes of original album covers that they could sell.
Not much was heard of the affair until more than 35 years later in 2002, when out of nowhere in an article in Mojo magazine, Livingston suddenly felt compelled to point out to the world that in fact, it was Paul McCartney who pushed strongly for the photo's inclusion as the album cover. Livingston is quoted as saying:
“The reaction came back that the dealers refused to handle them. My contact was mainly with Paul McCartney. He was adamant and felt very strongly that we should go forward. He said 'It's our comment on the war'. I don’t know why it was a comment on the war or if it would be interpreted that way."
This contradicts Tepper’s letter which stated that it was Capitol records that made the first move by contacting the reviewers and asking them to return the albums and not due to the reaction by the dealers.
The publication then asked McCartney for his response, to which he said: “It's our comment on the war."
The official Beatle historical record lists no entry of McCartney ever being in favor of The Beatles taking stands on global conflicts. In fact, when Lennon wanted to, McCartney is on record as being flat-out against it.
More to the point, why was Livingston dredging up this story 35 years later- and “fingering” McCartney as the culprit? Who else in 2002 was talking about this issue?
And what a different perspective it was. In the version he ascribed to 1966, it was his company doing customer sampling polls as the explanation; then, 35 years later- it was McCartney who was the main culprit.
It sounds like someone was trying to generate some buzz to boost the current price of whatever original albums were still for sale.
In fact, fifteen years earlier in 1987, the same Alan Livingston released for sale twenty-four "first state" butcher covers from his “private collection.” When the original cover was scrapped in June 1966, Livingston took a case of already-sealed "Butcher" albums from the warehouse before they were to be pasted over with the new covers, and kept them in a closet at his home. These albums were first offered for sale at a Beatles convention in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving weekend 1987 by Livingston's son.
These still-sealed pristine items, which included nineteen mono and five stereo versions, are the very rarest "pedigree" specimen "Butcher Covers" in existence. These so-called "Livingston Butchers" today command premium prices among collectors - the five stereo versions being the most rare and valuable of these. In April 2006, Heritage Auction Galleries sold one of the sealed mono "Livingston Butchers" at auction in Dallas for about $39,000.