It was the spring of 1966 and Capitol Records, the Beatles' U.S. record distribution company, wanted to issue a hodgepodge of recycled and leftover Beatles product and issue it as a "new album." For the record (no pun intended), the Beatles always hated this cheesy procedure. The Beatles were not only great artists and musicians, but also perfectionists. They, unlike so many other recording artists, refused to ever foist off a cheap or downgraded product to their fans. Unlike other artists, on Beatles albums, there were no cheap "filler" tracks; each track was strong and relevant in its own right.
The Beatles had issued just six actual official albums by this time, but this was to be Capitol's ninth of their recycled hodgepodge collection "albums." These chintzy repackaged albums did indeed infuriate the Beatles, but their ruffled feathers were surely assuaged by the millions of dollars (or pounds) they collected from these cheap products, both as singers and composers (mostly John and Paul).
Capitol asked the band to give them a photo to grace the cover of this new collection album, to be titled Yesterday ...and Today. On May 25th, 1966, the boys entered the rented photography studio of an Australian photographer named Bob Whitaker.
Whitaker was "a bit of a surrealist" who greatly admired a German artist named Hans Bellmer. Bellmer had authorized a then-controversial book called Die Puppe, which contained pictures of bizarrely dismembered dolls. Knowing of the Beatles' short attention spans and hoping to create something new and original, Whitaker showed the boys the "interesting" props he had gathered together for the session. These consisted mainly of items culled from a butcher shop and a doll factory, i.e. white butcher smocks, lines of pungent sausage links, a birdcage, joints of raw meat, and several dismembered dolls.
The Beatles quickly got into the spirit of the session. Bizarre photos were taken of George hammering a nail into John's head, John holding George's head in a birdcage, all four holding a string of link sausages in front of a young girl, and John clutching a cardboard box with the number "2,000,000" written on it over Ringo's head. But the piece de resistance was yet to come.
Whitaker posed John, Paul, and Ringo on a bench with George standing behind them. The boys were dressed in white butcher smocks, festooned with pieces of raw meat with dismembered dolls draped over them. George stands in the back holding a doll's head.
It is almost certain that at the time this photo was taken, the Beatles had neither idea nor intention for it to grace the American album's cover. The photo was, however, later chosen by the boys to be the album's cover photo.
When Capitol president Alan Livingston received this image as the Beatles' choice for the cover of Yesterday ...and Today, he immediately put in a call to the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein. Livingston had already been inundated with objections to the butcher photo from his staff. Epstein politely informed Livingston that the photo was "the Beatles' comment on the war." When Livingston told him what was going on, Epstein promised he would ask the boys to reconsider. The next day, Epstein reported that "they absolutely insist that's what they want."
Alan Livingston was used to standing up to his artists' unsatisfactory demands; he was no stranger to putting his foot down. But this was The Beatles, the number one recording stars in the world. So, against his better judgement, Livingston gave the green light to the "butcher cover," as it was being referred to.
Several hundred advance copies of the "butcher cover" were issued to Capitol's advance sales force. But "word came back very fast that dealers would not touch it." They "would not put the album in their stores." Unfortunately for Capitol Records, over a half-million copies (about 750,000, actually) of the album had already been printed up.
Interestingly, and oddly, the "butcher" photo had already been featured in a British trade paper advertising the Beatles' current single "Paperback Writer." The photo had raised nary an eyebrow.
Anyway, Capitol record was now presented with a sticky problem. What do you do with 750,000 albums already printed up and sealed, but countless record stores absolutely refusing to sell the album in their shops? Originally, Capitol told their plant managers to destroy the offensive albums. The capitol plant in Jacksonville, Illinois, actually had most of the "butcher cover" albums dumped into a landfill. (One can only imagine the the regret these poor schnooks must have had for the rest of their days, recalling how they had thrown away a king's ransom in loot in this foolishly obedient act.) Obviously, it would cost millions to trash every already-made album and press up brand new ones.
New solution? Someone at Capitol got the brilliant idea of simply pasting a benign photo of the Fab Four over the offensive "butcher" photo. The new cover shows the four Beatles standing around a steamer trunk. This would come to be known as the "trunk cover" to Beatles fans around the world. L.A. and Scranton Capitol records plants pasted the new covers over the "butcher covers."
On June 15, 1966, Capitol's press manager issued a letter stating "the album cover is being discarded." The letter included a disclaimer from Alan Livingston which stated: "The original cover ...was intended as a pop art satire. Capitol has chosen to withdraw the LP and substitute a more generally acceptable design." The Capitol project was dubbed "Operation Retrieve."
To this day, original butcher cover albums circulate around the world. The original mint butcher cover is, pretty much literally, worth its weight in gold. A "trunk cover," unpeeled and unharmed, is also worth a fortune. And a peeled-off (or steamed off) ex-trunk cover copy once pasted over a butcher cover is also worth plenty, depending on the amount of damage done to the album by the peeling. All three are among the most treasured items in the vast collection of Beatles collectables. The later-printed-up plain trunk covers, with nothing butcher about them, are relatively worthless in the collectors world.
The question has been put forth: Why, if the butcher photo was so artistically important to the Beatles, didn't they put up more of a fight to get it released? The Beatles were no fools. They knew, like most intelligent people, how to pick their battles.
At this point in time, the Beatles' Capitol contract was soon up for renewal. Brian Epstein, their manager, had actually been shopping around for possible new Beatles U.S. record distributors. Incredible as it appears to us now, he got hardly any bites, and the bites he got were weak, feeble, and unexciting. Amazingly, in the summer of 1966, it was often thought that The Beatles had "shot their wad," or they were, indeed, if not washed up, then not nearly as hot as they had previously been. So, grudgingly, the Beatles benignly accepted the trunk cover and didn't really make a big deal out of it.
As with so many things in the Beatles universe, the original idea behind the butcher cover is in dispute. The common theory (even Ringo stated it in retrospect) was that it was the Beatles' commentary on Capitol's "butchering" of the Beatles albums to make new money for themselves. This theory, in retrospect, has been highly disputed.
It is clear that when the Beatles entered Bob Whitaker's studio on that fateful May 1966 day, they had no idea what to expect. When they posed for the butcher shot, it probably was not thought to serve any other purpose than to be part of an avant-garde photo session. Whitaker wanted the day's photos to be his viewpoint of how "he, as an outsider, viewed the world's perception of the Fab Four." He titled the offbeat photos taken that day "The Somnambulant Adventure."
More likely true were John Lennon's statements, frequently spoken at the time, that the photo was a "commentary on the [Vietnam] war." John stated clearly at a 1966 press conference, when asked about the offensive cover: "It's as relevant as Vietnam. If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover." Also at a '66 press conference, Paul said, "It's our commentary on the war."
But another important reason for wanting the butcher cover emanated from the Beatles most rebellious, non-conformist member. John was the main supporter of the original butcher cover. "I especially pushed for it to be an album cover, just to break the image." Early on in the Beatles' career, John hated their image as "good boys." "[We were supposed to be] sort of angels," and John "wanted to show that we were aware of life." John detested the Beatles' clean-cut image and was extremely jealous of The Rolling Stones for their "bad boy" image.
George seemed to have always hated the butcher cover, later stating, "The whole idea was gross and I also thought it was stupid. We all did stupid things thinking it was cool ad hip, when it was dumb and naive, and that was one of them."
Interestingly, despite all the fuss, furor, and controversy, Yesterday ...and Today, released in June of 1966, hit number one on the Billboard album charts on June 30th. It went on to be certified gold. But because of Operation Retrieve and the controversy surrounding it, Yesterday ...and Today was to be the only Beatles album ever released by Capitol to lose money.