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The Cover Uncovered: How The Beatles' "butcher cover" got banned

“My original idea for the cover was better – decapitate Paul. But he wouldn’t go along with it.” – John Lennon

After the massive hype that pushed the band to the top of the pop music scene, a “Beatlemania” surrounding them, and them being worshipped like deities, it seemed that more than anything, The Beatles now craved not to be idolised, but to be humanised. They achieved it my showing off their blood and guts for all to see.

Following the release of their records such as A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Rubber Soul which thrust them to worldwide acclaim, their fame, at the same time, became both a boon and a bane for them. For much of their initial releases, The Beatles were projected in a squeaky-clean image – both in their music and the complementing art. But the Beatles were hardly a band who played it safe. A revolutionary band of the ‘60s, the Beatles’ reputation as a pop band was like no other. From experimenting both with their lyrics and their sounds, the Beatles never stepped back from including a shock factor into their music – a bold step for pop stars such as them.

Yesterday and Today was the first step towards inducing that huge shock factor for the world to see, thereby breaking the god-like image of The Beatles and making them all too human. Yesterday and Today was subject to a huge controversy for its dark cover art. Shot by Robert Whitaker, an Australian surrealist photographer, the cover picture featured the four members dressed in white coats with dismembered plastic dolls of babies situated at awkward angles and raw meat covering them and with them sporting toothy grins or a wide-mouthed laugh.

Whitaker, who had already worked with the band previously, had grown averse to projecting them through the prim and proper images in their album cover arts. Although the previous covers were splendid in their own right, the feeling of being stuck in the artsy and happy-go-lucky representations was mutual for the band members as well. Thus, the album art for Yesterday and Today was a picture far removed from the well-established “Beatles image”. Just the fact that they would have to conform to a particular persona did not sit right with the band, and the Yesterday and Today album cover was born out of it.

Whitaker aimed for a conceptual art piece for the cover of this album. Titled ‘A Somnambulant Adventure’, he described the photo as a “disruption of the conventions surrounding pop star promotional photography”. True to his words, he brought in props including a birdcage, cardboard boxes, fake eyes and teeth, nails and hammers, apart from the white coats dolls and meat to create the surreal paraphernalia of the photos. More than comfortable with Whitaker’s ideas, the band played along with the objective he had in mind.

The motivation behind creating such a conflicting image for the album was, as John Lennon recalled, spawned out of “boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session and another Beatles thing. We were sick to death of it.” The “butcher cover”, as it was called, was retrieved post-release for the controversy it created and replaced with a “cleaner” photo of the band posed around a steam trunk.

If people hadn’t heard of the “butcher cover” then, they certainly heard about it after Capitol attempted to ship back all the records that were made to slap a new cover on it. Fans now searched for the hidden original cover behind the replacement cover to be a part of the phenomenon behind the “butcher cover”. This resulted in the development of intricate techniques of peeling the ‘trunk cover’ off to reveal the main cover.

The “butcher cover” came with multiple interpretations. Whitaker’s revealed his own idea behind it, saying, “The meat is meant to represent the band, and the false teeth and the false eyes is the falseness of representing a god-like image as a golden calf.” John Lennon and Paul McCartney take on the cover art, on the contrary, was to make a statement against the Vietnam War. Lennon further added that “If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover.” Some interpretation by the fans viewed the cover as Capitol Record’s policy of “butchering” the band’s albums in the North American market.

The band’s views, however, changed later. Lennon, who had also commented on how he “was a lot of the force behind [the “butcher cover”] going out and trying to keep it out”, in 1966, deemed the photo as “unsubtle”. George Harrison called the cover “gross” and “stupid” and later added, “Sometimes we all did stupid things thinking it was cool and hip when it was naïve and dumb, and that [referring to the cover] was one of them.”

Despite the hodge-podge that Yesterday and Today created, it remained one of the most revolutionary attempts on the Fab Four’s part to push their boundaries as pop musicians. Today, we look back on these little anecdotes behind the Beatles’ album, and it reminds us how the band introduced “punk” into the music scene through their “butcher” cover art, much before punk music became a sensation.