When The Beatles first came together and tore up the rulebook on pop music, they arrived with an image akin to a boyband. The group were not only clean-cut and ready to charm the pants off you, but they also had four separate identities. However, for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, remaining a set of pop puppets ready to be driven to the nearest studio or film set to complete their contractual obligations, was not something they were willing to do.
They changed their habits and began trying to instigate a change in their professional lives. They didn’t want to be pop stars, they wanted to be artists. The Fab Four largely achieved it, too. As well as using their songs, now endlessly entrenched in the real lives of the writers at hand, the band opted to use their imagery to shake things up. The most notable is, undoubtedly, the famous “butcher” cover that originally appeared on the release of ‘Paperback Writer’.
The song is a classic. Inspired by the letters one might read in the back of a newspaper, McCartney remembered of the track: “I arrived at Weybridge and told John I had this idea of trying to write off to a publishers to become a paperback writer, and I said, ‘I think it should be written like a letter.’ I took a bit of paper out and I said it should be something like ‘Dear Sir or Madam, as the case may be…’ and I proceeded to write it just like a letter in front of him, occasionally rhyming it. And John, as I recall, just sat there and said, ‘Oh, that’s it,’ ‘Uhuh,’ ‘Yeah.’ I remember him, his amused smile, saying, ‘Yes, that’s it, that’ll do.’ Quite a nice moment: ‘Hmm, I’ve done right! I’ve done well!’”
It was a moment for The Beatles at large, too; the band had been away from the public eye for three months and, with a fresh perspective, were determined to make a splash. The song represented yet another move away from the commercial side of the business, with the track being more obviously an expression of art rather than a chance to cash in. With such a defiant move about to occur, the single needed a cover worthy of such a statement. The group decided it would be the “butcher” cover.
“I would say I was a lot of the force behind [the ‘butcher’ cover] going out and trying to keep it out. I especially pushed for it to be an album cover, just to break the image,” Lennon recalled in 1974. “There we were, supposed to be sort of angels. I wanted to show that we were really aware of life.” Another more poignant quote says Lennon was keen on the image because he wanted to “decapitate” Paul. Either way, it fell on Robert Whitaker to take the shot, something he was more than happy to do.
Whitaker had been largely appalled by the band’s rise to fame, “All over the world I’d watched people worshipping like gods, four Beatles,” he explained. “To me, they were just stock standard, normal people. But this emotion that fans poured on them made me wonder where Christianity was heading.” It was an indictment of the religion that Lennon would also famously uphold. The curious thing about the cover was, for the most part, it was overlooked by the British press.
The song was released in June 1966 and saw The Beatles skirt under the radar with their incendiary promotional image. However, it soon became one of the most well-known stories surrounding The Beatles. The decision to use the image for Yesterday and Today saw Capitol Records pull 750,000 copies of the album out of the sale after The Beatles cover for the record was deemed far too provocative for the US market. It is a little tame by today’s standards, but it is clear that the group had a plan they were trying to put into action.
“It’s as relevant as Vietnam,” Lennon said at the time, using the uproar of the cover to make a political point. “If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover.” They didn’t. The cover was quickly changed for the US market, leaving original “butcher” covers for both ‘Paperback Writer’ and Yesterday and Today at a seriously high premium for collectors.
It may seem a little silly by today’s standards, but The Beatles “butcher” cover will remain a part of the band’s infamous rejection of pop stardom. Though it may have been the music that spoke most loudly of their discontent, sometimes you need a bit of fake blood to really make your point.