Remember When: The Beatles’ Ill-Advised “Butcher Cover” Caused a Beef with Retailers

The Beatles did little to upset the apple cart and upend their pristine image in the early years of their career together. One of the first signs they were wearying of that image came when they came up with a bizarre album cover for their 1966 U.S. album release Yesterday and Today.

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The original cover, with the Fab Four grinning in butchers coats while covered in blood and holding doll parts, quickly stirred up controversy and was hurriedly replaced almost even before anyone ever saw it. Here is the story about one of the strangest incidents in Beatles history.

Cover Controversy

Before you can understand what might have prompted The Beatles to go off-book like they did with the Yesterday and Today cover, you first have to understand the way their album releases differed depending on the country where they were being issued. The group took the time to sequence their British albums in a specific way, and they used those LPs to establish what interested them lyrically and musically at that point in their career.

But Capitol Records, which held the group’s distribution rights in the U.S., had a strict policy about including only 10 songs on their LPs, as opposed to the 14 the Fab Four generally delivered on the British releases. Hence, the label would chop up the British LPs into many different configurations for the U.S. market.

There was no such thing as a Yesterday and Today album in Great Britain. Capitol mostly created the record by combining songs from the British albums Rubber Soul and Help! Because there were more American albums than British albums due to this policy, it meant The Beatles had to sit for extra photo sessions for the covers of these excess records. As there were enough demands on their time to start, and they weren’t always that comfortable with the photos anyway, what happened with the Yesterday and Today sleeve starts to make some sense.

Butcher Boys

The Beatles enlisted Robert Whitaker, who was known for his avant-garde photography, to shoot the session. Whitaker claimed the infamous cover was meant to be part of a series of photos meant to evoke how exalted, almost godlike, the band had become to its fans. Out of context of the other photos, it failed to make sense. John Lennon and Paul McCartney have insinuated in interviews the group was indeed sending up their image on purpose.

In any case, the Fab Four insisted upon the butcher photo (there were also false teeth amidst the blood and severed doll heads) as the Yesterday and Today cover. But when Capitol started sending them out to retailers, as well as the press and radio stations, the backlash was immediate. The stores threatened to not stock the records, and Capitol had to do damage control.

They immediately set about retrieving the albums, and although all of the retailers got the message, some LPs with the controversial cover made it out to the public. Meanwhile, the label took the retrieved records and pasted on top of them another photo that Whitaker had taken, a rather pedestrian one of the group looking somewhat bored, and in the case of McCartney, inside a trunk. (Both covers of the Yesterday and Today album would be used as “clues” to the “Paul is Dead” rumor.)

This process made any copies with the original cover immediate collector’s items. On top of that, some folks who purchased the albums where the new cover was stamped over the old one went to extreme lengths to reveal the original, peeling and steaming away (usually to no avail).

The Legacy of the “Butcher Cover”

The Yesterday and Today cover controversy turned out to be just one of the ways The Beatles’ image as happy-go-lucky mop tops would forever be altered. In that same summer of 1966, John Lennon’s comments comparing The Beatles to Jesus Christ stirred up protests and record burning in America.

Although there’s no way to directly link the two, the “butcher cover” preceded the cessation of Capitol’s practice of releasing their own versions of U.S. albums. Yesterday and Today was the last of the U.S.-only, Frankenstein-like assemblages of Beatles music. And, as it turned out, the cover controversy made it a memorable way for it all to end.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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