The Beatles’ “butcher” photo session

Friday, March 25, 1966


On this day, The Beatles visited 1 The Vale, Chelsea London, a top-floor studio rented by Oluf Nilssen but used by photographer Robert Whitaker.

They first taped an interview with Radio Caroline DJ Tom Lodge, which would be distributed on a free flexi-disc, titled “Sounds Of The Stars”, offer with Disc & Music Echo magazine.

I did a photograph of the Beatles covered in raw meat, dolls and false teeth. Putting meat, dolls and false teeth with The Beatles is essentially part of the same thing, the breakdown of what is regarded as normal. The actual conception for what I still call “Somnambulant Adventure” was Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. He comes across people worshipping a golden calf. All over the world I’d watched people worshiping like idols, like gods, four Beatles. To me they were just stock standard normal people. But this emotion that fans poured on them made me wonder where Christianity was heading.

Robert Whitaker

We took the pictures in London at one of those of photo sessions. By then, we were really beginning to hate it. Photo sessions were a real ordeal, you know. We had to try and look normal and you didn’t feel like it. The photographer was a bit of a surrealist, and he brought along all of these babies, pieces of meat and doctor’s coats, so we’r really got into it, and that’s how we felt, you know.

John Lennon – From “The Beatles: Off The Record” by Keith Badman, 2008

I wanted to do a real experiment. People will jump to the wrong conclusions about it being sick, but the whole thing is based on simplicity, linking four very real people with something real. I got George to knock some nails into John’s head and took some sausages along to get some other pictures. I dressed them up in white smocks as Butchers, and this is the result. The use of the camera as a means of creating situations.

Robert Whitaker – From “The Beatles: Off The Record” by Keith Badman, 2008

Very tasty meat. We were asked to do the picture with some meat and a broken doll. It was just a picture. It didn’t mean anything. All this means is that we’re being a bit more careful about the sort of picture we do. I liked it myself!

Paul McCartney – From “The Beatles: Off The Record” by Keith Badman, 2008

From Wikipedia:

Whitaker photo session

On 25 March 1966, photographer Robert Whitaker hosted a photo session with the Beatles at his studio at 1 The Vale, off King’s Road in Chelsea. Having spent three months away from the public eye, the band members had expanded their interests and were eager to depart from the formula imposed on them as pop stars, both in their music and in their presentation. Whitaker similarly had ambitions that the photo session should break new ground. He planned a conceptual art piece titled A Somnambulant Adventure, which he later described as “a considered disruption of the conventions surrounding orthodox pop star promotional photography”. Whitaker conceived the piece as a comment on the Beatles’ fame, having accompanied them on their August 1965 US tour and been alarmed at the scenes of Beatlemania he witnessed then.

Whitaker assembled props such as plastic doll parts, trays of meat, white butchers’ coats, a hammer and nails, a birdcage, cardboard boxes, and sets of false teeth and eyes. During the shoot, he took several reels of film of the band members interacting with the objects, culminating in a series of photos of the group dressed in the white coats and draped with pieces of meat and body parts from the baby dolls. The band were used to Whitaker’s fondness for the surreal and played along. Lennon recalled that they were motivated by “boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session and another Beatles thing. We were sick to death of it.” Whitaker’s concept was also compatible with their own black humour and their interest in the avant-garde.

Whitaker intended that A Somnambulant Adventure would be a triptych design across two panels of a 12-inch LP cover. Among various comments he later made on the subject, he said the panels would be the inner gatefold spread or, alternatively, the front and back cover. The butcher photo was to appear in the central portion of the triptych or on the back cover. He planned to reduce the image to just “two-and-a-quarter inches square” and set it in the middle of the panel; bejewelled silver halos would be added behind the band members’ heads, and the remaining space would be designed as a Russian religious icon in colours of silver and gold. Whitaker said: “The meat is meant to represent the fans, and the false teeth and the false eyes is the falseness of representing a god-like image as a golden calf.”

For the front cover, or left-hand portion of the triptych, Whitaker planned to use a photo of the Beatles holding two strings of sausages, symbolising umbilical cords, that appeared to connect to the belly of a woman whose back was to camera. This photo would be set inside another image, showing a woman’s womb, thereby representing the Beatles’ birth and emphasising their human qualities. The third part of Whitaker’s triptych was a photo of George Harrison hammering long nails into Lennon’s head, suggesting trepanation. Apparently in a state of transcendence, Lennon’s face would be rendered as wood grain and a horizon would be added in which ocean and sky were reversed. Whitaker credited Man Ray as a partial inspiration for this idea and said it again emphasised the band’s human qualities over their idol status.

Cover images

The Beatles submitted photographs from the session for their promotional materials. Contrary to Whitaker’s original vision, the band chose the butcher photo as the cover image for Yesterday and Today, and Lennon and Paul McCartney insisted that it was the Beatles’ statement against war, particularly the Vietnam War. Capitol president Alan Livingston was immediately against using the image, but Epstein told him that the Beatles were adamant. In a 2002 interview published in Mojo magazine, Livingston recalled that his principal contact was with McCartney, who pushed strongly for the photo to be used as the album cover and described it as “our comment on the [Vietnam] war”. Capitol’s art director was more impressed with the image and prepared it to appear like a painting, with a canvas effect.

The cover photo was soon replaced with a picture of the four band members posed around an open “steamer” trunk. This image was taken by Whitaker at Epstein’s NEMS offices, near Carnaby Street. Rather than being submitted as an afterthought, the trunk photo had been pasted onto a mock-up LP sleeve and was being considered by Epstein while the Beatles filmed promotional clips for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” at Chiswick House on 20 May. Lennon later described the replacement as “an awful looking photo of us looking just as deadbeat but supposed to be a happy-go-lucky foursome”. Music critic Tim Riley describes it as “tame” but, due to the Beatles’ sullen expressions, still evocative of their will to ridicule the standard band portrait.

Cover controversy and Operation Retrieve

In the United States, Capitol Records printed approximately 750,000 copies of Yesterday and Today with the “butcher cover”. The album was scheduled for a 15 June release. Around 60,000 copies were sent to US radio and the print media and to Capitol branch offices for marketing purposes. Reaction was immediate; disc jockeys were outraged by the cover image, and most retailers found it so distasteful they refused to stock the LP. Livingston contacted Epstein, who conceded to having the cover replaced with the trunk photo.

On 10 June, Capitol launched “Operation Retrieve”, recalling all copies of the LP from distributors to replace the offending image, as well as items such as promotional posters. The total cost to Capitol of replacing the cover and promotional materials was $250,000 (equivalent to $2.09 million in 2021), wiping out the company’s initial profit. All copies were ordered shipped back to the record label, leading to its rarity and popularity among collectors. On 14 June, Capitol sent a memo to reviewers asking them to disregard the artwork and quoting Livingston’s explanation that “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.”

In Britain, the same photograph had been used to promote the “Paperback Writer” single, starting with a full-page ad, in black-and-white, in the 3 June issue of the NME. A different photo from the shoot appeared in full colour on the cover of the 11 June edition of Disc and Music Echo; lacking the doll parts but retaining the raw meat, the image was accompanied by a caption reading, “Beatles: What a Carve-Up!” The picture attracted an unfavourable response from many of the magazine’s readers, and the UK music press were similarly offended by the ads for the single. To the public, the Beatles’ celebration of the grotesque was something that had previously been evident only in Lennon’s books of nonsensical verse and drawings. Some US commentators and music industry executives viewed the cover imagery as a statement on Capitol’s policy of “butchering” the Beatles’ albums for the North American market. In her study of the band’s contemporary audience, sociologist Candy Leonard says that some fans recall interpreting the “butcher cover” in this way and supporting the Beatles “and their sense of humour”.

The backlash against the butcher cover in the US was reported in the 25 June issue of Billboard. The cover controversy marked the first time that the Beatles’ judgment was criticised by the media and distributors. At the time, Lennon’s political directness was unusual for a pop star; he said the butcher sleeve was “as relevant as Vietnam”, adding that “If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover.” McCartney called their critics “soft”. When interviewed on 15 August during the band’s 1966 US tour, however, Lennon called the image “unsubtle”, and he and Harrison said they might have fought the recall decision had the photo been better. In The Beatles Anthology, Harrison dismissed the butcher cover as “gross” and “stupid”, adding: “Sometimes we all did stupid things thinking it was cool and hip when it was naïve and dumb; and that was one of them.” In 2007, Martin recalled that the cover had been the cause of his first strong disagreement with the band. He added: “I thought it was disgusting and in poor taste … It suggested that they were madmen. Which they were, but not in that way.” […]

Last updated on September 17, 2022

Going further

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