Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins

The cover artwork

Although the avant-garde recordings of Two Virgins would prove unpalatable to most Beatles fans, more outrageous was the front cover photograph, which featured a nude photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The rear sleeve, fittingly, had a similarly naked shot of the couple with their backs to the camera.

The cover was the mind-blower – I remember to this day the moment when they came in and showed me. I don’t really remember the music, I’d have to play it now. But he showed me the cover and I pointed to the Times: ‘Oh, you’ve even got the Times in it…’ as if he didn’t have his dick hanging out.

I said, ‘Ah, come on, John. You’re doing all this stuff and it may be cool for you, but you know we all have to answer. It doesn’t matter; whichever one of us does something, we all have to answer for it.’ He said, ‘Oh, Ringo, you only have to answer the phone.’ I said, ‘OK, fine,’ because it was true. The press would be calling up, and just at that point I didn’t want to be bothered – but in the end that’s all I had to do: answer the phone. It was fine. Two or three people phoned and I said: ‘See, he’s got the Times on the cover.’

Ringo Starr
Anthology

The photograph was taken some months after the recording was made, in early October 1968. The shoot took place at the basement flat on London’s Montagu Square, owned by Ringo Starr, where Lennon and Ono were temporarily living.

We were both a bit embarrassed when we peeled off for the picture, so I took it myself with a delayed-action shutter. The picture was to prove that we are not a couple of demented freaks, that we are not deformed in any way and that our minds are healthy. If we can make society accept these kind of things without offence, without sniggering, then we shall be achieving our purpose.

What we did purposely is not have a pretty photograph; not have it lighted so as we looked sexy or good. There were a couple of other takes from that session where we looked rather nice, hid the little bits that aren’t that beautiful; we looked good. We used the straightest, most unflattering picture just to show that we were human.

John Lennon
Anthology

Lennon gave the film to Jeremy Banks, a staff member at Apple Corps. Banks had it developed, and gave the prints to Derek Taylor, the company’s press officer.

John had just given Jeremy a roll of film and said, ‘Get that developed, please.’ And when he got it back and saw the nude pictures he said: ‘This is mind-blowing.’ Everything was always ‘mind-blowing’ to Jeremy, but – just that one time – he was actually right. He couldn’t believe it.
Neil Aspinall
Anthology

Although he later admitted being shocked by the photography, Paul McCartney gave Lennon a quotation for the sleeve:

When two great Saints meet, it is a humbling experience. The long battles to prove he was a Saint.
Paul McCartney

The album was eventually released in a brown paper bag to hide the cover. On the sleeve was a quotation from the Bible: “25. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”

I said: ‘Right. OK. Fine. Let’s get on with things. Let’s do something about this.’ It was very interesting and exciting, and I thought that here was a monumental problem with which we could deal. Life there was such an ‘action-reaction’ situation that this was just one more thrilling thing.

And, of course, the Sunday papers were at us, and at this photograph. This filthy thing! ‘Look at These Filthy People!’ and there was a big circle over the naughty part and an arrow: ‘This is where the naughty part would be if people like us were not so decent. We wouldn’t dream of showing it to you – but aren’t they awful!’

So I found something – I got a Bible. There’s always something to hand, isn’t there? And there was a bit in the book of Genesis which said: ‘The man and his wife were naked and not ashamed,’ or something like that, which I thought was suitable. John and Yoko were not married – but hey! This was life and… ‘Here’s this thing in the Bible – now what are you press going to do about it?’

Derek Taylor
Anthology

The release

Two Virgins was delayed for some months due to wranglings within EMI over its cover and contents. It became the second long-player released by Apple Records, after George Harrison‘s Wonderwall Music was issued in the UK on 1 November.

Actually, the first record that would have been out on Apple would been Two Virgins if they hadn’t help it up. They stalled and they said this, that and the other. Being naive in lots of ways, I had no idea I was going to get slagging from the immediate family. I thought maybe somebody out there will say something, but I was making a statement. It was as good as a song, it was better, you couldn’t say it better – pictures speak louder than words. There it was: beautiful statement.
John Lennon, 1974
Anthology

The album was first released in the United States on 11 November 1968 as Apple T 5001. It was distributed by Tetragrammaton Records after Capitol refused to handle it.

Two Virgins had its UK release on 29 November as Apple SAPCOR 2. As with Capitol, EMI declined to release it, although they agreed to master and press the album in exchange for their standard fee. It was released by Track Records.

Only 5,000 copies were pressed in the UK, and the album failed to chart. It peaked at number 124 in the US. Many record shops refused to stock it, the music press was outraged, and listeners were put off by the cover and experimental nature of the recording.

Two Virgins was a big fight. It was held up for nine months. Joseph Lockwood was a nice, nice guy; but he sat down on a big table at the top of EMI with John and Yoko and told me he will do everything he can to help us, because we explained what it meant and why we were doing it. And he got me to sign him one – he’s got a signed edition of the very first one. Then, when we tried to put it out, he sent a personal note to everybody saying: ‘Don’t print it. Don’t put it out.’ So we couldn’t get the cover printed anywhere.
John Lennon, 1980
Anthology

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