On 25 March 1966 a photo session which was to become a notorious part of The Beatles’ history took place: the infamous ‘butcher cover’ pictures were taken.
The session took place at a top floor studio on the second floor of 1 The Vale, Chelsea, London. The space was rented by Oluf Nissen, but the photographer was Robert Whitaker.
Before it took place, though, the group posed for a more conventional session at the studio for Nigel Dickson, working for The Beatles Book magazine. They wore light turtleneck sweaters and dark jackets, for what became their 1966 handout and standard promotional pictures.
They also taped an interview for Radio Caroline DJ Tom Lodge, for a free flexi disc titled Sound Of The Stars which was given away by Disc And Music Echo, co-owned by Brian Epstein.
The butcher concept
Whitaker had the idea of creating a satirical commentary on The Beatles’ fame, inspired by the German surrealist Hans Bellmer’s images of dismembered doll and mannequin parts.
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.
It was later claimed that the photographs were intended as a protest by The Beatles on their treatment by the press and public, and Capitol Records’ insistence on reordering their album tracks for the American market, but Whitaker later denied this, saying it was entirely his idea.
Q: How did that photo, featuring the Beatles among slabs of meat and decapitated dolls, come about? Was it your idea or the Beatles’?
Robert Whitaker: It was mine. Absolutely. It was part of three pictures that should have gone into an icon. And it was a rough. If you could imagine, the background of that picture should have been all gold. Around the heads would have gone silver halos, jewelled. Then there are two other pictures that are in the book [The Unseen Beatles], but not in colour.
Q: How did you prepare for the shoot?
It was hard work. I had to go to the local butcher and get pork. I had to go to a doll factory and find the dolls. I had to go to an eye factory and find the eyes. False teeth. There’s a lot in that photograph. I think John’s almost-last written words were about that particular cover; that was pointed out to me by Martin Harrison, who wrote the text to my book. I didn’t even know that, but I’m learning a lot.
Q: Why meat and dolls? There’s been a lot of conjecture over the years about what that photo meant. The most popular theory is that it was a protest by the Beatles against Capitol Records for supposedly “butchering” their records in the States.
Rubbish, absolute nonsense. If the trilogy or triptych of the three photographs had ever come together, it would have made sense. There is another set of photos in the book which is the Beatles with a girl with her back toward you, hanging on to sausages. Those sausages were meant to be an umbilical cord. Does this start to open a few chapters?
Q: Were you aware when you shot it that Capitol Records was going to use it as a record cover?
Q: Were you upset when they did and then when they pulled it and replaced it with another photo?
Well, I shot that photo too, of them sitting on a trunk, the one that they pasted over it. I fairly remember being bewildered by the whole thing. I had no reason to be bewildered by it, purely and simply, because it could certainly be construed as a fairly shocking collection of bits and pieces to stick on a group of people and represent that in this country.
Goldmine magazine, 15 November 1991
The triptych as intended by Whitaker was to be retouched to make The Beatles appear as religious icons. The decoration was intended to contrast with the earthiness of the meat and dummies, underlining the group’s normality beneath their fame.
The cover was an unfinished concept. It was just one of a series of photographs that would have made up a gate-fold cover. Behind the head of each Beatle would have been a golden halo and in the halo would have been placed a semi-precious stone. Then the background would have contained more gold, so it was rather like a Russian icon. It was just after John Lennon had said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. In a material world that was an extremely true statement.
Out-takes from the session, included in Whitaker’s book The Unseen Beatles, indicate the form the triptych was to take. The first photograph shows the group facing a woman standing with her back to the camera, with her hands raised in surprise or worship. The Beatles held a string of sausages, intended to symbolise an umbilical cord, to emphasise that the group were born like everybody else.
The triptych’s centre panel is the image now known as the ‘butcher’ photograph, and shows The Beatles dressed in butchers’ white coats, surrounded by slabs of meat and doll parts.
The final panel was an image of George Harrison standing behind a seated John Lennon, holding a hammer as if he was driving nails into Lennon’s head. This was intended to underline that The Beatles were real and substantial, not idols to worship.
Capitol pressed the cover in early June 1966, but upon its release that month it was swiftly recalled after an outcry from record retailers. Nervous after Lennon’s comments about The Beatles being “more popular than Jesus”, the label issued letters of apology and hastily issued the album with a replacement cover, also taken by Whitaker.
Eventually it was decided that it would be cheaper to paste the new cover shot over the withdrawn butcher sleeves. Unpeeled copies are now highly sought-after by collectors; however, the most valuable are the original ‘first state’ versions, particularly the stereo pressings.
Also on this day...
- 1970: Ringo Starr is interviewed for the BBC’s Scene And Heard
- 1970: Mixing: For You Blue, Teddy Boy, Two Of Us
- 1969: John and Yoko’s first bed-in for peace: Amsterdam
- 1965: Filming: Help!
- 1964: Filming: A Hard Day’s Night
- 1962: Live: Casbah Coffee Club, Liverpool
Want more? Visit the Beatles history section.