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    Follow the Stories | Chicago, Illinois (2004)

    The Beatles' "Butcher" Cover

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    Posted: 10.27.08

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    When you look at the rare Beatles "Butcher" album cover, which was used for their 1966 release "Yesterday and Today," it's easy to get stuck on the portrait of the Fab Four. John, Paul, Ringo, and George flash smiles of contagious charm, but what's unexpected are the butcher's smocks they're wearing, bloodied by slabs of raw beef. As if that's not disturbing enough, the portrait also includes the heads and bodies of dismembered dolls. The woman who brought this album jacket to the summer 2003 ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in Chicago aptly called it "kind of creepy."

    The oft-repeated apocryphal story is that the Beatles — particularly John Lennon — made the infamous album cover because they thought Capitol Records was "butchering" the English-market versions of their albums in order to make more money from them on the American market. The company had reshuffled songs on the English releases, reducing the number of songs on each album in order to turn three English albums into a more profitable four American ones.

    Beatle-mania strikes again!

    But the explanation of why the photo was used that's emerged more recently has revealed an alternative, and more nuanced, story. The photographer who took the Butcher cover (as it's come to be known) was Robert Whitaker, and he has stated that the cover was a satirical take on the Beatles' absurd fame at that time. In a November 15, 1991, interview with Goldmine magazine, Whitaker said the idea for placing the Beatles with dismembered dolls and raw meat was his, and called the theory that it was a protest against Capitol records "rubbish. Absolute nonsense."

    John Lennon, in an interview shortly before his death in 1980, said the shot was "inspired by our boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session and another Beatles thing. We were sick to death of it." Whitaker intended the butcher photo as part of a surreal triptych — never realized — that would be "his personal comment on the mass adulation of the group and the illusory nature of stardom." As he later said, "I had toured quite a lot of the world with them by then, and I was continually amused by the public adulation of four people." The butcher photos are printed in Whitaker's book The Unseen Beatles. "I mean what you want to read into it is entirely up to you," Whitaker said. "I was trying to show that the Beatles were flesh and blood."

    But there's still another theory on what the album cover meant to the Fab Four. Alan Livingstone, Capitol's former president, said in Mojo magazine in 2002 that Paul McCartney pushed to keep the photos even after the controversy. "He was adamant and felt very strongly that we should go forward," Livingstone said in the interview. "[McCartney] said 'It's our comment on the war," — referring to the war in Vietnam.

    Whatever the reason it was used, Capitol printed hundreds of thousands of the Butcher album covers — the exact number is not known — then had second thoughts, and pulled them from distribution in order to paste on a more presentable portrait of the Beatles sitting around an open trunk, which was another Whitaker photo. But a few Butcher covers slipped through, and because of their rarity they have become a prized possession of Beatles collectors.

    The album jacket that turned up in Chicago in 2003, however, has another distinguishing feature noticed by appraiser Gary Sohmers. He notes that the album was produced in stereo, one of the rare "Yesterday and Today" albums not stamped in mono. That's the reason Gary appraised the album as high as he did in Chicago, estimating its value at between $10,000 and $12,000. He noted that the same album done in mono would be worth as much as 25 percent less. The stereo version is worth so much more because it is so much rarer.

    The woman who brought the record to Chicago says she bought it for $3.98 at Sears in 1966, after she heard the Beatles' song "Yesterday" on the radio. She was lucky enough to buy the album with the Butcher cover on the one day it was available in the record bins before getting pulled. She said she rarely played it, so the record and its jacket were in close to mint condition. It's one of the few original Butcher covers known to still exist in stereo.

    So was the 2003 value estimate that Gary gave in Chicago accurate? Turns out it was. The album sold at auction in December 2005 for just over $10,500 through a rock-memorabilia auction house.

    "The next generation wants the Beatles more than Disney, Elvis, Popeye — more than any other entertainment entity," Gary says. "The interest keeps prolonging their 15 minutes of fame."

    And in stereo, we might add.

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