What’s the truth about weird stuff on Beatles’ album covers?

Dear Cecil:

I have received a question pertaining to the Beatles from a friend. I have no idea what the answer is. What do all four Beatles hold on the cover of the Beatles '65 album?

Cecil replies:

I have the album right here. You forget how big these things were — 12 inches by 12. (To be precise, 12-5/16 by 12-1/16.) Perfect for examining for hidden meanings while listening to the album on headphones. Can you do that with the dinky paper inserts on today’s CDs? I think not. And there were hidden meanings, too. Beatles ’65 is a good example. There are four photos, representing the four seasons. (No, I don’t mean the group the Four Seasons. I mean the cycle of meteorological variation you might have noticed had you not been holed up in your room all the time listening to records.) In the largest of the four photos, the Beatles are holding umbrellas representing winter — winter as experienced in London, one feels obliged to say, not Minneapolis. In the other photos they’re holding parasols and a knotted handkerchief for summer, brooms and leaves for autumn, and giant springs and a green shoot for spring. Springs for spring! The Beatles have grasped the pun! Truly these were multitalented guys.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, coverwise. In fact, it almost came to pass that nobody saw nothin’, because the cover I’m talking about was so appalling that it was immediately recalled by an embarrassed Capitol Records. I refer to the original cover of ‘Yesterday’  … and Today (1966), better known as the “butcher cover.” Photographed by Bob Whitaker, the same fellow who shot Beatles ’65, it featured the smiling Fab Four in white butcher coats festooned with bloody slabs of red meat and mutilated babies. The babies were just dolls, but the effect was still pretty gross.

At its most basic level the butcher cover was an attempt to satirize the vapid cover art of the day. You want grins, grin about this, the Beatles seem to be saying. But Whitaker had higher ambitions. The butcher shot was only one of a series of strange tableaux he photographed during the photo session on March 25, 1966. I quote from Record Collector magazine: “The photographs began with a shot of the four Beatles holding a string of sausages in front of a young girl — the latter ‘giving birth’ to the concept of ‘Beatles,’ with the sausages representing an umbilical cord. Another showed Paul and George with their heads in bird cages — literally singing like canaries. … A further picture featured George banging large nails into John’s head — despite their god-like status, said Whitaker, this showed that even the Beatles were human beings, as solid as a block of wood.” Whatever.

Whitaker’s original idea was that the butcher photo would have a gold background, with silver, jewel-encrusted haloes over the Beatles’ heads, the whole thing surrounded by bands of rainbow color. Then the cover would fold open, and there would be the nail-banging photo, only the nail would be covered with fur. I remember having inspirations like this myself, and I’d think: Cripes, it’s time to lay off the drugs.

Capitol didn’t buy Whitaker’s whole weird vision but did put the butcher photo on the cover and sent out advance copies to reviewers and DJs and such. They had an inkling the cover hadn’t gone over well when they got calls from early recipients who were on the verge of throwing up. The company promptly issued a recall and ordered up a new cover, but rather than throw away the hundreds of thousands of covers that had already been printed, they hired part-timers to remove the old photo and paste on the new. Except that a lot of the part-timers decided to save time and simply pasted the new art over the old. When the paste-overs hit the streets, a few curious buyers peeled back the new art and got the shock of their lives. Didn’t hurt sales, though. The albums were snapped up by fans and remain collectors’ items today. To see what all the fuss was about, check out http://rarebeatles.com/butchabm/butchabm.htm .

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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