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On the Record: The history of the Beatles' secret album cover

On the Record: The history of the Beatles' secret album cover

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Bradford Brady and John Maron

Bradford Brady and John Maron write the weekly On The Record column.

Q: As a teenager in the ’60s, I remember the Beatles released an album in the U.S. that pictured them wearing white lab coats smeared with blood and holding dismembered plastic dolls and other body parts scattered at their feet. For some reason, it was covered over by another cover, which could be steamed and peeled it off to reveal the original “Butcher” cover. My question is, why would they pose in such a controversial way, and was it U.S. censorship that required a new cover?

A: From 1964 to 1966, Capitol Records, the Beatles’ American record label, restructured every Beatles album for the U.S. market by taking a few songs off the original U.K. albums and adding both sides of some of their non-album singles. In 1966, while they were making the “Revolver” album, Capitol was assembling a new U.S.-only album called “Yesterday … and Today.” It would feature songs from “Help!” and “Rubber Soul,” both sides of the “Paperback Writer” single and three songs from the not-yet-released “Revolver” album. As part of the deal, the Beatles were asked to supply a photo for the album cover. Having grown tired of endless publicity shoots and their “Fab Four” image, they contacted British-born photographer Robert Whitaker, who was a fan of the late-1930s German artist Hans Bellmer. One of Bellmer’s most controversial works of art featured photos of dismembered dolls. Around this same time, John Lennon had made his controversial statement comparing the Beatles’ popularity in the contemporary world to that of Jesus’. In a 1991 interview with “Goldmine” magazine, Whitaker explained that his original concept for the photoshoot was to include a series of three shots to be called “A Somnambulant Adventure.” Whitaker imagined the series would resemble a triptych, a common item found on church altars from the Middle Ages onward. Whitaker’s series of pictures would depict the “birth” of the Beatles (a woman holding a string of sausages symbolizing an umbilical cord); the “deification” of “flesh and blood” men (the “butcher” shot was supposed to have a gilt background, and each Beatle was to have had a bejeweled halo encircling his head); and a final picture of George seemingly pounding nails into John’s head, symbolizing that they were real people and not idols to be worshipped. As was often the case with the Beatles, their vision was years ahead of where the mainstream was, and this overly ambitious undertaking fell apart, resulting only in a lurid photo. Capitol initially balked at the cover but acquiesced when the Beatles refused to supply another photo. Five hundred thousand copies of the album were sent to retail outlets. Store managers were shocked at what they saw. Capitol quickly recalled the records and glued new covers over the old ones. Collectors refer to the covers as First State (original butcher cover), Second State (original cover with new cover glued on top of it), and Third State (new cover glued on top but later peeled off to reveal butcher cover). A First State cover has become one of the most collectible items in rock memorabilia. In May 2019, a John Lennon-owned copy of the album that was signed by Lennon, McCartney and Starr sold for $234,000 at auction!

What’s the name of that song? Where are they now? What does that lyric mean? Send your questions about songs, albums and the musicians who make them to Bradford Brady and John Maron are freelance music writers based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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