JULY 2006 ISSUE

The Beatles Get Recalled.
Their 1966 Somnambulant Adventure

By Donnie Thompson


When customers at Circle Sky ask what the rarest record ever made is, the correct answer should probably be something like their Aunt Wilma singing "Jingle Bells" in a recording booth in 1940, pressed on a 78 RPM acetate. This and thousands of other one-off private recordings would technically be correct, but that is not really what they want to hear. The standard answer I give them is one of the most notorious and also one of the most desirable rarities of rock music vinyl, The Beatles' "Butcher Cover." As universally well-known as The Beatles body of work is, I am still surprised at the number of people who come up blank when I mention this record to them. So what is a "Butcher Cover?"

In May of 1966, Capitol Records, the Beatles American label, was looking at a quickly approaching summer with no new Beatles album to market. The Beatles had only so far completed six tracks for their next record. Capitol had six recent American single sides that needed an L.P. home (including the mega-hit "Yesterday") plus two songs that were left off the American "Rubber Soul" LP six months earlier. The brass at the Capitol tower asked EMI, the band's British label and Capitol's parent company, for three additional tracks, so Beatle producer George martin made mono mixes of three of the newly recorded songs and had the tape sent off to the U.S. (His stereo mixes would arrive too late for Capitol's deadline).

By adding the three brand new tracks, "I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Dr. Robert" to the line-up, Capitol now had a new album to sell and in honor of the album's most famous song, named it "Yesterday…And Today."

The Beatles, now veterans of hundreds of photo shoots were already weary of doing the "mop-top" thing once again when photographer Bob Whitaker decided to shoot some film that would challenge the Beatles established image. In March of 1966 the Beatles did a shoot with Whitaker that included such props as sausages, raw beef, a hammer, nails, false teeth, butcher smocks and most notoriously, dismembered baby dolls. Whitaker's idea was to complete a set of pictures that he would call "Somnambulant Adventure." He was inspired by photos in a 1930's book called Die Puppe by German artist Hans Bellmer who also used images of broken toy dolls. Whitaker's approach was to show that the Beatles were flesh and blood humans like everyone else by posing them amongst the un-glamorous props while being pop-art satirical at the same time.

One photo chosen from the session was used in Britain for a trade ad promoting their new "Paperback Writer" single. The shot showed the Beatles dressed in butcher smocks covered with raw meat, while holding the pieces of the baby dolls.

When selecting a photo to submit to Capitol's art department for their new "Yesterday…And Today" album, Beatle manager Brian Epstein was horrified that the band chose the very same "Butcher" shot. Brian unhappily went along with the Beatles wishes and informed Capitol that this would be their new cover.

Alan Livingston, then president of Capitol, had his own reservations about the photo and even complained to Epstein about it, but the Beatles wanted that picture. Livingston decided to give it a go, but suggested the production department only press a few hundred advance copies to test the waters. A release date of June 15th had been set for the release which really left no time for such a plan. Capitol's production department pressed and packaged 750,000 copies of the new album with the "Butcher" cover. Advance copies were sent to the press, deejays and Capitol's salesmen. The LP's were shipped out to distribution centers.

Capitol immediately began to receive reports and phone calls from frantic sales reps who said distributors and store mangers did not want to sell the album after seeing the cover art. Livingston was forced to pull the cover from production.

On June 10th Capitol put into effect a recall plan they called "Operation Retrieve." A letter was sent to the press explaining the "pop-art" nature of the cover and requested that the offensive covers be returned to Capitol, C.O.D. and a newly designed replacement would be issued.

Capitol prepared a much less eye-brow raising cover that simply featured a shot of the band in casual dress, set in front of a plain white background. This would become the standard cover that most people would become familiar with. This cover is often referred to as the "Trunk" cover as the band ids posed around a steamer trunk. Capitol's distribution centers were instructed to separate the records and their inner sleeves from the covers and return them to the manufacturing plants.

After receiving the records, Capitol's Jacksonville, Illinois plant butchered their "Butcher" covers and sent them off to a land fill. Before the other plants followed suit, someone at Capitol had the more economical idea to simply paste the new cover art (called a slick) over the existing covers. Capitol's Los Angeles and Scranton plants had these new cover slicks pasted over their salvaged "Butcher" covers.

Scarcely a week after starting Operation Retrieve, Capitol had the new version of the album on the store shelves. Among these copies, just underneath the thin layer of artwork, many "Butcher" covers were hidden as unknowing fans purchased and took them home during the early summer. Over the years word spread about the legendary picture obscured beneath the artwork on some early copies of the album. When examined closely, some fans could see the darkest parts of the "Butcher" cover showing through the white areas of the standard cover. Many fans tried to peel the top layer off, but the strong glue only caused the picture underneath to tear. Some fans tried steaming the top picture off, while others with more patience would apply a layer of tape, and then peel it off, taking off the top photo in very small increments, repeating the process until they reached their treasure. Some fans even attempted to peel copies that had no "Butcher" picture at all.

Collectors have come up with terms to describe each state of an original "Yesterday…And Today" cover. A "Butcher" cover unaltered, as initially produced, is called a "First State" copy. These are the rarest and most desirable.

A "Butcher" with the new "Trunk" cover art pasted over it is called a "Second State" copy. These were once the most common of the "butchers" but there have become much fewer, as many have continued to be "peeled" over the past forty years.

A copy that has had the "Trunk" cover removed to expose the "Butcher" art underneath is called a "Third State" copy. These exist in various conditions from nearly ruined to nice, depending on how successful the removal of the top layer was.

There is some speculation among Beatle historians as to weather or not any of the original covers made it to the retail shelves intact. Capitol claims that it never made it that far, but it is likely that some smaller distributors not controlled by Capitol got some of their copies onto department store shelves, missing Capitol's recall notice. Even then, it would have been a very small amount. So when your Aunt Wilma says she bought one at the five and dime, she may be telling the truth.

In hindsight it appears that Ringo Starr and George Harrison were never fans of the "Butcher" shot. Paul McCartney seems a bit smug about the whole controversy. It was John Lennon who seemed to be the cover's biggest supporter. During a 1966 press conference, John commented on the banned cover: "It's as relevant as Vietnam. If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover." Brian Epstein's policy was for the Beatles to stay quiet when it came to making public political comments. During his communications with Epstein during the assembly of the album Alan Livingston asked Brain what this cover meant to the band. "It's their comment on war. That's what it means to them," Brian told him.

Over the years many fans have developed their own pet theories as to the motive of the cover, ranging from a Beatle poke at Capitol's treatment of their work, to Paul McCartney "death hoax" clues.

Forty years later the banned cover remains the crown jewel of Beatle collectibles, a fascinating chapter in Beatle history, and no matter which cover, a great album too. For more stories details and pictures on this event, read Bruce Spizer's excellent book The Beatles Story On Capitol Part Two: The Albums and Bob Whitaker's lovely The Unseen Beatles.


The above article is from MELODY HILL issue #1-, used with kind permission by the author and by Circle Sky Records. To find out more about this fab record store in Atlanta, visit: www.circleskyrecords.com