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Beatles Photographer Talks “Butcher Cover”`

The "butcher cover" was the original album art for Yesterday and Today.

Above: The "butcher cover" was the original album art for Yesterday and Today.

The story of the "butcher cover" has become the stuff of rock legend. Today on These Days, we'll be talking to the man who started it all, photographer Robert Whitaker. He was the Beatles' photographer between 1964 and 1966 and came up with the idea for this photo shoot. The Beatles were at the height of their fame and Whitaker bore witness to the hordes of screaming fans and prostrating females, and he wanted to shoot a concept image referencing the celebrity idolatry. Whitaker was also an admirerer of Salvador Dali and surrealism, which influenced his vision. The Beatles were game for the shoot, so Whitaker ran around to butcher shops to find the meat and then had to find the baby dolls and dismember them. "It was a lot of work," he told me via phone earlier this week.

The photo wasn't originally intended for an album cover. It was meant to be part of a triptych, with the above image the last in the series. The plan was to doctor the image to include halos over the Beatles' heads, referencing religious iconography. Surprisingly, the image landed on the cover of the Capitol Records release of Yesterday and Today. Capitol ended up recalling the cover; they were feeling especially skittish in the wake of John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment.

A new cover for the album was produced and many of the "butcher covers" were destroyed. However, the record company eventually decided it would be cheaper to paste the new cover photo over the old one and once this leaked to the public, fans tried to steam the new cover off to see if the "butcher cover" was underneath. Needless to say, the original "butcher cover" has become a valuable collectable item.

We'll talk with Whitaker about photographing the Beatles, the rumors and legends around the "butcher cover," and about shooting many of the cultural icons of the 60s. Whitaker also spent a lot of time photographing the band Cream. Whitaker's photography, including images from his time spent as a photojournalist in Vietnam, will be on display at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in La Jolla through May 24th. An opening reception for Whitaker, who will be in attendance, takes place this Saturday (4/25) from 6-9pm.

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