My Butcher Album Cover

Beatle fans in 1966, maybe especially the ones who lived in small upstate NY towns, had a very remote connection with the band, no matter how fanatical their devotion. Especially perhaps upstate 16-year-old fans whose family didn’t own a television. That would be me.

I had all the albums and the singles, generally two of each, so I could go to sleep at night with one side playing and the flip side ready to drop off the changer and play. News of The Beatles was seldom in the newspapers, occasionally there’d be something in Life, Look or The Saturday Evening Post, the large format picture-type magazines, and sometimes in Time or Newsweek.

Without a TV, it was easy to miss The Beatles occasional appearances on American television. I recall once standing in the lobby of a local restaurant waiting to see the band on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965 when a lightning strike knocked the transmission off the air. Otherwise, if I knew they were going to be on television, I’d have to go to watch them on my grandparent’s TV.  I’d be concentrating every atom of my being on their bewilderingly brief appearance and fending off my grandparent’s observations. “They look like girls. Look at that hair.” “They must be wigs. Men can’t grow their hair like that.” “How can you tell the songs a part. They all sound alike.” “Which one is Ringo?”

Adults all knew about Ringo. They didn’t know John, Paul, George.

So for me, The Beatles existed almost entirely in still photographs and magazine articles. (The best article I’ve ever read about The Beatles, accompanied by the best photograph I’ve ever seen, appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and will be the topic of my next blog!) A wonderful enthusiast, fan and editor was Gloria Stavers of 16 Magazine. Invariably there were Beatle photos (“pix” they were called) and interviews (made up I’m sure) and gossip about the Fab Four. “Paul married?” “John divorced?” “George leaving?” “Ringo quitting to run a beauty salon?” More mature but still a fan magazine with more in-depth coverage, was Datebook. Datebook became notorious for innocently reprinting the interview John Lennon had given months earlier in England to Maureen Cleave, a confidante of the group. It caused no stir in England but his remark that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus caused a serious controversy in America. The Beatles had been wanting to break with their “four mop tops” image and this, at least, adroitly accomplished that.

Which brings me to my story. Also on deck was the new Capitol Records Beatle album. Yesterday and Today. As usual, for the American buyers, Capitol had patched together an album consisting of tracks from the British LPs Rubber Soul and Revolver, singles, flip sides of singles and British EPs (extended play records, a format little known in the U.S.) and a couple of tracks intended for future release in the UK. Suddenly, a rumored Dadaist-like Beatle album cover that the group had pushed for—with the obvious intention of breaking the mop top image—had become superfluous and counterproductive. John’s “Jesus” remark had done that in spades and now there was need for some American damage control. No further provocation necessary.

The “fanzines” carried this news. A few copies of the album with the offending cover had actually been released and then pulled from the shelves. Other already printed copies were unpacked from the shipping boxes and had the initial cover removed and replaced. The replacement cover, incidentally, featured four deadbeat, bedraggled, slovenly Beatles standing around a sort of footlocker/packing case staring deadpan and bleary-eyed at the camera. Paul sits in the trunk, John sits cross-legged on top of it, George and Ringo stare blankly. In and of itself rather an extraordinary album cover for the pop music phenomenon of the 20th Century. However, in the hurry to get Beatle product to insatiable fans, Capitol in a few cases simply pasted the new cover over what became known as “The Butcher Album” cover photograph.

The photographer, whom John described while stinting as a deejay on WPLJ in NYC as “a bit of a surrealist,” was Robert Whitaker. Robert Freeman had been the photographer whose soft focus images of The Beatles had graced most of their album covers (With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, and Rubber Soul) and it was Freeman’s evocative photographs that fixed the early image of the group. It was this “image” that John especially was out to break. He resented the rebellious image cultivated by the Rolling Stones and felt that it was gained at the expense of The Beatles. (Insiders were later to say that the Rolling Stones were gentlemen passing themselves off as thugs while The Beatles were thugs passing themselves off as gentlemen.)

Furthermore, The Beatles, and Paul especially, were upset with the liberties Capitol took with Beatle product in the US releases. The group sequenced the running order of the tracks on the UK releases with great care. Capitol, as already noted, scavenged through the available material and repackaged the album tracks as they saw fit. Irksome as this was to the group, the final straw for Paul was on the Capitol release of Rubber Soul. Here, the quick warm-up strums that preceded the opening chords of Paul’s I’m Looking Through You were inadvertently included on the track as it was presented on the US album. Paul was aghast and annoyed at Capitol’s carelessness. (Personally, and Paul notwithstanding, I greatly prefer the offending track on the American LP. I n a way, it’s the first bootlegged Beatle song!)

The Beatles decided to register their complaint that Capitol had “butchered” their Rubber Soul album. They decided that the cover photo they supplied for the next Capitol compilation album would depict the group in white butcher smocks with doll parts and cuts of meat draped around them while the band smiled maniacally at the camera. Paul merely looks innocently bemused. That was the intention of the photo but circumstances, including John’s “Jesus” remark, seemed to indicate that this time, The Beatles had quote—gone too far.

Assiduous fans of The Beatles, even those of us in remote upstate NY were aware of the controversy and followed it carefully. It came out that a few of the albums had been shipped with a replacement cover simply pasted over the offending cover. It was revealed that it was possible to identify these rare specimens because Ringo’s black turtleneck on the “Butcher” cover was could be dimly seen coming through on the upper right hand corner of the replacement cover.

Ah hah!

Mr. Gabriel was the wonderful man who ran Olean’s local record store, Melody Corner, at 235 N. Union Street. Mr. Gabriel had a listening booth lined with salmon colored acoustic tiles and he would allow us high school kids to listen to records to our hearts content. He appreciated his steady clients and I was one of them. After all I bought two copies of all The Beatle (and Bob Dylan) albums as part of my sleeping arrangements. I informed Mr. Gabriel about this rare chance that a “Butcher” cover might slip through. He said, “I’ll tell you what. My new shipment of albums comes in on Thursdays and the new Beatle album is scheduled to come in this week. You go down to the Blue Bird bus depot and pick up the package and you can be the first one to go through it and see if we get one.”

I was at the bus depot. I picked up the shipment, brought it back to Melody Corner. Mr. Gabriel opened it and I began my inspection.

It wasn’t looking good and I was getting down to the last few Yesterday…and Today albums when I saw it. A small V-shaped black smudge showing through the upper right hand corner of the replacement cover. I paid my $3.97 and prepared to set off with my prize. Mr. Gabriel said, “You plan to steam it off and see what’s underneath?” I said “Yes.” He said, “Remember to take the record out of the sleeve before you steam it. Otherwise you’ll warp it.” That was excellent advice and I took it. The cover, held a foot or two away from the steaming spout of a tea-pot, slipped easily off and there it was. The fabulous “Butcher album cover.” The cover was beautiful. The paper it was printed on had a grainy, fabric-like texture. The only other album I ever owned like it was Bob Dylan’s The Times Are Changing Album.

Like the majority of albums at that time (1966) my copy was in mono. The rarity of stereo copies makes them worth considerably more to collectors (a Wall Street Journal article indicated that there are only seven stereo covers known to exist.) The steamed off “steam trunk cover” is also safely preserved.

All of this just goes to show that being a knocked out Beatles fan is not all fun and games.


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