The Beatles created a large number of classic album covers. However, the original cover of “Yesterday… and Today” is more infamous than iconic.
Capitol Records was hungry for more product to sell to fans in 1966. For the past two years, the Beatles’ record label in the United States had made a habit of releasing several LPs by the band in a calendar year. They were able to beat the British release rate by putting together singles; B-sides and other UK tracks to make bonus collections (such as “Something New” or “Beatles VI”). As the Beatles became more serious about carefully crafting songs in the studio, Capitol had fewer songs to stretch. Also, between 1965 and 1966, John LennonPaul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were beginning to create albums that were more than just a collection of songs.
The Beatles’ most recent album dates from December 1965 (“Rubber Soul”) and the next won’t come out until the fall of 1966 (“Revolver”). So, Capitol was itching for a stopgap solution. Record company executives decided to cobble together a track listing of the band’s last three US singles. “Yesterday”, “We Can Work It Out” and “Nowhere Man”, and their corresponding opposite sides. Capitol had cut a couple of songs from Rubber Soul – “Drive My Car” and “If I Needed Someone” – so those could be added as well. Thus the label had created the bulk of an LP out of leftovers.
To complete the “new album, the label planned to add the (really new) single and Beatles B-side, “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”. But when the band found out, they asked Capitol to let the single stand on its own, as all their singles had done in the Fab Four’s home country. The label responded by requesting the first tracks that were deemed ready from the Revolver sessions. The band and EMI reluctantly agreed. George Martin and his friends were quick to release remixed versions of “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Dr. Robert” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” and sent them to America.
“Yesterday… and Today” would feature music recorded over an 11-month period, which may not sound like much now; but in the “Beatle years” it might as well have been a decade. Now the album also needed a cover, prompting Capitol to ask Beatles manager Brian Epstein for a recent color shot of the boys. He flipped through some relatively dull photos of the band nonchalantly posing with a steamer trunk. When the Beatles found out, they reportedly asked Epstein to send over some other photos they had taken with the same photographer.
Bob Whitaker had done a photo shoot with the band in March which he called a “sleepwalking adventure”. Whitaker noticed that the Beatles were tired of taking the same group photos over and over again, so he spiced up this session with props like a giant light bulb, a hammer, and nails (for Harrison to “torture” Lennon), as well as butcher coats, solid. meat and doll parts. Bandmates suggested that Epstein submit the “butcher” photos, in which the boys smiled while covered in meat, false teeth and decapitated dolls.
Capitol dutifully printed 750,000 copies of “Yesterday… and Today” with the semi-ghastly cover. Some early versions were sent to disc jockeys and distributors; while the rest were shipped for sale in the United States and Canada on June 15, 1966. And then the fuss began. Stores refused to carry such product, DJs thought the image was a weird misstep by the band, and distributors were furious with Capitol.
Lennon and McCartney stood by the cover, claiming it was a commentary on the Vietnam conflict; but Harrison later agreed with critics. In «Anthology», he said that the idea “was disgusting and I also thought it was stupid. Sometimes we did stupid things thinking it was cool and hip when it was naive and dumb, and that was one of them.”
Capitol hurriedly recalled all the LPs, demolishing some of the sleeves while replacing the covers of others with a sticker showing the boring vape trunk cover. It all happened fast enough that the family version of “Yesterday… and Today” hit stores five days later, on June 20, 1966. The album was a huge success, holding the No. 1 spot for five weeks and selling enough copies for Capitol to still turn a profit, despite the costly recall.
Still, some stores like Sears and Roebuck had already stocked the original version as planned, meaning a handful of fans bought the “butcher sleeve” on the first day of release. Some of the great Capitol wigs also kept a variety of early prints. Those who still have an original edition now have a collector’s item. Versions that are in excellent condition have sold at auction for more than $100,000.
Today, “Yesterday… and Today” is more famous for its controversial cover art than anything else, though it also marked a turning point in how Beatles albums would be released in North America. Subsequently, his albums began to appear with uniform track listings.