Robert Whitaker was the official photographer of The Beatles from 1964-1966 and went on many tours with them. His most notorious picture appeared on the US Album ‘Yesterday and Today’ – the infamous ‘Butcher’ cover.
Here, Bob tells Richard and Irina Porter about touring with the Beatles, and how the ‘Butcher’ cover came about.
I believe you first met the Beatles in Australia on their 1964 tour. How did that come about?
I had to photograph Brian Epstein for a newspaper. There weren’t that many photographers who wanted to photograph Brian Epstein. So all of a sudden I am in the hotel, all of a sudden I met the Beatles.
In Australia they had thousands of people outside the hotel.
Two hundred thousand people.
What was it like getting into the hotel?
I cannot remember now, but I think there was a barrier, there was access to the hotel for the guests. You had to have a permission to go. The concierge would know that you had things to do. They knew we were coming, so we got in.
You met the Beatles soon after you met Brian, did you?
Yes, the same day. No, the next day.
Then Brian employed you as a photographer after that.
– He wanted to manage me. I said, ‘I don’t want to be managed’. Then six months later I thought, maybe, I do. So I came to England.
You were with them for nearly 2 years.
1964 to 66. Two and a half years.
You went on quite a few tours, did you?
Yeah, I went to America round England, I photographed them in studios here. Then we went to Germany and Japan. That was the end.
This exhibition is on the Japan tour. How different that was compared to, say, America, the year before? Was it more restrained?
I think it was the most elegantly promoted exhibition of their work, their music, that was prepared for them. America’s pretty rough and ready – ‘You are here, sing!’ Japan, they really seem to have great respect, so they had a beautiful hotel, nice cars to drive to and from the hotel. Budokan was a nice place. The promoters were very good. And the concerts were fairly restrained because I do not think Beatles fans in Japan knew quite how to scream like in Europe and America. So the Beatles could hear themselves singing. And they realised they were not singing in tune.
They were not used to it, were they?
No, they were not.
Were you aware, although the security was very tight because of the death threats, playing in the Budokan, the big martial arts place.
Yes, I’ve just been told it was a judo place, not sumo. I always thought it was sumo.
The Beatles were not allowed out of their hotel.
It was not so much a question of not being allowed. I think what the promoter and the security had thought, which is probably bullshit, that they might be mobbed, they might have somebody walk up and blast them
As they did eventually, kill John.
In the Anthology they talked about how the Beatles were regimented, how they had to be at a certain place at the certain time to the minute. Were you aware of that at the time?
It is evident in some of the photographs around the corner and in the window. They had to be there by the second. Of course, they did not adhere to that. They had to go on stage at a certain time, and it did not actually matter what time they arrived. They knew they were going on stage. I cannot really answer all these questions because I am not a Beatle, in fairness to them.
Was it evident to you at the time that they were fed up with touring?
When we got to The Philippines. Then again the whole thing changed again. They’d never been spat at or shoved around, – ‘pick up your own amplifiers, who the hell are you?’. I remember being in the aeroplane and them being very upset what had happened – and it wasn’t really their fault.
You had exclusive access to them in their hotel rooms. Did you become good friends of theirs?
With John – we’d see each other before and after – we were always good friends. Paul in Anthology I thought wrote very well about the ‘butcher sleeve’. George was always a bit against it. Ringo was always good fun. We all got on – we were all close in age. I was about 6 months older than John.
There are some very good photos in your book of The Beatles painting together. Was that their idea?
Pretty well, yes, what happened was that because they were impounded in their hotel, Paul had asked for some paints and started painting all sorts of things. The promoter suggested they all did a piece of artwork together that could be given away to charity. He provided all the paint all the brushes beautiful paper and we stuck a lamp in the middle of this paper – it was the only source of light I had to work with. It took two nights and days to do it. Whilst they were doing it they were playing an acetate of Revolver and deciding on the order of the tracks.
I wanted to ask you about two people who passed away recently that I’m sure you knew – Alf Bicknell and Alistair Taylor.
Alistair’s dead? I saw Alistair in Liverpool last year and he was very sad he wasn’t mentioned once in Anthology even though he did do a great deal of work for The Beatles. He was in Brian’s office and they didn’t see what output that Alistair put in.
Alf and I were in a car together in Manila and I’m screaming away and I’ve got a gun stuck in my neck. Guns don’t bother me and they weren’t going to shoot me – but Alf was panicking. I was very fond of Alf and I saw him last year and spoke to him about 3 weeks before he died because he asked me for some photos of him with The Beatles and they are not that easy to find. I’ve got one or two with him. There’s one of him on a plane with them.
I’m very sad to hear of Alistair – really liked him.
Do you ever see Paul and Ringo?
I haven’t seen Paul since 1966. I saw Ringo at the Genesis book launch recently. I hope to see Paul one day as I hope to congratulate on all the good things he’s done since.
I wanted to ask about the infamous ‘Butcher Cover’. The picture was your idea, to show they were human….
To show they were flesh and blood – which is what they are. Some people would saw them as saints, which they weren’t. I also found that every time we got off the stage girls would have ripped them to bits, had they got the chance, torn them to pieces – that was something to do with the meat. The dolls are really little girls screaming away. There are a lot of false things there like false teeth, false dolls eyes. It was never meant to be the cover.
What is John’s idea to have it as the cover?
No, the images were snatched as soon as I had finished them and sent to America without asking me how I wanted to see it. The sausages are meant to be an umbilical chord coming out of a woman and the whole thing would be put inside the womb of a woman. All you would have had on the record cover was a breast, nipple and big tummy. Inside the tummy is The Beatles holding the umbilical chord. Around all of that would have been transfers of little people blowing trumpets, as they do in frescos. There is another picture of George banging nails into John’s head – he would have had wood grain put over his head so he would be a piece of wood – George would be banging nails into a piece of wood. Another of Ringo being unpacked from a box. Written on the box is ‘2 million’. He would have been a piece of alabaster plaster. The whole thing would have been falseness, dummies, unreality. The back cover would have been the butcher picture, about 2 inches square and the rest of it would have been gold, like a Russian icon that canonises them. I was thinking of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and finding people worshipping the golden calves – like people did to The Beatles, treating them like gods, but they are not.
What was your reaction to the furore around the sleeve?
I thought it was not my fault! If they had asked me what the artwork was I don’t think it would have been that frightening. I don’t blame people for being upset about it. But as it turns out it actually released John to say that they were pissed off looking like pretty little boys all the time and that they were human beings. It gave them a release.
There is a lot written about the ‘butcher’ sleeve and very little I’ve said about it. I’ve never written anything by hand. It’s nearly 40 years ago since I did it and it’s hard to recreate the train of thought when I did it.
You were involved in Oz magazine later
Yes, I knew Martin Sharpe and we did the D’Isreali Gears cover together. Martin came to England and we lived together in a studio. Richard Neville then came over and we all knew each other and we decided to start Oz here. It was a whole new episode, but a great one – it was great fun, pioneering satire, taking the piss out of the British Empire.
From 1966 to 1970 I went around the world about 15 times doing various assignments, like Mick Jagger in Ned Kelly. I lived with Salvador Dali. The Beatles were a strong 2 ½ years out of 10 years of work. They fill up a third of my archive.
How do you feel about being associated with The Beatles and your other work not so well known.
I did an exhibition where we put some Vietnam pictures next to Beatles ones, Cream, Jagger etc. For the first time I was actually asked questions about being a photographer and not about The Beatles. I get very upset when I give an interview and all I’m asked is what did The Beatles think – as I am not a historian or a Beatle.
What was the most memorable thing about working with The Beatles.
To be able to answer that and pick out one thing I like is difficult as I’ve never done anything I didn’t like. To say is this picture better than another one is hard. I enjoyed photographing Salvador Dali better than The Beatles because he was more humorous. Although I learnt about photo journalism because of my time with The Beatles and recording what they did.
Richard Porter is author of the book ‘Guide to the Beatles’ London’ conducts regular Beatles tours of London. For more information please see http://www.beatlesinlondon.com