[10 November 2009]
Despite being North America’s only source for such great songs as “If I Needed Someone” and “I’m Only Sleeping” for nearly 20 years, the Beatles’ 1966 release Yesterday… and Today is mostly, if at all, remembered for its album cover. It featured John, Paul, George, and Ringo wearing white butcher’s smocks with various cuts of meat and partially burned plastic dolls strewn about them, all while the boys gleefully smiled. Various accounts say that the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, and the head of Capitol Records at the time, Alan Livingston, had concerns about the use of this decidedly unusual picture, but for whatever reason, some copies were still sent out to disc jockeys and some stores ahead of the planned release date. It didn’t take long for the backlash.
According to a letter issued by Capitol, a “sampling of public opinion” said that the image was “subject to misinterpretation”. Some DJs reportedly refused to play the album on air, and teen magazine KYA Beat referred to it as “the s(l)ick humor of the Beatles” in an issue that chose to do a plain red cover instead of the picture. Capitol quickly had the Beatles do another photo shoot, in which the group posed around a steamer trunk. You can literally see the looks of disdain on their faces. One of those pictures then became the new album cover, which was pasted on over the remaining “butcher” copies that weren’t already destroyed. The result was that Yesterday… and Today became the only Beatles album to lose money for Capitol.
To this very day, rumors abound that the Beatles intended the offending photo as a statement about the Vietnam War, or that it was their protest against the way Capitol edited and re-arranged their albums. The truth seems to be that all of it was photographer Robert Whitaker’s idea. Ironically, the same type of people who took offense at the photo would’ve probably loved the concept behind it. Whitaker was shocked by crazed fan-reaction to the Beatles, whom he felt were “not an illusion, not something to be worshiped, but people as real and substantial as a piece of wood”. Comparing it all to the Biblical account of the Israelites’ worshiping a golden calf as the ten commandments were being written, Whitaker originally intended to give the photo a gold colored background and illustrated silver jeweled halos over the Beatles’ heads. Coincidentally, John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comments started another controversy about a month later.
But the butcher-album “carve-up”, as Disc magazine referred to it that summer, was the first time the Beatles were involved in a real controversy. In the eyes of the media, they had lost their innocence forever. Perhaps that’s the main reason why the album is such a collector’s item today. John Lennon once joked that an original copy could be sold for $11 million, but a near-mint stereo copy that was featured in an episode of Antiques Roadshow sold for just over $10,500 at auction recently. There are websites devoted to the entire controversy, how to peel a “trunk cover” off of a “butcher cover”, or alternately, why they should be left on, and tie-in merchandise ranging from posters, matchbooks, and reproduction covers, but the music is rarely ever mentioned.
Rubber Soul was the last Beatles album released before Yesterday… and Today in the US. We all know and love the British version today because in 1987, it was decided that those versions of their albums would be the ones released on CD worldwide. But in 1966, Capitol took “Drive My Car”, “Nowhere Man”, “What Goes On”, and “If I Needed Someone” off of the North American releases and inserted “It’s Only Love” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face” on it instead. This gave that album a more folk-rock approach, instead of really showing how the Beatles had started to open themselves up to a wide variety of musical experimentation. The average record-buyer had seen the happy, playful “lads from Liverpool” at this point, and the edited, arranged Rubber Soul didn’t do much to change that.
Yesterday… and Today, however, did. Yes, previously released singles (“We Can Work It Out” and “Yesterday”) and straight-out rock ’n’ roll (“Day Tripper” and “Drive My Car”) are on it, but so is the country-and-western of “Act Naturally” and “What Goes On”. Moreover, the band explores its psychedelic side with cuts like “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Dr. Robert”. Oddly enough, the Beatles album with the fewest love songs, has what is (arguably) their most tender and heart-wrenching one in “Yesterday” on it as well. Recorded with only session musicians and Paul McCartney, it can be considered as his first solo work. Some of the Beatles lesser-known, but greater work is here too, like “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “If I Needed Someone”. A reviewer once referred to the album’s variety as “thrown together in a blender”, but I find it stunning, and befitting of the Beatles.
My copy of the LP has a regular trunk cover that a collector wouldn’t drool over, but it is in stereo. Some of the songs on it are in “duophonic” stereo sound, which is something that doesn’t exist on CD. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Capitol Records wanted to capitalize on the popularity of stereo sound, but songs weren’t always recorded in or available yet on stereo. This led to the practice of turning those songs into a type of “fake stereo” by splitting the signal into separate channels, desynchronizing, cutting bass and treble frequencies, and sometimes enhancing the sound with reverb. All of this technical jargon aside, it means that the stereo effect was synthesized, but it sounds different from, and I would say better than regular stereo. The guitars sound louder and are more present, the percussion has real impact, and vocals range from “wall-of-sound”-type echoes to clear as crystal. Listen carefully during “I’m Only Sleeping”, and you’ll hear John saying “Yawn, Paul” and Paul’s bemused yawn afterwards in a way that even the remasters can’t show you.
If you want a copy of Yesterday… and Today nowdays, you don’t have many options. You can either get one of the original LP records or find a rare imported CD somewhere for a high price. Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard, American-released CD of the album in duophonic stereo sound yet. For an album that is as great as it is, it is still overshadowed by the story of its two covers, which makes Yesterday… and Today the Beatles most under-rated album… yet.