Beatles 50th Anniversary

 

We hear from Robert Rodriguez, a local Beatles expert, about the historic moment 50 years ago this week when they landed in America.


Read an Artbeat blog about the Beatles, and read an excerpt from Rodriguez's book, Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘N’ Roll.

The decision to quit the road for good had not yet been arrived at by the time the group commenced work on Revolver, but certainly the way that things were moving in the studio made such a decision inevitable. One of the greatest perks of their success, as George Martin noted to Melody Maker in 1971, was that if they wanted to indulge themselves for the odd experimental track or two, that was their prerogative: “. . . by this time we were so established that we could afford to take risks . . . if people didn’t like it, hard luck. It was . . . an indulgence, if you like, and we thought it was worthwhile.”
 
The bulk of George Martin’s non-Beatle production duties in those days were largely pure pop—Cilla Black, David and Jonathan—as well as novelties like Rolf Harris (“Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”) and the occasional stage production (Lionel Bart’s disastrous Twang!, for example). Martin also found an outlet in producing instrumental recordings under his own name with an ensemble of studio musicians he dubbed the “George Martin Orchestra.” (Following the Revolver sessions, he issued his own “concept album”: George Martin Instrumentally Salutes the Beatle Girls, a collection of songs loosely connected by girls’ names or female motifs. The title was a misnomer, as his take on “Eleanor Rigby” had vocals, while the presence of “Yellow Submarine” remains unexplained.) It therefore represented an exciting opportunity to break new ground when his top-tiered clients indicated an interest in using the studio itself as an instrument. Whether their fans wanted to follow or not was another issue.
 
By spring 1966, it became evident that the Beatles were no longer interested in playing the game: previously the decision to indulge photographer Robert Whitaker in a bizarre photo shoot that ended up producing the infamous “butcher cover” would have been unimaginable. Whitaker was an Australian who’d relocated to London after meeting the Beatles during their 1964 tour. He shared photography duties for the group with Robert Freeman; one of his first assignments was the “four seasons” series used for the cover of the Beatles ’65 album released by Capitol in late 1964. (These photos depicted the group holding umbrellas, springs, et cetera.)
 
 
 
The Beatles’ feelings toward their producer’s extracurricular excursions
can only be imagined. During his off-hours, Martin issued a series of mostly
instrumental albums, typically but not always featuring new arrangements
of Beatle material, seemingly aimed at the easy-listening crowd.

 

Robert Rodriguez

On the afternoon of Friday, March 25, the Beatles convened at Whitaker’s Chelsea studio. Before his shoot got underway, the group was photographed in a traditional fashion by Nigel Dickson for The Beatles Monthly. One frame from this series found use as their official 1966 group photo. After the boys did an interview with Radio Caroline deejay Tom Lodge for a giveaway flexi disc, Whitaker began the session. In preparation, he had secured a supply of plastic baby dolls, as well as white butcher’s smocks, cuts of pork and sausage links from the local butcher, and a supply of false teeth and eyes. Whitaker’s intent was to create a triptych: a three-part landscape piece he called “A Somnambulant Adventure.” The concept had come to him in a dream, he said—hence the title—and was intended as a commentary on the Beatles’ fame and iconic status.

If the idea seems wooly-headed now, it did then too, despite its in-vogue Pop Art context among London’s creative elite. Whitaker’s numerous explanations of the concept through the years haven’t made things any clearer; among the other photos shot that day were ones depicting the four Beatles connected to a young woman via a sausage umbilical cord; and ones of George pounding massive nails into John’s head, as well as Ringo’s head in a box labeled “2,000,000.” The most famous sequence shot was, of course, the one depicting the group wearing the smocks and surrounded by various pieces of raw meat and doll parts.
 
The so-called butcher photo was inspired by the work of a pair of German surrealists: Hans Bellmer, who in 1937 published a book, Die Puppe (The Doll), that featured a series of photos depicting dismembered dolls; and Méret Oppenheim, whose Object (Le déjeuner en fourrure, or “Lunch Fur”), a tea setting covered in fur, caused a stir in 1936 by eroticizing everyday nonsexual objects. John, who didn’t need to be asked twice to embrace the surreal, was especially gung ho on the concept, as was Paul. Ringo accepted their lead that this was a good thing, while George found it all disgusting, and said so.
 
Though John and Paul later asserted that the photo was meant as a commentary on war generally and Vietnam specifically, this appears to be after-the-fact revisionism, for Whitaker intended nothing more topical than to offer that the Beatles’ popularity was misplaced: “All over the world I’d watched people worshipping like idols, like gods, four Beatles. To me they were just stock, standard, normal people. . . . My own thought was: How the hell do you show that they’ve been born out of a woman the same as anybody else?”
 
Following the photo’s issuance—and then swift recall—by Capitol after it had been used to grace the cover of the U.S.-only “Yesterday” . . . and Today album, many (including Ringo) came to believe that it had been intended as a commentary on how the Beatles’ music was routinely “butchered” in America to create more product to sell, despite the group’s intentions presentation wise. This is incorrect, for the photo was never even intended to be used as an album cover in the first place. (Ironically, the banal photo used to replace it, showing the Beatles grouped around a trunk, was also shot by Whitaker, but without any thought whatsoever given to how it would be used.) Read more here.
 
Excerpted from Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock’n’Roll by Robert Rodriguez (Backbeat Books). Reprinted with permission of publisher. 
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