Today, the Beatles hold an exalted place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. But 50 years ago, when they first crossed the Atlantic to perform in the United States, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Here is a sampling of what the critics were saying.
Los Angeles Times
Feb. 11, 1964
With their bizarre shrubbery, the Beatles are obviously a press agent’s dream combo. Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well. But the hirsute thickets they affect make them rememberable, and they project a certain kittenish charm which drives the immature, shall we say, ape.
William F. Buckley Jr.
Sept. 13, 1964
An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows … suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience. The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win….
The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”
Feb. 24, 1964
Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments….
The big question in the music business at the moment is, will the Beatles last? The odds are that, in the words of another era, they’re too hot not to cool down, and a cooled-down Beatle is hard to picture. It is also hard to imagine any other field in which they could apply their talents, and so the odds are that they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict. But the odds in show business have a way of being broken, and the Beatles have more showmanship than any group in years; they might just think up a new field for themselves. After all, they have done it already.
New York Times
Feb. 10, 1964
The Beatles’ vocal quality can be described as hoarsely incoherent, with the minimal enunciation necessary to communicate the schematic texts.
Two theories were offered in at least one household to explain the Beatles’ popularity. The specialist said: “We haven’t had an idol in a few years. The Beatles are different, and we have to get rid of our excess energy somehow.”
The other theory is that the longer parents object with such high dudgeon, the longer children will squeal so hysterically.
Feb. 29, 1964
The Beatles must be a huge joke, a wacky gag, a gigantic put-on. And if, as the fellow insisted on What’s My Line?, they’re selling 20,000 Beatle wigs a day in New York at $2.98 a shake — then I guess everyone wants to share the joke. And the profits.
Feb. 23, 1964
Stiff lip, old chap, even the Beatles will pass! The question is, what next?
March 2, 1964
The reaction at Carnegie Hall was not a real response to a real stimulus.... The full house was made up largely of upper-middle-class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see and with the full blessings of all authority; indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. Later they can all go home and grow up like their mommies, but this was their chance to attempt a very safe and very private kind of rapture.
Feb. 29, 1964
The Beatles follow a line of glamorous figures who aroused passionate cries and deep swoons. Most prominent in the 1940s was Frank Sinatra and in the 1950s Elvis Presley. Their glory passed when they got too old to be teenagers’ idols or when teenagers got too old to need them.
The same, it is predicted, will happen to the Beatles. In the meantime, there are two ways to handle the situation: either grin and bear it or relax and enjoy it. For the Beatles are inevitable.
Feb. 16, 1964
Don’t let the Beatles bother you. If you don’t think about them, they will go away, and in a few more years they will probably be bald….
And teenagers, go ahead and enjoy your Beatlemania. It won’t be fatal and will give you a lot of laughs a few years hence when you find one of their old records or come across a picture of Ringo in a crew cut.
The Liverpool lunacy is merely the 1964 version of a mild disease which periodically sweeps across the country as the plagues of the Middle Ages once did.
In its current manifestation it is characterized by an excessive hair growth, an inability to recognize melody, a highly emotional state with severe body twitches and a strange accent that is more American Southwest than Mersey dockside….
So now it’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “yeah, yeah, yeah.” The disease is at the height of its virulence, but the fever will subside and the victims may receive immunity for life from fads.
Feb. 13, 1964
Just thinking about the Beatles seems to induce mental disturbance. They have a commonplace, rather dull act that hardly seems to merit mentioning, yet people hereabouts have mentioned scarcely anything else for a couple of days.
Feb. 17, 1964
“They … sound like a group of disorganized amateurs whose voices seem to be fighting each other rather than blending…. If I call the act rank, I have a two-fold purpose in mind. For the word has two meanings — strong and disagreeable, and luxuriant growth.
Los Angeles Times
Feb. 6, 1964
The Beatles have taken the rest of the country by storm, but they didn’t fool Paul Petersen, Donna Reed’s son on TV. “I can’t stand them,” he told me, “and I think they are helping destroy the teenagers’ image. Adults keep asking me if I like them. When I say no, they ask, ‘Then why does my kid pay $5 for their records?’ Guess they don’t know the disc jockeys are leading their little sheep astray.”
New York Times
Feb. 10, 1964
The boys hardly did for daughter what Elvis Presley did for her older sister or Frank Sinatra for mother.
The Liverpool quartet, borrowing the square hairdo used every morning on television by Captain Kangaroo, was composed of conservative conformists. In furthering Britain’s comeback as an international influence, they followed established procedure for encouraging self-determination in underdeveloped areas.
In their two sets of numbers, they allowed the healing effect of group therapy to run its course under the discipline of Mr. Sullivan, the chaperon of the year.
Feb. 10, 1964
We think the three B’s of music — Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — have nothing really to fear from the Beatles, even though Presley wired them his blessing last night.
Cary Schneider is The Times’ editorial library director.