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.