Meet the Beatles: "Alley Cats in Agony"

This is part of a series of essays to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first American television appearance on CBS's "The Ed Sullivan Show." It culminates with CBS News, 50 Years Later...The Beatles at The Ed Sullivan Theater: Presented by Motown The Musical, a live, interactive multimedia event at The Ed Sullivan Theater on Feb. 9. 

America's steaming cauldron of social-media soup, filled with spicy bits of Miley, Kanye and Gaga, gets the blame for devolving our national conversation. Before that, the argument goes, we were a nation of polite, eloquent popular-culture connoisseurs ... and we all loved the Beatles.

Well, the Beatles may have first waved to America from the steps of Pan Am Flight 101, but not everyone at JFK Airport on Feb. 7, 1964, waved back. Amid the ecstatic screams, CBS News captured shouts of "They're phonies," and "We want Elvis!" There were also political protests -- one sign read, "England Get Out of Ireland." Another vocal bystander saw the Beatles as a threat to the American economy. "They're taking money out of America and bringing it back to England," he said. "We need money over here." 

Journalists joined in. At the JFK press conference, one reporter informed the band that a group was hawking stickers, "Stamp Out the Beatles." After their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," in another press conference, the Beatles were subjected to readings of the most critical parts of a review in the New York Herald Tribune.

The Tribune declared the Beatles "75 percent publicity, 20 percent haircut and 5 percent lilting lament," while the the New York Times dismissed the Beatles as derivative, "Multiply Elvis Presley by four, subtract six years from his age, add British accents and a sharp sense of humor. The answer: It's the Beatles (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)."

And those were tame compared to Newsweek: "Visually, they are a nightmare: tight, dandified Edwardian beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically, they are near disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody."

By Feb. 11, when the Beatles arrived in our nation's capital, the media reception grew chillier. The Washington Post called them "imported hillbillies who looked like sheepdogs and sounded like alley cats in agony."And when the Beatles stepped up to the mic for their Washington Coliseum press conference, the moderator sniped, "Here I am surrounded by the Beatles, and I don't feel a thing."

He glibly asked, "Fellas, how does it feel to be in the United States?" Ringo replied, "It's great. Wonderful," while Paul McCartney and George chimed in diplomatically, "Very nice."

When he followed up with what they liked best about America, John couldn't resist: "You!"

Maybe this is why Miley sticks her tongue out.

  • Bill Crandall

    Bill Crandall is a contributor to CBS News Presents and the former Head of Digital Content for Rolling Stone. A Beatles fan from birth (his middle name is Jude), Crandall once interviewed Sir George Martin about the making of each of the Beatles' No. 1 singles.

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