"They daubed the walls of their hotel in human excrement": Remembering how Britain lost its mind when confronted with the Beastie Boys for the first time

Beastie Boys in the UK, 1987
(Image credit: The Tube, YouTube)

On March 7, 1987, Licensed To Ill, the debut album from New York hip-hop trio Beastie Boys, became the first rap album to hit number one on the US Billboard 200 chart. That same week, the group had an additional reason to celebrate, as their single (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) crashed into the US Top 10. When UK magazine Smash Hits joined the group on tour in New Orleans around this time, writer Chris Heath found the trio - Mike D (aka Michael Diamond), Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and MCA (Adam Yauch) - in understandably ebullient mood.

"I don't know if we are the best band in America," Mike D mused, "but we're definitely having the best time." 

That would soon change, however, largely thanks to the 'best' efforts of the UK tabloid press, who, for reasons never fully revealed, decided to portray the nerdy, bratty and cartoonishly obnoxious New Yorkers, as "the world's nastiest pop group", ahead of the trio's first visit to Britain.

The shit-storm surrounding the group was initiated at the 1987 Montreux Golden Rose Rock Festival in Switzerland, where the band were booked to play alongside Duran Duran, Go West, Level 42, their Def Jam/Columbia label-mates and tour-mates Run-DMC and more on May 13, the festival's opening day. The following morning, May 14, the trio appeared on the front page of UK newspaper Daily Mirror, alongside the headline 'Pop Idols Sneer at Dying Kids'.

The story, filed by journalist Gill Pringle, began: "Dying child cancer victims were in tears last night after being cruelly jeered by the Beastie Boys pop band. First the youngsters, mainly terminally ill leukaemia sufferers, were told, 'Go away you f****** cripples' when they shyly asked the group for autographs. Then they were sworn at and roughly pushed aside as the three-man cult band rampaged through a plush hotel after a five-hour drinking spree which left a trail of destruction."

Pringle went on to write that a Conservative MP had called for the group to be banned from playing in England, and that Margaret Hayless [actually Hayles], founder of the Dreams Come True charity which had arranged the children's trip to Switzerland, was "too distressed to comment on the incident."

None of this, however, was true. 

When Hayles was interviewed on UK TV about what had happened in Switzerland, she confirmed that five of the children under her care had indeed asked the Beastie Boys for autographs after they finished an interview with Radio 1 DJ Bruno Brookes, and the group "very happily gave them."

"They didn't just sign their names," she explained, "they asked each child, 'What's your name?' and put, say, 'To Richard from... whatever their Christian names are." Asked by the TV reporter if the band were "polite and kind to the children", Hayles replied, "Sure."

By then, though, the Daily Mirror had doubled down on their efforts to portray the band as "the crudest pop band in the world", claiming that hotel chains in Britain were refusing to accept bookings for the band after their "sickening jibes at young cancer sufferers."

As a result, when the Beastie Boys arrived at Terminal 4 at London's Heathrow Airport on May 22, the British media were out in force to greet them.

"Today, the Beastie Boys, an American band calling itself the nastiest group in the world, arrived in London," reported an anchor for the BBC's London Plus news programme. "They'd flown in from Europe, where apparently they daubed the walls of their hotel in human excrement, wrecked one bar, and in another, ended up throwing beer at other customers..."

At Heathrow, Ad-Rock duly took it upon himself to try to set the record straight, telling the gathered media representatives, "It's fucked up what you're all doing out here... It's a shame that you have to write these fucking articles and make up fucking lies to sell your fucking papers. It's really fucking stupid."

Interviewed by Jaswinder Bancil for Channel 4's Network 7 show, Horovitz was asked what the band's parents made of the reports being filed in the UK. 

"They know what's true and what's not true," he replied. "These damn papers just print whatever they want to print to sell their papers... they make me sick to my stomach."

Recalling the furore in the Beastie Boys memoir Book, Horovitz wrote, "I've done some pretty awful and shitty things in my life, but I really have never told a kid with a disability to go to hell."

"It was nuts. And every day, we'd be on the front page. Again. It was like a tornado building up power, and it just kept growing in size... there was this weird expectation for us to be fucking maniacs."

For Horovitz, it would get worse. On the morning of May 31, the day after the band were forced to abort their set at Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre after 12 minutes due to being pelted by beer cans and bottles, the rapper was woken up in his London hotel room, and told he was being arrested, accused of hitting a female fan in the face with a can of beer. 

"One of the cops told me not to try to jump out the window... Jump out the window?! Why would I jump out the fuckin' window?"

Horovitz would spend four days in police custody in Liverpool before appearing in court, and being released on bail, pending trial. The charges against him would ultimately be dismissed, but, understandably, the band's first visit to England wasn't one they ever looked back upon fondly.

One British fan, writing about the Liverpool show in GQ in 2021, was equally , depressed when reflecting on the experience.

"I felt only a debilitating sense of disgust and sadness," he wrote. "It wasn’t the violence; I was numb to that. It was the emotional whiplash of the twelve-minute Beastie Boys show. It felt like it was the embodiment of what English life had to offer. Two thousand people had paid for tickets to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience, only to realize they would gain more pleasure from destroying it."

Watch TV reports on the tour below:

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.