If you grew up in Bombay in the 1960s, you were sheltered from the upheavals taking place in the West. You knew about the rise of the Beatles and the change it had wrought in popular culture, but the other developments passed you by. You had no idea that 1967 was the Summer of Love, that student activism brought France to a halt in 1968 or even that it was not cool to like the Bee Gees (then in their Massachusetts/Mining Disaster/Words phase).
You lived in a world where options were limited and, therefore, you could easily make simplistic choices. Cliff Richard or Elvis Presley? As far as we knew, Elvis was the oaf who acted in all those terrible romantic comedies and sang silly songs, so naturally we went for Cliff, singer of The Young Ones, Outsider, Congratulations and The Next Time.
The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? We liked the Beatles; they seemed talented without being threatening.
We thought Satisfaction was okay but didn’t have much time for the other Stones stuff and the only Stone whose name we knew was Mick Jagger.
DC or Marvel? It was Superman and Batman who usually won out. The teenage angst of Spiderman was too tedious for words; we thought The Hulk was a joke and as for Captain America, well, he should shove the Stars and Stripes where the sun don’t shine.
Within these categories were sub-choices. Superman or Batman? Most of us took Superman. He could fly and didn’t go everywhere accompanied by a catamite (not that we fully understood what a catamite was in those days). Paul or John? We took Paul because he seemed cuter and well, nicer. John always seemed the least likeable. Ringo was funny and George was a friend of India.
It wasn’t till the 1970s that we realized how deeply uncool we had been. Did we really prefer a manufactured British pop star to the king of rock ‘n’ roll? The anodyne charm of the Beatles to the unwashed, sexual menace of The Rolling Stones? The one-dimensional DC superheroes to the complex Marvel stars?
I’ve spent many decades thinking about our choices and though I’ve flirted with the notion that we were just ignorant Indians who got it all badly wrong and chose all the wimps, my current (and probably final) position is that we made the right decisions in our naïve, unknowing way.
Let’s start with the most controversial. I concede that Elvis Presley invented rock ‘n’ roll (or, at least, whitewashed it for middle America) while Cliff was a seeming nancy boy who sang soppy songs written for him by an army of songwriters (not that Elvis wrote his own material).
But, look at it from our perspective. We were never exposed to the pelvis-swinging Elvis of Hound Dog. All we got was the moron who acted in the anodyne movies that Colonel Tom Parker made Elvis star in during the 1960s. And if you were to put an Elvis movie from that era (Speedway, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Paradise Hawaiian Style etc.) next to one of Cliff’s (say, Summer Holiday), you would go for Cliff once again.
Same with the music. The great Elvis songs are either from the late 1950s (Jailhouse Rock, Hound Dog, Love Me Tender) or the late 1960s-early 1970s (In The Ghetto, and, um, can’t think of any others). Cliff’s songs may not be classics but I would bet The Young Ones and The Next Time against anything Elvis sang in his movies (be honest. Can you remember a single great Elvis song from his teen-movie phase?).
The DC vs Marvel thing is a lot easier to defend. In terms of conception, both Superman and Batman are much greater heroes than Spiderman (a nerd who gets bitten by a radioactive spider... give me a break!) and The Hulk (scientist who turns into green, inarticulate monster when he is angry... vomit!).
It may well be that Superman did not have as much trouble making a living as Peter Parker did and when Batman got angry, other people got hurt (and not himself, unlike poor Bruce Banner, the Hulk). But they were superheroes, for Christ’s sake! Their job was to inspire us.
The Stones versus the Beatles only has to do with coolness. If you were to sit down and look at the Stones catalogue, you will find that the best stuff is still the early material (Satisfaction, that cracker of a riff in The Last Time , the tenderness of Ruby Tuesday, etc.). The Beatles’ early stuff ( She Loves You , I want to Hold Your Hand etc.) is great but only of historical interest. The early albums fade and the songs we worship begin from Revolver onwards.
The Rolling Stones were the un-Beatles. Their rise was a statement and the early songs helped make that statement. After that, it was all image and hype. Take the worst album the Beatles ever recorded (Let it Be, probably) and put it against the Stones’ best album (Beggar’s Banquet? Sticky Fingers?). It would still be a draw. And the best stuff? I don’t think Mick Jagger could write A Day In The Life even if he was reincarnated a million times. And as for songwriting talent, even the worst of three writing Beatles, George Harrison, was a greater guitarist and songwriter than Keith Richard (remember, George wrote Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun, etc.)
What does that leave? Well, I am willing to be corrected on the sub-choices. Perhaps Batman was a greater invention than Superman, though I doubt it. Batman borrowed too much from The Phantom and Zorro. Superman was a true original.
And Paul versus John? Ah, good question. But I think I’m going to save this one up for another Saturday. Yes, John was a genius (he did write most of A Day in The Life), and Paul’s recent output is embarrassing.
But I’ll still put my money on McCartney. And some Saturday, I’ll make my case on this page.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org