Persian episodes in 20th century Western rock and roll history
My clothes were sticking to me; it had been one hell of a summer’s day. I can vaguely recall the hot, viscid bodies on the streets, draped in blue, and the kohl-rimmed eyes of gamelan singers obscured by the sun. In the back of a black taxicab, my feet felt as if they were about to burst out of all that smooth leather, and I sensed a familiar light, one of childhood years up north, seep in through the windows. Performance was playing that evening, in some stuffy hole in the wall; more hot, viscid bodies, more kohl-rimmed eyes. Let’s have a look! Through diaphanous tapestries I descried tumbling figures being kissed and bitten, to the ringing sounds of the santur and the language of the birds, naked alabaster flesh rubbing against the soft knots of Persian rugs, and frankincense smoke arising from behind a gilded Qajar-era mirror. From Jagger’s pouty lips debouched the tale of the Old Man of the Mountain, the gatekeeper of Paradise up high in the crags of Alamut, and from a little stereoscope, brightly-coloured images of Puhhshia. ‘But I don’t want to go to America,’ protested the gamine Lucy from beneath silken sheets, ‘I wish to be a bandit in Persia’1. If my linen shirt had thitherto been sticky, it was now wet. I never found out if Lucy, Pherber, and Turner eventually made it there; amongst the three, perhaps only Chas, the one on the run, attained the object of his desire. Gone to Persia, read the blue ink of the brusque note he tossed on his bed.
Outside, I asked myself how I was going to get home, whether or not I should wolf down a falafel sandwich, and where on earth that film had been all my life.
Reading about the exploits of my rock and roll heroes as a peach fuzz-sporting schoolboy, I would often come across the names of ‘exotic’ environs such as India and Morocco – but never Iran, or anywhere else in the Iranic world. I didn’t make much of it, or feel compelled to dig my fingers into any dusty tomes to stumble upon lost chapters of rock and roll history. To me, Iran and rock and roll – and anything else good and wholesome, for that matter – were mutually exclusive, and incompatible. Iran was a ‘dangerous’ country; there were no rock stars there, nor had any ever hailed from it. If anything, Iran was the very antithesis of rock and roll, a fearsome stretch of land bridging magical India and civilised Europe, in close proximity to the equally threatening Arab world. The Beatles had gone to India, and the Stones, both in the 60s as well as the 80s, to Morocco. Page and Plant had also travelled to Morocco, and had even been inspired to write a song in the Saharan Desert, albeit one about faraway Kashmir2. I associated the sitar not with its Persian namesake (it literally means ‘three strings’, and refers to the three-stringed Persian instrument of the same name) or with any gurus of classical Indian music, but rather, George Harrison, Brian Jones, and the psychedelia of the late sixties. I had even thought that the paisley pattern was of Indian origin; after all, nothing Iranian could have been in vogue then, could it? Seldom did I come across the terms ‘Iranian’ and ‘Persian’ in my readings, particularly the former; but why? Were the ‘Fearless Iranians from Hell’, those hardcore American punks, our only claim to rock and roll fame?
Although certainly overshadowed by the cultures of India and Morocco, that of Iran was by no means absent from the rock and roll repertoire of the 20th century. As a result of a longstanding colonial history, India to the British wasn’t exactly terra incognita. As well, Morocco in the 50s had become the haunt of Beat poets such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs3, whose writings were followed closely by Americans and Brits alike. India was synonymous with spirituality, freedom, and man’s search for meaning, while Tangier (and what had ere been the International Zone) with sex, drugs, and the ‘otherworldliness’ of North Africa. Considering this, it doesn’t come as a surprise that super-groups such as the Beatles and the Stones chose to find inspiration there (amongst other things). Was Iran, under the rule of the suave, Western-friendly Shah, a mere afterthought? What had happened to the European fascination for all things Persian? There was once a time when Voltaire adored Sa’di (his moniker, in fact) and Zarathustra, Goethe bonded with Hafez, Paul Poiret threw sumptuous ‘Persian Fêtes’, Persian-themed vaudeville songs were in vogue, and the likes of Kandinsky, Matisse, and Picasso were inspired by languid Persian belles; but it seemed that the poets, philosophers, and benign world-conquerors of Iran’s past had become, at least to the scruffy-haired rockers of the 60s and 70s, the stuff of stodgy old schoolbooks and Orientalists (in the original, non-Saidian sense of the term). Persian lambskin coats and Meher Baba’s muted teachings may have been all the rage, but nonetheless, places like India and Morocco – owing to their aforementioned associations – seemed much more promising and colourful where rock and roll fantasies were concerned.
Performance, Nicolas Roeg’s surreal 1968 film (released in 1970) starring Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, and James Fox, is only one instance of Iran’s role on the stage of 20th century rock and roll. In the same year, Paul McCartney visited Tehran with his then-girlfriend, Jane Asher4. Paul wasn’t completely green with regard to Iran, though; in 1965, while the Beatles were involved in filming Help!, they had met the former princess of Iran, Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari, in the Bahamas5. This time, however, Paul and Jane – arriving from their spiritually-enlightened sojourn in Rishikesh with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – stopped over briefly in the Iranian capital, where they enjoyed Persian food and the bubbly sounds of the ghalyan, and hung out with Iran’s velvety-smooth ‘King of Pop’, Vigen Derderian. Having been described as flippant, and with a Persian vocabulary not extending beyond the words aks nagir (‘don’t take pictures’), some thought Paul was taking the piss6. For better or worse, no tars or setars made it into any future Beatles or Wings recordings; the Iranian ‘chapter’ was over – that bird had flown. But the Beatles had had an Iranian episode, at least.
Iranian culture had a much greater role to play in the history of 20th century rock and roll, though, its influence and associations extending far beyond Jagger and McCartney. In 1926, audiences in Milan were treated to Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, an opera based on Carlo Gozzi’s eponymous 1762 play7. Taking its name from ‘Turandokht’ (lit. ‘Daughter of Turan’ in Persian)8, Gozzi’s play had its roots in a character from the Haft Paykar (Seven Beauties), a poetic parable written by the 12th century Persian poet, Nezami Ganjavi9. Incidentally, nearly 50 years after Turandot’s Milan debut, Nezami again served as a musical muse and inspiration, in perhaps the least likely of contexts. Perhaps the Beatles’ Iranian chapter really hadn’t been closed once and for all. In the early 70s, a young Eric Clapton – adored by his guitar-slinging votaries as ‘God’ – found himself hopelessly in love with Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s then-wife10. Though Blind Faith had come to an end, he was in the presence of the Lord yet; during the conversion of a friend (Ian Dallas) to Islam, the virtuoso guitarist was given a copy of Nezami’s Layla and Majnun11, a story that would mark a defining moment in both Clapton’s career as well as rock and roll history. Though Nezami’s romance in his Khamseh (Quintet) is based on a pre-Islamic Arabic story dating from the seventh century12, it is his Persian rendition in particular, that, amongst all others (e.g. that of Fuzuli) has received the lion’s share of praise and recognition the world over13. Seeing a connection between the tragic tale of Qais (a.k.a. Majnun, the madman) and Layla – employed as a Sufi allegory by Nezami14 – and his obsession with Boyd, Clapton penned Layla, the title track of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, his 1970 album recorded with the nascent Derek and the Dominos. Echoing the urgency and passion of Nezami’s ecstatic verses, Layla added another page to the legacy of the medieval Persian master, albeit this time in the annals of rock and roll history. Please don’t say we’ll never find a way, adjured Clapton, and tell me all my love’s in vain. A tip of the hat to Nezami from God himself? Far out.
Why do I only remember the summertime? On an August’s day, which now seems like it was aeons ago, I wandered into a record store called ‘Sonic Temple’, or something along those lines. Baking in the backseat of my car was a paperback copy of Rumi’s Masnavi, and burning a hole through my pants, a crumpled 20 dollar bill. Being into the guitar and all, I’d heard about some bloke called Richard Thompson, who could work magic on his Stratocaster. I don’t know why I bought the particular album I did; it just felt right. On the cover was a blue-eyed youth with rough, sinewy braids and a bright, white turban, looking out, full of wonder and wanting, into the distance. I’d thought it was only a matter of aesthetics, like the out-of-this-world cover of Their Satanic Majesties’ Request; Thompson looked as much of a Sufi in my eyes as Jagger did the Prince of Darkness. When I popped in the disc in my stereo, and those words poured down like silver, it all began to make sense: the separation of the lover and the Beloved, the wine of union, the divine ecstasy of it all: Dancing till my feet don’t touch the ground, he sang on Night Comes In, to the sound of a throaty, out-of-phase Strat and sparkly Persian santur; I lose my mind and dance forever … turn my world around. I couldn’t help but recall the verses of the baking Masnavi and the visage of Rumi himself. I’d thought it was farfetched, but a bit of reading proved otherwise. Apparently, Richard and his then-wife, Linda, had converted to Islam in 1974, and went on to live in Sufi communes between 1975 and 197815. While the couple’s teacher had encouraged Linda’s singing, he suggested Richard give up the electric guitar once and for all. ‘Look, my mullah doesn’t want me to play the electric guitar,’ Richard had told his manager, Jo Lustig, at the time16. Of course, the fair-haired rock and roller did anything but, instead taking cues from Rumi, the Persian mystic from Balkh who gave to the world his whirling dervishes and their musical ceremonies17. Richard’s ‘mullah’ may have frowned up on his disciple’s ultimate decision, but Rumi would have no doubt approved; for, as he always believed, There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground18.
If the Persian Sufi poets Nezami and Rumi had left their mark on those two English guitar gods, it was a much different poet who would come to forever be associated with a group of San Franciscan hippies. In Performance, a dolled-up Jagger related the tale of Hassan Sabbah, the Isma’ili leader of the notorious Assassins of Alamut, who, until their defeat at the hands of Hulagu Khan and the Mongols, struck terror into all those who happened to incur their dismay19. Although Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s jewel-encrusted copy of the Robaiyat – ‘The Great Omar’ – had long ago sunk to the sea floor along with the Titanic20, Edmund Joseph Sullivan’s illustrations for a 1913 edition of Edward FitzGerald’s interpretation of Omar Khayyam’s verses were still ripe for the picking. Apparently, illustrators Stanley George Miller and Alton Kelley (a.k.a. ‘Mouse and Kelley’) could think of no finer illustration with which to adorn the poster for the Grateful Dead’s Avalon Ballroom concerts in 1966 than one from Sullivan and FitzGerald’s volume, in which a laughing skeleton stood surrounded by roses21. ‘Kelley and I just looked at each other and said, “There it is – the perfect picture”’, recalled Miller22. It was then that the ‘skulls and roses’ imagery surrounding the Dead first blossomed, and, so fitting was it that it later served as the cover artwork for the group’s 1971 untitled album, affectionately known as Skull Fuck23.
Although that particular illustration wasn’t chosen solely on account of its aesthetics, Mouse and Kelley may not have been aware of the parallels between their philosophy and that of the 11th century Persian polymath. ‘The skeleton symbolised death, and the roses symbolised rebirth and love’, said Miller24. Death, rebirth, and love – are these three themes not central to the spirit of the Robaiyat that FitzGerald strove to capture in his own words?
As the New Year’s spring clouds wash the tulip’s visage,
Arise, and fill the wine goblets with firm resolve.
For this grass on which you recline today
Shall sprout tomorrow from your ashes tall.25
Once, not too long ago, did groupies dream of becoming bandits in the mountains of Persia, guitar slingers dance in the footsteps of Rumi, and toothy Persian popinjays conquer the world
Whether they knew it or not, Mouse and Kelley’s reasons for choosing the now-famous illustration had everything to do with Khayyam’s own Weltanschauung. Talk about a ‘skull fuck’.
Incidentally, five years after the release of Skull Fuck, another psychedelic West Coast American group with roots in the music of the Dead would establish a Persian connection. Only active between 1975 and 197626, the Relatively Clean Rivers released a self-titled album in the latter year, seemingly inspired by Biblical motifs. The songs Babylon, Flight to Eden, and The Persian Caravan all evoke images of passages in Abrahamic scripture dealing with Iran, particularly Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in the mid-sixth century B.C. and his subsequent liberation of its oppressed Jews27; and, in listening to such tracks as The Persian Caravan, vinyl addicts might be hard-pressed to not make a connection to the oeuvre of The Orient Express, a trio from New York City’s East Village involving one Farshid Golesorkhi, a percussionist who had gone so far as to receive the attention of the Shah of Iran28. Now obscure like the Rivers, their 1969 album saw the intersection of Western instrumentation and Eastern (particularly Indo-Iranian and Arabic) sensibilities. There were no references or nods to poets and mystics as in the case of Thompson and the Dead, but rather, raucous freak-outs and mash-ups in the vein of John Berberian and Ananda Shankar, of which Azaar [sic.] (Persian for ‘fire’), with its lethargic Persian polyphony, was a shining example.
The aforesaid Persian connections, such as Thompson’s electric, Rumi-inspired wanderings and Clapton’s kinship with the crazed Qais are perhaps reflective of those on a substantive, quasi-spiritual plane. The role of Iran and Persian culture on the rock and roll stage of the 20th century was not always one of depth, however; but then again, a bit of good old gobbledegook never hurt anyone. Marc Bolan, the diminutive wild child of Britain’s 70s glam scene, had already flirted with Eastern imagery in his early years with Tyrannosaurus Rex before he made it big. Afghan Woman and Evenings of Damask, although boasting titular references to exoticised Eastern lands (the former, Iranic), had little, if anything at all, to do with them. Likewise, his self-description as a ‘labourer of love’ in ‘Persian gloves’ in T. Rex’s 1971’s hit single, Hot Love, can be taken equally as seriously, and be attributed more to simple wordplay than anything else in a song comprised mostly of cloying la la las.
On the same side of the pond, shortly after Iranian youth had fought in the streets, set Tehran ablaze, and protested in the Big Apple with Patti Smith, the German instrumentalist Holger Czukay (of Krautrock band extraordinaire, Can) found himself picking up strange voices on the radio in his Cologne laboratory. As the Scottish novelist Alan Warner recounted in a 2002 essay, Czukay had chanced upon a pair of Persian voices – one male, one female – on a Radio Tehran programme while fiddling around with his radio29. Enticed by their ‘soaring minaret vocalisations’, they ultimately found their way onto a 1979 single, fittingly titled Persian Love, with Cool in the Pool on the B-side. As with Hot Love and the Eastern-inspired songs of the 20th century boy, rhyme and reason seem to have little room in Czukay’s electronic gambolling; could this be intentional? After all, in the Persian Sufi tradition, reason is powerless in the expression of love – or so Rumi once said. Indeed, it was an expression of love, more than anything else, that had captivated Czukay, and listeners such as rock and roll bassist Jah Wobble. ‘The voices on it are so beautiful’, Wobble is noted to have said upon listening to Persian Love, ‘I will never, never try to sing again!’30 With its melange of twittering synthesisers, crackly Radio Tehran vocals, and loose form, it strikes the ear as the perfect score to a scene from Khayyam’s Robaiyat, replete with cypress trees, bare-chested beauties, and jugs brimming with blood-red wine: exactly the sort of image depicted on the single’s cover, ostentatiously mimicking the Persian miniatures of Safavid-era Iran. Many a time did we weather the flames of sorrow, says the sultry-sounding hostess of the Gol-ha (Flowers) programme to Akbar Golpayegani (a.k.a. ‘Golpa’); and then, in the flames of sorrow did we burn. Doubtless would Reza Shah have stroked his imperial whiskers in approval at such expressions of love straddling Krautrock and the Persian avaz tradition.
At first glance (or listen, rather), the vast majority of 20th century rock and roll suggests that all roads lead to India and Morocco, where foreign influences are concerned. As evinced, however, a bit of digging here and there reveals the lost Persian treasures glimmering beneath orbs of vinyl and cardboard, between reels of cellulite. While it can be shown that Iran and Persian culture were indeed present in the collective consciousness of Western rock and rollers, one wonders whether there were others like Golesorkhi and the Iranian writer-cum-songstress, Shusha Guppy (née Shamsi Assar), who were not only active in Western circles, but also of Iranian origin themselves. The Armenians had Cher, and while not exactly ‘rock and roll’, Aznavour was, and is, around nonetheless. Dylan had a pinch of Turkish blood in him31, and there was no doubting Zappa’s part-Arab ancestry32 (celebrated in his booty-shaking alter-ego, ‘Sheik Yerbouti’). Did Iranians have anyone to call their own? Who was bearing the torch and kindling the flame of Puhshhia? Well, there was one such chap, in fact.
I remember not caring too much for this particular kid in grade school, who had this album he always carried around with him. It was burgundy in colour, and embellished with a dulled golden insignia that looked as if it had been taken from a banknote or passport. On the back was a picture of what seemed like a bunch of poster boys for bad British teeth and perms gone horribly, horribly wrong. I didn’t find anything attractive about either them, or the music (I was only 11, for Christ’s sake), although my mother begged to differ. ‘Your friend has good taste’, she told me, when We are the Champions came on the car radio one evening, and I mentioned the kid in question. She went on to describe the moustachioed man I’d seen on the back of the burgundy album to unbelieving ears; I was incredulous. ‘What do you mean he’s Iranian? He’s popular, mum; people love him. They know him. How can an Iranian be cool?’ It sounded like a tall tale: my second cousin had apparently given my grandmother the scoop, who’d told my aunt in turn, who’d told my father, who’d told my mother. I had played broken telephone at school, and, knowing all too well the explosive Iranian cocktail that is one part exaggeration and another, hearsay, had my doubts. Come on – Freddie’s real name is … Farrokh?
Grandma & co. may have been wrong about his last name being ‘Jiveh’ (‘mercury’ in Persian), but were bang on the money otherwise. A few months ago, when penning my novella, Coming Down Again, I found myself, in the torn sneakers of my protagonist, dreaming of becoming the world’s first Iranian rock star. But wait a minute, I thought to myself; there’s already been one. If there will be another one, he or she will simply be carrying the banner of one of the greatest there’s ever been: Freddie Mercury. Freddie, or, Farrokh, may not have been born in Iran, but he was Iranian to the bone. A Parsi (meaning, literally, ‘Persian’), his ancestors – Iranian Zoroastrians33 – had left Iran for India in waves of migrations (beginning in the eight century34), following the seventh century Muslim conquest of their homeland35. Though more of a good old-fashioned lover boy than a Parsi one, his parents were steadfast Zoroastrians, the likes of which never married outside their community, and who prided themselves on their ancient Iranian heritage. Though this fact has been mentioned time and time again, it is yet little-known amongst his scores of followers, and when divulged, is often met with resistance. Is the world not ready for an Iranian rock star, and a Zoroastrian one to boot? Owing to Farrokh having been Persian, Queen’s records were given the green light in the early ‘naughties’36 – no small thing, considering that rock and roll and pop music as they were then known, were, for all practical purposes, outlawed. Moreover, as with his sexuality, he was open when it came to his roots, and was never one to play things down. Keith Richards once said that if one is going to kick authority in the teeth, they might as well use both feet. So, was Farrokh Bulsara … Persian? He put it somewhat less subtly: ‘I’ll always walk around like a Persian popinjay, and no one’s gonna stop me, honey!’37
Following the Revolution, the tune – with the exception of anomalies such as Czukay’s Persian Love – largely changed. Ayatollah Khomeini had come and gone, and Freddie’s spirit would soon spread its wings and fly away. In lieu of dancing dervishes and star-crossed sweethearts, the Clash were rocking the casbah, and Fearless Iranians from Hell dying for Allah, burning books, and blowing up the embassy. The ‘Sharif’ who didn’t like ‘it’ was none other than Khomeini, who had gotten on Joe Strummer’s bad side on account of his banning rock and roll in Iran38. There weren’t any overt references, however, to either Iran or Khomeini in 1982’s Rock the Casbah, and the Turkish-born39 Strummer’s lyrics – which would later be revived by a man from the casbahs of Algeria, Rachid Taha – read more like jumbled-up Orientalist drivel than anything else (electric camel drums? Muezzins on radiator grilles?). By order of the prophet, growled a bellicose Strummer, black Telecaster in tow, we ban that boogie sound!
If the Clash’s Gulf War anthem40 had alluded to Khomeini and the Revolution, the references made by another group of English punks years earlier had been anything but indirect. In their 1979 song Shah Shah a Go Go, The Stranglers’ chronicled, in biting, choppy verse doused in synthesisers and one-fingered riffery the downfall of the Pahlavi dynasty and Khomeini’s rise to power. Sinister and industrial in tone, and with an ambience of impending doom, the flippant track seemed to echo the howl of the ‘machine’ Jalal Al-e Ahmad had so feared41. For a product of caustic English punk rock, Shah Shah a Go Go not only provided a soundtrack for errant youth, but also a history lesson. After setting the atmosphere with a foreboding call to prayer (sung by a muezzin on a radiator grille, perhaps?), a fervid Hugh Cornwell, to the backbeat of a drum machine, gave a crash course on the Iranian Revolution: his kind just had to fa-fa-fade, the man who used to live out in Iran, and who was luxury’s greatest fan. Cornwell’s Shah had sold the English all their oil and made his people work the soil, until there came a ‘priest from Paris, France’ (i.e. Khomeini, who spent the last years of his exile not in Paris, but Neauphle-le-Château42), who distributed cassettes that made his followers da-da-dance. Would Khomeini set the people free, as Cornwell had remembered him promise? The doom and gloom he painted – reflected in the single’s austere cover – along with his sarcasm suggested otherwise: We shall see, we shall see …
Similarly, the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar also toyed around with the subject of the Iranian Revolution, on both a cinematic and musical plane. Far from creating a soundscape of grandeur and mystery, such as that of Persepolis, a track by the Spanish group, Los Pekenikes, released in 1971 (the same year as the Shah’s bombastic celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire in Persepolis), the auteur instead lampooned the deposed Pahlavi dynasty with his trademark blend of kitsch and flamboyant sexuality. In Labyrinth of Passion (1982), Riza Niro, the son of the Emperor of ‘Tiran’ and the barren Princess ‘Toraya’ (it isn’t particularly difficult to make the connections to Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, and Princess Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari), disguises himself as Johnny, a punk, in order to evade Sadec, a member of a terrorist organisation (a far cry from Voltaire’s Zoroastrian hero, Zadig) looking for Riza. In one of the film’s highlights, Riza fills in for Eusebio – the lead singer of the band ‘Ellos’ – to sing Gran Ganga (The Great Bargain), a song written by Almodóvar himself during his days in the punk act Almodóvar and McNamara43. Sex, luxury, and paranoia – that’s been my fate, sings Riza, before diving into the tune’s boisterously camp chorus: Gran ganga, gran ganga – I am from Tehran!
What, after the Revolution, happened to Jagger’s stories about the Old Man of the Mountain and his damsel-strewn paradise, to Bolan’s velveteen Persian gloves, to the love stories of Nezami Ganjavi that had tugged at the strings of Clapton’s heart and guitar alike? They were ravaged, perhaps, not by the flames of love, but the vicissitudes of cruel time. Iran still served as a creative stimulus, albeit in a much different way. Mockery, belittlement, and vilification became the norm, concomitant with a transformation of Iran, in popular Western culture, from exotic, innocuous realm (although, as many noted, under the rule of a despot) to flag-burning bête noire. Iran and 20th century Western rock and roll may today seem to be stark opposites of each other, as they did to me as a child. They may appear to the neophyte as irreconcilable, as two spirits diametrically opposed to one another in a sort of Manichean polarisation. ‘East is East’, once wrote Kipling, ‘and West is West; and never the twain shall meet’. But they did; and ‘meet’ is an understatement at best. Once, not too long ago, did groupies dream of becoming bandits in the mountains of Persia, guitar slingers drink the ‘wine of lovers’ and dance in the footsteps of Rumi, till their feet could no longer feel the ground beneath them, and toothy Persian popinjays conquer the world, with a crown atop their heads.
And it was beautiful.
Click here to download this article’s bibliography.