Identity and The Golden Age of Persian Pop Music: Psychedelic, Garage Rock, and Funk from 1960s Iran
Before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, there was a small underground scene for experimental music ranging from pop to psychedelic funk. This blog examines several artists from this music scene, and how uncovering this music led the writer to find her identity as a first generation Iranian-American.
Growing up as a first generation Iranian-American, I had trouble incorporating a lot of things about my culture as part of my identity. The food, for instance, was something that I always loved but had trouble melding into my everyday life. Compare it to the flashback scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Toula brings moussaka to lunch, and all the little girls say that she’s eating “moose caca”. It may seem stereotypical to compare my life to that movie, but I shit you not, when I brought Persian food to lunch at summer camp this girl claimed that I was eating cat food because Persia was the name of a Pokemon feline character. It was frustrating then, but nowadays I’ll take ghormeh sabzi over a Wonderbread sandwich any goddamn day. Once I got into my later teens, I was able to fully embrace being different from my table mates, so it became easy to balance the ethnic food aspect with my personal identity.
Another thing I never truly connected with was the music. Everything I heard featured an extremely dramatic traditional singer or belonged to this awful current LA electro-club scene from the current young generation. There was no balance between these two. The traditional music was too sullen for a young kid like me to get into, and the LA scene is filled with repetitive beats and soulless intention. There were some nostalgic dance songs from family gatherings, or mehmoonis, where friends and family would come together for a feast of at least five dinner entrees and then dance until 2 o’clock in the morning. Aside from that it wasn’t until I really started digging online about the underground sixties scene of Iran that I began to find the history that I resonate with.
I first delved into the Persian Pop scene after a YouTube wormholing session landed me on the song “Shab Bood Biaban Bood” by Fereidoon Farokhzad. My first experience listening to this was quite frankly mind-blowing: there was something very familiar about this sound that I could feel in blood, but I never knew this kind of experimentation existed in Iranian music. “Shab Bood Biaban Bood” sounded like it was sung by someone that sounds like one of my uncles, but musically it was a crossover between The Animals’ rhythmic sound and Rod Argent of The Zombies playing keys.
Farokhzad was part of an era known in Iran as The Golden Age of Persian Pop Music. This was a short-lived period from the late sixties up until the revolution in 1979; it was characterized by pop music that followed traditional Iranian song structure and instrumentation, but mixed in electric guitar and other “Western” sounds. The most notable artist from this period is undoubtedly Googoosh, who is from Iran, but is known as one of the most iconic singers in the entire Middle East. She has an unmistakably flawless voice, and is often accompanied with heart-breaking string sections that delve deep into the soul. The clip below shows a young Googoosh singing live on a television program before the Revolution set boundaries on musical expression. She reveals her bare shoulders in a fitted black dress, and her subtle dance moves make her beam with an effortless grace. More importantly than just displaying her femininity, she commands attention through her full, dark eyes expressing a bold prowess while her voice soars with a pristine and sincere tone. Though her music was widely popular, she too had to put her career on hiatus due to a post-revolution ban of females in the music industry.
For many years, Googoosh and Farokhzad were all I knew of the “rebels” of Iranian music. As much as I appreciated it, I never stopped wondering: If this was mainstream, what was the underground music like? Eventually, I came across a compilation album called Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s. This is what I had been waiting for.
The first track, “Helelyos” by Zia, starts off with a man scatting insanities and then it spirals into a heavy, psychedelic track. Funky horns and random vocal spurts are scattered throughout the song which gives it a certain mischievousness, and the repetitive, primal drumming keeps the listener rooted in a bizarrely psychedelic playhouse. I had never heard these instruments and such chaos in an Iranian song before, and it amazed me to see what was possible when these musicians were able to let loose.
In all of these songs, traditional Iranian music appears in some form or another but it is tweaked in ways that completely transform it into something far from orthodox. Another song on the album, “Miravi” by Soli, features classical drums , but has deeper bass grooves which gives it a headier quality than you’d normally hear in Iranian music. Similarly, “Mosem-e Gol” by Parva features several Iranian string instruments (like the qanun), but the band utilizes them to create hypnotizing melodies that accompany a disco-funky groove. “Gole Yakh” by Kourosh Yaghmaei is a dramatic song of loneliness and heartbreak (which is a subject to which Iranian music is no stranger) but the song features simple electric guitar parts that seem unfamiliar yet complimentary to these classical melodies. These types of experimentation came to a halt at the start of the Revolution, so these sounds ceased to develop and were essentially erased from the public, and thus became a part of a much overlooked history.
This compilation eventually led me to find out about Jokers. This group made some seriously heavy rock music in 1972 that was re-released on Strawberry Rain Records in 2011. The one and only album released by Jokers is made up of deep bluesy bass grooves,layered with some serious psychedelic shredding. It sounds like an early Sabbath record or MC5, but more stripped down and thrashier. Funny enough, a lot of people know about this album from Henry Rollins’ What’s In My Bag video. Henry Rollins also stated in an interview that Iran was one of his favorite countries he’s traveled to because of the hospitality and ice cream...but I digress.
Though there are a handful of artists and compilations to discuss, I’d like to lastly share the collection Raks Raks Raks: 27 Golden Garage Psych Nuggets From The Iranian 60s Scene. This album truly represents the underground garage rock scene of the sixties and shows what amazing sounds can emerge from Western and Middle Eastern influences come together. There are some obvious Western influences featured throughout the tracks. “Dokhtar E Darya” is actually an old Persian folk song covered by Takhala Ha-- it sounds like a Ennio Morricone-ified version of “House of the Rising Sun.” There’s even a scuzzy garage cover of “Wooly Bully” and a Googoosh cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect!” Other songs don’t show such obvious influence, but still display this raw garage energy that’s unfiltered, fervent, and pure. These artists still stay true to their roots and add more embellishments than standard garage rock, which make it that much more of a twist on a Western classic sound.
Aside from being a singer, Fereidoon Farokhzad was also an actor, poet, TV and radio host, writer, and opposition political figure. Of course, his music was released pre-Revolution and Farokhzad was forced into exile in 1979 at the start of the revolution. He moved to Germany and programmed an opposition radio show, and was mysteriously murdered in 1992. An untimely death was an unfortunate reality that many artists of that time had to fear, even after relocating and being refugees in a new country. Googoosh, who was dubbed as the Daughter of Iran, was silenced in her own Mother country for twenty-one years until she moved to the United States, where she now regularly performs for adoring fans both new and old.
Overall, I could express my nostalgia for a place that I’ve still never been to (in a time before I even existed). I could express how much it pains me to read about the history of these artists and how their voices continue to be silenced, as many of the aforementioned singers have been banned from the country. I could even end this on a political sentiment that this music should remind us of an Iran not exposed by mass media. All of these feelings ring true for me, and I’m sure they do for many other first generation Americans as well. However, this is only a small part of the truth.
The real truth in this music is universal: it is a reminder that there is always some aspect of history that we, not just first generationals but anyone in general, can resonate with. Personally, these compilations and the artists of The Golden Age of Persian Pop Music helped me find a way to connect my culture to my identity. When I heard these artists, I could hear their vulnerability from throwing themselves into a completely unorthodox world of music with no support to fall back on. It’s that kind of vulnerability that reminded me of being a kid at the lunch table with a pungent, dark green stew amidst a crowd of girls eating Lunchables, yet coming out of it with a confidence that powered me through my adolescent years. It was hearing these artists daringly meld together these Western and Middle Eastern sounds that helped me understand how the two identities I grew up with could work together so harmoniously.
Finding identity through music holds true for anyone connecting with “outsider” music. This type of non-standard music reminds us that in just a few minutes of listening we can remember a history that we can resonate with and it can echo parts of our identity from times past. Music can help serve as the mediator to remind us where we come from and where we are now-- and that, at least to me, seems like the most important truth of all.