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The Middle East Coast

Derek Walmsley

Occasionally records pop up on email lists which, simply by virtue of their titles, beg to be heard. Raks Raks Raks: 17 Golden Garage Psych Nuggets From The Iranian 60s Scene certainly hit this mark. Indeed, at one point you wondered whether it was too good to be true; the title ticked so many boxes (garage, psych, Iranian, 60s…) you wondered if it was designed by some enterprising committee of music forgers. Indeed, there's virtually no independent info about the artists online. But not only does this stuff sound completely of the time, but after a bit of contact with the compilers there's a fascinating story behind it. Released on the Raks Discos label, it's a long running labour of love for Dutch and Turkish collectors, who jointly sent some responses to my questions.

The first question was how the hell they got wind of this music. "Knowing the fact that under the Shah's rule, that Iran had a relatively liberal entertainment scene, I always thought that there had to be music from the 60s and 70s which was influenced by the western rock and pop, crossing with local music." The last decade has seen some impressive Turkish psychedelic rock come to light, and it was in this context where they first came across Iranian material. Digging around for Turkish rock in the late 90s in Istanbul, they found a green vinyl disc on a label called T4 by a group called The Rebels: "When listening to it with Turkish friends they pointed me at the strange rhythm. ‘I saw her standing there’ the Beatles tune received a rhythmic workout that sounded more than impossible for European bands." But tracking down records in Iran itself proved extremely difficult for a number of reasons: language barriers, the government suspicion of pre-revolution culture, the collapse of the vinyl record industry, the difficulty of getting people to trust tall, caucasian record collectors, etc. Finally, in the mid-2000s, learning Persian started to unlock some of the secrets of records they were finding in junk shops.

Before the revolution, the Shah’s rule was supported by the West, and certain areas of society were almost slavishly anglophile. "Most usually the people involved in the scene were youngsters from the urban middle class with good education and who could have access to buying electric equipment and drum sets which were expensive posessions and very hardly available to non-professional musicians. The bands are mostly from Tehran, the capital city, followed by Isfahan, Tebriz and Shiraz which had liberal families." Although 60s music was not large commercially, it was nonetheless a busy little scene: "Only a couple of bands, such as The Rebels and The Golden Ring captured the interest of the record buying public with one or two records. Other than that, all other bands have been poorly self-produced with very low sales. It's obvious they were favored more by live audiences." The scene was helped by vinyl records being extremely easy to produce: "Iran was never part of the worldwide copyright networks, pre and after revolution, which helped the prices of the phonogram discs to be very cheap coupled with the fact that Iran being one of the prime producers of petroleum products, such as vinyl."

Nonetheless, the vinyl industry eventually collapsed, and the years of internal strife and external conflict pushed the 60s music scene to the back of the collective cultural memory. "The 1979 revolution changed a lot of things, music being one of them. Shah-era music, save for instrumental classical or religious music, was banned and especially items with female singing on them were confiscated wherever possible. As we said, vinyl was out of the window as early as 1976 anyway. The first years of Islamic rule were incredibly harsh which also surprised a lot of locals who did not think it would be this hard. Add to that the devastating eight years of war with Iraq, nobody cared for the recent musical past in those years and it has always been forbidden to sell these materials at any shop."

The music itself is almost impossible to dislike: rattling garage tracks with mostly Persian lyrics, lightly wayward tuning but a very slight sense of drone. For me it's more surf influenced than genuinely psychedelic, but it’s got a certain grit which is nothing like the candy pop confections of the West Coast surf guitar scene. The collectors describe themsevelves as interested in "that fantastic moment the ‘new’ music entered countries that do not come up in our minds as we are referring to early rock or garage music", and Raks Raks Raks certainly has an intangible weirdness – not quite Western, not quite Eastern. The music is almost as strange as the story of how it was unearthed.