Reviewed: Revolutionary Iran - a History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy

Parallel lines.

Revolutionary Iran: a History of the Islamic Republic
Michael Axworthy
Allen Lane, 528pp, £25

As they travel down a road in the scrublands of south-western Iran, a group of soldiers hear noises from a nearby trench. It is the height of war with Iraq, which lasted from 1980 until 1988. They scramble into position and start firing at their half-hidden enemies:

We were exchanging fire and launching RPG-7s at each other . . . We could hear the others, opposite us, who were attacking us, shouting “Allahu Akbar” . . . [A]s we listened to them . . . we realised that they were speaking Persian . . . We had been fighting with another group of Iranian forces.

Stories such as this one, recorded by Michael Axworthy for his new history of revolutionary Iran, are not unusual in war. Yet while there may be chaos and confusion at the front, there is usually cohesion at home. Though most Iranians were united in the face of a foreign enemy, they were also battling one another in a separate, hardly less significant struggle – for the soul of their revolution.

The stakes in that fight were high: it was for the nature of the state and the ability of the people to determine their own futures. By the time war broke out in September 1980, a referendum had resoundingly endorsed an Islamic republic in Iran; an interim government had come and gone; a bitter row over a new constitution had resulted in an unexpectedly conservative document and the hostage crisis had shattered relations with the US. A controversial new principle setting out the political authority of the chief religious scholar was embedding itself in the machinery of government.

As this book shows, the effect was polarising. The revolution didn’t simply get rid of the shah and his cronies. It comprehensively reallocated power: better-off, better-educated, anti-monarchist liberals found themselves excluded. The poor, devout and provincial were elevated, in some cases to dizzying heights. In the scramble to wrest advantages from a system in flux, the winners were those prepared to be nimble, ruthless, often violent. Sadegh Khalkhali, Ayatollah Khomeini’s avenging angel, travelled the country executing enemies of the revolution. Some of those enemies refused to go quietly: in June 1981, 70 leading members of the Islamic Republican Party were blown up by oppositionists. Two months later, a suitcase bomb killed the president and prime minister. Consolidation was not going to be easy.

This is a story with plenty of historical echoes. When thousands of political prisoners were executed in 1988, commentators invoked the French Revolution’s reign of terror. And the transformation of revolutionaries into authoritarian rulers is a pattern familiar from Cromwell onwards. There are modern parallels, too: the controversy over the drafting of Iran’s Islamist constitution brings to mind arguments now raging in Egypt.

Axworthy is good at placing Iran into context in this way, which is important as it’s too often seen as exceptional. The revolution’s religious underpinning is hard for the secular west to comprehend. Islam is the wild card that puts Iran’s predicament beyond conventional analysis. Some claim that there is a tinge of irrationality in its decisionmaking that makes it impossible to engage with in the usual way.

This line of argument leads not only to calls for pre-emptive strikes but to terrible wasted opportunities. The “grand bargain” – a settlement with the US that would have seen Iran stop funding anti-Israel groups in return for an end to isolation and sanctions – was vetoed by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney on the grounds that: “We don’t speak to evil.” Yet Iran’s domestic and foreign policies (including its stance on nuclear technology) are perfectly intelligible in terms of a desire to maintain cultural and political independence. The conservative establishment is right, Axworthy points out, in believing that if it relaxes its grip on freedom of expression, the culture it believes it has a duty to defend will be eroded. Iranians’ long history of exploitation by superpowers makes some loath to co-operate with an “international community” dominated by western interests.

Iran’s relations with the rest of the world are a reflection of who has the upper hand at home. Over the past three decades, that contest has been brutal. The reformists, always at a disadvantage because they want the state to relinquish some of its power, remain at a low ebb. Whatever the outcome of the presidential elections this summer, we must hope that the friendly fire that still characterises Iranian politics will one day stop.

Because of that election, Revolutionary Iran, which takes the reader up to the end of 2012, is particularly well timed. It will be invaluable for those hoping to make sense of the coverage. With it, Axworthy has confirmed his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment.

 

An Iranian flag fluttering at an undisclosed location in the Islamic republic next to a surface-to-surface Qiam-1 (Rising) missile. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

Show Hide image

Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.