“Shah Of Shahs” by Al Stewart
A shah is what the rulers of Iran were traditionally called. This title was not only bestowed upon the actual king of Persia but also its local rulers, i.e. lords and princes. But in this particular case, Al Stewart is speaking of who he refers to as the “shah of shahs”, i.e. king of kings, if you will.
And this individual was in fact a true Shah, i.e. leader of the entirety of Iran, by the name of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980). In fact he was the last official Shah of Iran, before being overthrown in 1979.
And by account of this song, he wasn’t a very good leader, although he was the last, if ever, to actually realize such. For instance, the first verse implies that he caused a considerable amount of bloodshed, seemingly in resistance to countrymen protesting against his reign. And what Stewart is most likely harping back to is an incident known as Black Friday which transpired in Tehran in 1978.
Pahlavi was overthrown shortly thereafter. This resulted in him spending what proved to be the final days of his life in exile. And this is likely what Al is speaking to in the second verse, i.e. the Shah’s reaction to being turned on by his people. And he is depicted as someone who is resistant in both mind and body. That is to say that the way he sees it, the people have judged him, a ruler who has done so much on their behalf, unfairly. Moreover, he does not intend to give up his “perfect dream” for the country just like that. Or put differently, he’s a self-righteous leader who will never concede his power willingly.
But the third verse reveals, in a roundabout way, that he is in fact corrupt. Or as implied, upon losing power, his “ministers” and “their wives” go about looting the country’s coffers, i.e. grabbing what they can while still possessing the opportunity.
Then the scene shifts back to the Shah, who is still presented as being “appalled” by the actions of the people (as opposed to, say, his ministers) and hell-bent on remaining in power. So by this point, it is abundantly clear that he is completely out of touch, or let’s say in a state of denial concerning what’s going down amongst his own citizenry.
Now the incident which brought about his ultimate overthrow is known as the Iranian Revolution. And many, if not most of the weapons used therein actually came from foreign suppliers.
So this is what the vocalist is speaking to in the fifth verse. More specifically, he alludes to the concern which overtook the Shah upon noting how “mountains of equipment” and “rows of helicopters” were being imported into the country in the name of bringing about his downfall.
So eventually the Shah had to flee his own Iran, with Pahlavi and his loyal subjects lamenting along the way. Meanwhile, the Iranian people proceed to ‘tear down his legacy’. The implication throughout is that despite being hated by the masses, the last Shah still considered himself someone who genuinely had their best interest in mind. So if nothing else, from his perspective they are ‘ungrateful’.
Meanwhile, in his place came Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1983). And as depicted in the final verse, he is someone who is “strange and stoic”, unable to smile even. But such is the result of having emerged victorious from a bloody civil war. And now like the shah before him, he too has come about instituting his own “perfect dream” for the people.
What “Shah Of Shahs” is all about
So conclusively, the implication is that one self-righteous Iranian dictator, if you will, had been replaced by another. No, the Ayatollah may not be a shah in title. But as depicted, he is also part of Iran’s history of oppressive, out-of-touch rule over its people.
Facts about “Shah Of Shahs”
“Shah of shah” was released as part of the album “Sparks of Ancient”, a work of Al Stewart – the artist. He is a Scottish singer, songwriter and folk-rock musician. The British Folk Revival in the 1960’s and 1970’s gave Al a level of prominence.
Stewart didn’t release it as a single. He released along with its album on September 15, 2008.
The whole album was produced by Laurence Ivor Juber. Laurence is an English musician, fingerstyle guitarist and studio musician.
Persia’s Last King, Mohammad Reza Shah
As the last Monarch of the House of Pahlavi, Mohammed Shah took the title of Shahanshah, meaning King of Kings in October 1967. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was born on the 26th of October 1919.
He was also widely called Mohammad Reza Shah. He was the last Shah (or King) of the Imperial State of Persia (now known as Iran). He ruled from 1941 until his overthrow in the Iranian Revolution in early 1979.
Mohammed was a visionary and he led Iran to accomplish rapid industrial and military modernization, as well as economic and social reforms. He came to power when his father Reda Shah Pahlavi was abducted.
Mohammad Reza also introduced the White Revolution. The aforementioned revolution was a series of economic, social, and political reforms meant to transform Iran into a global power and modernize the nation by nationalizing some industries and giving women suffrage.
Mohammed was accused of corruption and lost support from the Shi’a clergy due to his involvement in various acts that suppressed political freedom. By 1778, there was massive political unrest which led to his overthrow the following year.
He died shortly after slipping into a coma on the 27th of July 1980. He was buried in Egypt and the members of the Pahlavi family attended his funeral.