sunnudagur, febrúar 18, 2007

The Sugarcubes in Magazine Record Collector (1989)

Record Collector 6/89


In two years the Sugarcubes have gone from being a band unknown outside of their native Iceland to cult status in Europe and a contract with a major U.S. record company.

The band features Einar Orn Benediktsson and Björk Gudmundsdottir on vocals, Thor Fridrik Erlingsson on guitar, Bragi Olafsson on bass and Siggy (Sigtryggur) Baldursson on drums, and sometimes Thor Eldon on guitar. An organist called Melax has worked with then on an on-off basis, but more recently they have featured keyboard player Magga. The men are all in their mid-twenties and Bjork, who is married to Thor, is a couple of years younger.

Before they had any records issued in Britain the individual members of the Sugarcubes had already featured on several releases in their own country. Bjork's early recording career included an eponymous LP in 1977 -- when she can only have been around 10 years old! This album, with a great psychedelic cover but fairly dubious music within, is now a collectors' item with a £20 price tag. Einar and Björk were both in new wave bands, Purrkur Pilnikk and Tappi Tikarrass respectively, and the letter outfit recorded two albums that are now worth at least £15. Björk has also recorded with her sister and their LPs are relatively easy to come by, costing £6-£7.

Einar and Björk worked together in Kukl, a new wave band associated with the Crass band and label. Their two albums, "The Eye" and "Holidays in Europe" are due to be reissued, and originals should not cost collectors more than about £5. Kukl later routed Europe with bands like Crass, the Fall and Flux Of Punk Indians. Eventually Kukl split and Einar and Bjork formed the Sugarcubes, managed by their friend, the Icelandic writer Johnny Triumph. Thor and Bragi were also poets, whilst Einar had had some of his prose published and was responsible for setting up Iceland's first independent record show, label and distributor, Gramm. The Sugarcubes' first Icelandic single was a pressing of 300 copies of "Birthday" on Gramm.

This article is mainly concerned with the Sugarcubes' U.K. discography, but collectors who want to dig deeper can hunt for all the items mentioned above and others besides, including "Skytturnar", a soundtrack recording featuring members of the group, issued on Gramm.

The Sugarcubes' first U.K. release, "Birthday", was one of the most idiosyncratic records of recent years. A `Melody Maker' single of the week in August 1987, "Birthday" achieved instant cult status. Airplay courtesy of John Peel elevated the single to the indie top ten, thus earning it regular exposure on TV's `The Chart Show'. The video employed obscure black and white visuals and featured the flipside Icelandic version of the song, helping to increase their cult status.

The appeal of this first single was enhanced by the band's unusual origins, Iceland had never won the Eurovision Song Contest or even produced a pop group that had made the cross-over to English-speaking nations. In addition there was a sexuality in Bjork's voice that was almost frightening. She had already become a sex symbol of the underground before anyone had any idea what she looked like! The backing, meanwhile, was inventive, and rumbled with menace; and the single will long be remembered as a pop classic.

"Birthday" was released in the U.K. on the One Little Indian label, which had been set up by Flux after the demise of the Crass label. Despite their success with "Birthday" and their subsequent releases, the Sugarcubes have remained with One Little Indian, and in other territories that have generally preferred not to sign with a major company. The exception has been the U.S.A. where their records are released on Elektra.

The Sugarcubes' second single, "Coldsweat", was initially a let-down. Firstly it was sung in English, which perhaps made it less than intriguing and it didn't seem to be as powerful as their debut. Repeated plays confirmed that they were no one hit wonder band, however. The 12" format of "Coldsweat" was a limited edition of 5,000 and several other limited editions have been pressed since then. However, One Little Indian still hold stocks of all formats of all the Sugarcubes' singles, with the exception of the 12" and CD versions of "Birthday", so collectors are not obliged to pay over the odds for these items. Despite this, some dealers have been offering items like the "Birthday" 7" and the band's later collaboration with the Jesus & Mary Chain at inflated prices.

The third single is often the breaking point for new bands, but "Deus" was a potent fusion of menace and whimsy. Again, the solid and imaginative backing of the band allowed Bjork to use her voice to extraordinary effect. The lyrics first defied and then seemed to accept the concept of the Supreme Being, but a spoken section by Einar made it seem that God was more interested in soap commercials than humanity. Einar's contribution to the band has often been underrated, but he comes to the fore in live performances.

"Life's Too Good", released in April 1988, was typical of many Debut LPs, mixing the best of what was already out on single release (all three A-sides were included, plus three of their flipsides) plus a few new songs, all sung in English. But the album is exciting and fresh and displays considerably more ability than most people would give the band credit for. The lyrics tend to be their biggest weakness: there is a tendency to dismiss them as naive and almost childlike, but in some ways this adds to the sexual menace of many of the songs. "Sick For Toys" is a good example of a song that makes you feel uneasy because of its sexual implications. Bjork herself has a childlike appearance and on stage she can come over as a mischievous, even evil, troll, at the same time exuding a youthful sexual appeal.

The summer of 1988 saw the release of the band's much-rumoured collaboration with the Jesus & Mary Chain. Apparently the J&MC recorded their feedback version of "Birthday", retitled "Christmas", on their own and Bjork's vocals were added later, so the collaboration was more of an electronic one than anything else.

Since last summer there have been no new Sugarcubes releases in the U.K., but a new album is promised and the band has toured extensively, resulting in several bootlegs featuring new songs like "Diesel", "TV", "Planet" and "Water".

After almost a year's silence it's about time for the band to re-establish itself as one of the most inventive indie bands around and for them to prove that they can move beyond their initial naive image to create a lasting impression on the British rock scene.

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