THE BIRTHPLACE OF ROCK, PUNK AND SNOBBERY
Published in Grapevine, April 2005 www.grapevine.is
Would you believe the cheapest way to spend a night at Hótel Borg is as dear as renting a student’s room in downtown Reykjavík for half a month? Unless you sneak into the hotel and change lifts every other minute to escape the bouncers, that is. But while Hótel Borg has always been an elitist upmarket place since its opening in 1930, it has also hosted Iceland’s first musical revolution – a fact not quite as paradoxical as it may seem.
Originally, only the most elite hotel in Iceland could afford a good band. “In the beginning, most of the in-house bands hired by the hotels were Danish and later English, because there were no professional Icelandic musicians”, says drummer Guðmundur Steingrímsson, who played with many bands and singers including Bubbi’s uncle, the first 50s pop-star Haukur Morthens. “Before World War II people had to go abroad to receive a professional musical education, as there were no such facilities in Iceland at that time.”
The situation changed totally with the arrival of the American army and the following economic boom. “Being a musician was suddenly a regular job. The bands played at the airbase, at schools and at Hótel Borg, and could make a living of it”, explains journalist Árni Matthíasson. Prior to that, the whole nation consisted of farmers who traded goods in order to survive, and of the small upper class. When the army came, people were paid in money for the first time, and an affluent middle class evolved. “All of a sudden”, says Árni, “we stepped from the past into the present.”
Too Stinky to Dance
But the present did not only bring prosperity, it also introduced snobbishness and discrimination. People from the countryside were not admitted to the dances at Hótel Borg on grounds of their attested simpleness, poor financial situation - and because “they simply smelled bad!” Árni pins it down. While “the past” was excluded, “the future” was experiencing a revolution not only in terms of rock music, which had been imported by the Americans and soon spread like wildfire among Icelandic musicians, but also in terms of professionalism.
After imbibing foreign influences for decades, it was now Iceland’s turn to export their musical elite. A jazzgroup called KK Sextett (with Guðmundur on drums) was the first Icelandic band to go abroad in 1954. “For our gigs abroad, we would either translate our lyrics into English, or, if possible, in the respective language of that country”, says Guðmundur. “Sometimes, new songs would be written in Danish or German.”
More and more bands began to consider the Icelandic market merely as a stepping stone for international success. Instead of addressing the national audience, they sang in English about things that English-speaking bands would sing about, dressed like them and thus alienated their Icelandic followers. With the conversion from dried fish to baked beans, the musical activity at Hótel Borg declined in the 60s. The opening of places like Glaumbar and Thórscafé and the coming of the discotheque in the 70s made things worse. The lure of the new was to celebrate its victory... but for how long?
Disco to Punk Under Chandeliers
As people from the countryside were still forbidden to enter Hótel Borg in the 70s, “the place opened up for city and university people. So the audience was already there when bands started to reclaim the stage”, says popologist Dr. Gunni. However, when Fræbbblarnir, one of Iceland’s first punk bands, played at the hotel in the early 80s, they were confronted with an almost hostile crowd, as Valgarður, the singer, explains: “The hostility was due to people being used to disco and other mainstream music, but what was acceptable soon changed and the punk movement took over.”
While Fræbbblarnir were rather unconcerned about political correctness, many of the bands had a very political, and, as Árni argues, nationalistic touch. “The first song on Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s classic documentary Rokk í Reykjavík (which was mainly shot at Hótel Borg) is self-explanatorily called Ó Reykjavík!. The songs were mostly in Icelandic and dealt with working in the fish processing factories, hanging out at Hlemmur, et cetera.” Valgarður, on the other hand, dismisses this argument as an oversimplification and distortion of a great era and points out that bands like Fræbbblarnir, Q4U, Purrkur Pillnik and Þeyr certainly did not reduce their music to “what-a simple-life-we-are-leading” flatness.
Hótel Borg thus regained its status as an intellectual rock-club, “it even had a ying-and-yang-meaning for the crowd”, says Dr. Gunni. But while he remembers the ying, his memories of the yang are somewhat blurred... “I just remember standing in the line outside in the cold for hours. I don’t have any clear memories of the place, but I suppose I was just doing the things all Icelanders do – maybe drink a double vodka and coke or martini bianco, as there was no beer back then.”
Despite all this rock’n’roll, the Icelandic punk scene was not as unified as the British scene that was its predecessor. According to Valgarður, “We just played concerts without setting conditions – everybody in the scene was different, and this built up a special spirit.”
From the beginning there had been a few bands that were not really into punk, and this openness towards other kinds of music slowly triggered a change which went hand in hand with the decline of the punk movement. “When the punk/ New Wave movement started to fade, the same happened to Hótel Borg. It was the club you went to play at in 83, 84, 85. After that, there were other venues.”
Dyslexic Crooks and the Decline
For example a club originally called Safari, which changed its name almost every month, along with the owner’s kennitala, to escape tax payments. As the club turned into Zafari into Casablanca into Roxy into Rocxy, Hótel Borg made some faint but failing efforts to reopen as a music venue.
In the 90s, the hotel was sold and the new owners were determined to turn it into THE upmarket place in Reykjavík. Ironically, “when the cocaine-scene took the place in about five years ago, they renamed it Skuggabarinn, because Hótel Borg had a negative connotation for them”, says Dr. Gunni.
Today, there are occasionally bands who come to play at the hotel, but the atmosphere could not be further from any sort of musical revolution. Which might, in fact, be a sign that it is indeed just around the corner. According to Hótel Borg’s natural schedule, be prepared for the next big thing to break through at the end of this decade. Be there, or hide under your cover for another twenty years!