The Kras stepped into my office and said “I want you to go to England and see Wet Wet Wet. They’re playing the Hammersmith Odeon tomorrow night...fly ‘first’, if you have to”. I had a deal with Rough Trade, a record store in London. Every week, they’d send me the new entries to the UK top 50 singles chart so I already knew what they sounded like, but what Bob Krasnow wants, Bob Krasnow gets, so I asked my assistant, Valerie, to book me a flight. A few hours later I was sitting in Elektra’s London office reading the music papers. Sounds had picked 'Birthday' by The Sugarcubes - a band from Iceland - as their Single Of The Week and their review was so...well...rave-y, I just had to hear it. Like, now! I thought about getting a cab over to Rough Trade but as chance would have it, the 45 was sitting right there at the front of a pile of singles on the floor, leaning against a&r manager Dave Field’s desk. I placed it on the turntable and must have played it 5 or 6 times, in complete awe of its sheer beauty and unique, fresh sound. Whoa! Moments like this happen only a handful of times in a talent scouting career. Most of the stuff you hear is mediocre at best, and a large part of the job is saying “sorry, not quite right for us” to musicians hoping for a recording career. Out of the blue, here was a 100% bona fide, instant ‘hell, YEAH’. I was thoroughly blown away by this record and now wanted to see the band in concert, as soon as possible. I kept playing the record as I finished reading the paper and could scarcely believe my eyes when I read there was a Sugarcubes show, that night, at a pub near Great Portland Street tube station. I called the venue (I thought it was called the Portland Arms but there's something called the Green Man there now) and learned they were due to play at 11pm. Dave was out of the office at meetings and had another band to see that night, but he told me on the phone that he would try and catch the Wets last 2 songs and meet me in the Odeon’s lobby at the end of the show. The band played a perfectly professional set and seemed to satisfy their audience of (mainly) teenage girls. However, they didn’t strike me, particularly, as a band that would sit comfortably on Elektra’s roster, or sell particularly well in the US. I found Dave and he offered to drive me back to my hotel. I asked if he could drive me to Great Portland Street and invited him in to watch the Sugarcubes with me but he begged off saying he had to pack, as we were both flying to America in the morning to attend one of our 6 monthly, company-wide a&r meetings. We made plans to meet at the airport and I made my way into the venue. Inside, I was dismayed to see practically every a&r person I knew in the UK packed into this very smoky pub room, obviously trying to coax the band away from One Little Indian, the tiny independent label that had released the single. By this point I was exhausted and had been awake for nearly 40 hours. I staked my claim on a small flight of stairs so I could see the stage better and waited for the band to start. And waited. And waited. Midnight rolled around and I was feeling a bad mood coming on. There was no room to move, it was difficult to breathe with all the smoke, I couldn’t get a drink (or I’d lose my vantage point), I was tired and my feet were killing me. When the band finally decided to hit the stage at about 12.30am I was seething, and when the ugliest, most cacophonous, unrelenting, grating noise burst out of the speakers, I was totally shocked. It couldn’t have been more opposite to what I’d heard earlier that day and I wondered whether if this was the 'right' Sugarcubes. After about 8 more minutes of this, I thought, “screw this” and made my way back to my hotel. A couple of month later, I’m reading one of the music papers in my Manhattan office and I see the Sugarcubes’ second single, 'Cold Sweat', is picked as their Single Of The Week again. I phoned Dave and asked him to have it couriered over. Once the 45 showed up, it was obvious they were a truly fantastic band - on record – and quite unlike any other I’ve ever heard, a factor high on my list of criteria needed for me to want to work with someone. I walked down the corridor to Bob Krasnow’s office and asked if I could play him a couple of tunes. He agreed, and once ‘Birthday’ faded out, he told me to call Derek and “make it happen”. I loved working for Bob. There was never any doubt, and you knew where you stood. Dave Field had been following the Sugarcubes’ progress in the UK and gave me the number of their record company and the name of the fellow in charge. I called Derek Birkett who’s in the middle of co-producing the album (with Ray Shulman) and he agrees to send over some rough mixes of what he’s done so far and to talk to Gary Casson in our business affairs department. I do not mention the show I’d seen. A deal is worked out so now it’s time to meet the band. I fly to London and take them all out to dinner at the Rasa Sayang, a Malaysian restaurant in London’s Soho district. Finally, I meet Derek, who brings some of his staff and Siggi, Bragi, Thor, Einar Melax, Einar Örn and, of course, Björk. We eat, talk, and the drinks flow. All of them struck me as smart, vital, creative, highly likeable people and I learned they weren’t above having a little fun with folks they found stuffy, or ridiculous. Planeloads of Brits had to fly to Iceland to meet with them and I’m reasonably sure the band had no intention of ever leaving Derek or OLI. Indeed, over 20 years later, Björk is still with Derek, and One Little Indian continues to release her brilliant albums. Towards the end of dinner, I was feeling very good about our new relationship, when Einar Örn (co-vocalist/trumpet), who was sitting next to me, told me how much he was looking forward to me seeing the band play live, as I was probably the only person (by then) who hadn’t. I looked him in the eye and said, "well, actually Einar, I’ve already seen you in concert."
He looked genuinely surprised and asked "Where did you see us?"
"I think it was a place called The Portland Arms...near Great Portland Street tube"
He narrowed his eyes and looked at me quizzically... "oh yeah? (pause) What did you think?"
"Well, to be honest, I thought it was terrible and left after about 10 minutes."
He leans back, a smile coming slowly to his lips. "Correct! That was our "punk" gig. We wanted to play a really obnoxious show that would confuse the record industry people who were bothering us!"
Phew! I could have easily said I thought they were "great". It certainly wasn’t easy to tell my new pal that the show I’d seen was, uh, crappy, but I’ve always thought honesty’s the best policy and – although it’s got me into trouble before – this time, it marked the beginning of a long and satisfying relationship.
"punks" Einar Örn, Siggi and Þór Eldon on the picture with Joey Ramone
So Elektra released their debut, 'Life’s Too Good', and I thought I'd try to catch as much of the accompanying tour as possible. Their first show in the US was at the 9.30 Club in Washington, DC where I finally got to see the group in all their glory. Margrét (Magga) Örnólfsdóttir (now a permanent member, having replaced Einar Melax on keyboards) was dating guitarist, Thor. Thor had previously been Björk’s partner and their 2 year old boy, Sindri, (aka Sparky), was with them on the road. There was no weird vibe...in fact, everyone meshed beautifully, sharing responsibilities and taking care of business professionally and with good humour. It's not usually like that with musicians on tour. There’d often be an unstable one, perhaps a jealous-of-the-singer one, there’d be somebody who cared more about the ‘business’ than the music, a married one (whose spouse resented the band), often one who’d given up a good, paying job and found themselves in a filthy van, eating crap and sleeping on floors. There was none of that here. The ‘Cubes were the most democratic, hard working, down to earth, secure band I’d worked with. They took their artistry very seriously, but not at the expense of their lives outside the band. Hanging out with them was fun and inspirational. The DC show was a solid start to the tour and it was immediately obvious Björk would, one day, become a big star. The next show – July 29th 1988 - was in a decrepit hall in NY’s East Village called The World. It had no air conditioning and the temperature was in the low hundreds. I don’t think the group had ever felt such heat before, but they played their hearts out and later, backstage, made many new friends. A full complement of Elektra staff showed up, from the mail room to the legal department, and all were hugely impressed. Later, the show was pressed up as a bootleg double LP, Have An Ice Day.
Boston was next, and I watched the show standing a few feet to the side of Siggi’s drum kit. Now this guy’s a drummer! Not because he chose to wear a fetching white dress with a ton of tulle filling the drum-stool, but because his crisp, meticulous playing and extraordinary technique was a revelation to watch and hear. His playing is a huge factor in the band’s distinctive sound and later, he showed me he could play in four different time signatures simultaneously (using both hands and both feet independently), something not many drummers I ever ran into could do. After the show, we all went to Elektra promo rep Dave Johnson’s house for a party. Mark Cohen, our Deadhead from the mail room and Mary Mancini, an assistant in the a&r dept - and these, days a popular talk radio hostess in the Nashville market (Google and listen to her Liberadio show) - had both made the journey and were happy to watch Einar and Siggi demonstrate ‘Glima’, a form of Icelandic folk-wrestling which, apparently, is best undertaken after many Heinekens. According to Wikipedia, there are four points that differentiate it from regular wrestling:
* The opponents must always stand erect.
* The opponents step clockwise around each other (looks similar to a waltz). This is to create opportunities for offense and defense, and to prevent a stalemate.
* It is not permitted to fall down on your opponent or to push him down in a forceful manner, as it is not considered sportsman-like.
* The opponents are supposed to look across each other's shoulders as much as possible because it is considered proper to wrestle by touch and feel rather than sight.
Ok, that's quite enough of that... The following day, I took the band to my favourite Boston attraction, the Mapparium in the Mary Baker Eddy Library, next to the Christian Science Monitor building. The place is a trip and after we walked across the ‘equator’ and tested the freaky acoustics inside the globe, I returned to NY feeling really happy with our latest signing. I caught them again in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles. Word was spreading and People Magazine arranged a photo shoot at the Phoenix Hotel in SF where I introduced Björk to SF resident and NoFoSo playlist-mate, Angel Corpus Christi. According to the big map of the United States displayed in their bus, the tour had been christened NAMERIKA ’88 and, for some reason, whenever Duran Duran’s 'Notorious' came on the radio, the whole band would leap to their feet and start frantically spazz-dancing. Elektra’s Peter Philbin took us all out for sushi in Los Angeles, and once again, there was our mail room guy, Mark Cohen! How the hell did he get out here? The tour ended back in New York at the Ritz. Joey Ramone, Richard Butler and Sinead O’Connor came to pay their respects. So did Denis McNamara from WLIR, which, at that time, was the only radio station with a relatively far-reaching signal within a radius of hundreds of miles that played ‘modern’ music.
One of the best parts of being in a&r was the traveling, the seeing places I would never have gone to if I’d had a ‘proper’ job. Having hung out with the Sugarcubes for a good portion of their first US tour, I felt compelled to visit the country that could spawn such creative, open-minded and, overall, such splendid people. They were brilliant ambassadors and were keen to have everyone visit their homeland as (although they never said it) I’m sure they felt as far as countries go, theirs was a lot better than most, if not all. I rarely took vacations, since work always seemed like a holiday, but I decided to take a week off and see Iceland for myself.
The flight from JFK to Keflavik takes just over 5 1/2 hours, but soon I was checking into the Hotel Holt, one the band had recommended. I was immediately struck by the smell in my room. A bit like like rotten eggs. I thought of switching rooms, but on my way down to reception, I noticed everything smelled like that. I mentioned this to the girl at the check in desk and she told me “you’ll get used to it, it’s just the sulfur in the geo-thermal heating system”. She smiled, and said “is that all?” Later, Einar explained that Iceland derives its power and hot water via geothermal activity and many rivers and waterfalls are harnessed for hydroelectricity, availing its population to cheap, renewable energy. Fortunately, the smell comes and goes, and after a short while, you hardly notice it. I was surprised to see so many mobile phones, too. Technologically, Iceland seemed far ahead of any other country I’d been to and today, it tops the list of most developed countries in the world, having just overtaken Norway (according to the Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living, and GDP per capita for countries, worldwide).
I was there during October, so it was chilly, but not too bad. Unfortunately, the conditions weren’t good for seeing the ‘northern lights’ but the volcanic terrain outside the city made it seem like you were on the moon. During my stay, Siggi and Einar took me on a sightseeing trip (Golden Falls, some hot pools and erupting geysers), showed me their “national forest” (a small clump of ‘trees’ about 30 inches high – I think they were joking) and introduced me to their ‘alchemist’ friend and fellow musician, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, a fascinating guy with an interest in Alistair Crowley and owns large collection of his original works and memorabilia. Before I left, as a present, he gave me 'Egil’s Saga' and 'Najal’s Saga' both epic stories written in the 13th century, about Icelandic life during the 9th -11th centuries…fantastic stuff about Viking times! Everywhere I went, people gave me presents: Björk gave me a cap with an Icelandic flag on it and a necklace with a snowflake pendant hanging from it, Bragi gave me a published volume of his own poetry, Einar gave me a book about a dark, Icelandic surrealist, Alfred Flóki, I was given albums at the Bad Taste record shop, featuring pre-Sugarcubes works by Björk, Einar and Magga and other local bands like Ham and Reptile. One night, Thor and Magga invited me to their house for dinner and Magga cooked roast puffin, a seabird which (for a change) tasted like fish, not chicken. Everyone I met was super-friendly and very proud of their heritage. I don’t remember seeing any policemen (apparently there are 700 in the whole country) and the crime rate is so low, they only have 137 prisoners, 4 of whom are women. When I was there, the population was about 245,000 and the band had been booked to play a charity concert, to be broadcast live on the national radio station. Listeners pledged approximately $110,000. I think it says a lot for a band - and a country - where the equivalent of the entire nation donates about 40 cents for a good cause. Evenings were spent drinking Brennivin, a ‘potato moonshine’ (also known as Black Death), in one of the many bars there and, on my last night there, the group decided to throw an Oktoberfest party, so sausages were strung around a room, beer was ordered, Siggi ‘became’ Heidi in another dress and curly, blonde wig and - as always with these guys - much jollity ensued. Björk blew a horn and led the conga line.
I had such a good time, it was a pleasure to take record producer Paul Fox out there a couple of years later. The first thing we did was help look for Einar's brother Arni's horses who'd bolted from their pen having been spooked by some fireworks a couple of days earlier. We drove through the snow-covered countryside for about an hour, 90 minutes maybe, and somehow managed to find them in, corralled in some random farmer's pen. I was amazed. While we were there, a 'Cubes side-project, Konrad B (a variable 10+ piece jazz band consisting of members of the Sugarcubes, Reptile and other local musicians was booked for a concert and Bragi asked if I would like to join the band for the night. The thing about Konrad B is that all the musicians have to play an instrument they don't normally play. They had a euphonium lying about, so, what the hell...why not? That’s how I found myself making my stage debut, in front of approx. 200 Reykjavik locals, sitting next to Björk (clarinet), and across from Siggi (vocals), Magga (accordion), Einar and others. I was asked to take a solo during ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’ on an instrument I’d never touched...so I did. It probably wasn't very good, but one look at the front row showed me exactly why it's so great to be a musician.
In 2006, when The Sugarcubes reformed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of their incredible single, ‘Birthday’, I found myself back there watching them play a one-off to a sold-out crowd in a basketball arena. They were just as great as ever.
Photographs found @ www.flickr.com/photos/26412141@N05/sets/72157605021165244
The Sugarcubes in Iceland @ www.flickr.com/photos/26412141@N05/sets/72157605025637794