Icelandic rock music as a synthesis of international trends and national cultural inheritance
By Gestur Guðmundsson
in Young Volume 1 Number 2 1993
The more experimental part of Icelandic rock music has over the last 4-5 years been enjoying a considerable international success. The biggest name has been the Sugarcubes but several other groups have toured and issued records on both sides of the Atlantic.
1) At the same time more established artforms, such as literature, painting and film-making, have changed profoundly, not least by being inspired by rock-culture.
2) In this article I try to describe and explain how and why rock music moved from a position as a total outsider in Icelandic culture to being a major asset of modern Icelandic culture.
To put it differently, my purpose is to show how young people learned to use rock music to transform Icelandic culture.
Central to my approach is the assumption that rock music has provided a new form of cultural expression for groups whose experiences have been largely excluded from traditional cultural forms. Rock music has proved to be suitable for expressing new experiences and exploring possibilities provided by the material and cultural conditions of the modern world.
Some of the aspects that I will deal with are more or less common to youth in all Western countries, but I shall emphasize certain Icelandic pecularities, especially the interplay between the national cultural heritage and international impact. I will deal most extensively with the period from the nineteen-fifties to the mid-seventies, when the foundation of Icelandic rock culture was laid; I will only sketch the outlines of the building that has risen on that foundation in the eighties and nineties.
The hegemony of nationalism in the post-war era
In Iceland the process of modernization took place over an even shorter period than in other Nordic countries, mainly in two short and rupturous phases.
The first phase took place around the turn of the present century, when fishing cut its ties to agriculture, multiplied its export, went through an industrial revolution of mechanization and gave rise to 40-50 fishing villages that mushroomed around the coast and absorbed all population growth. Liberation from authoritarian rural society led to the creation of new, more hedonistic values and lifestyles and a special blend of individualism and community solidarity.
Although these fishing villages housed about one third of the population, their 'plebeian ethos' had no spokesmen within Icelandic cultural and ideological debate (Asgeirsson, 1988). It was ignored or treated as philistine both in the media and in the works of literature that were considered to be the heart of the culture. The dominant culture evolved through an alliance between a rural culture with strong roots and the new stratum of city intellectuals.
The second rupturous phase took place during and in the wake of World War II. This phase had two sides. On the one hand, the American army in Iceland brought a lot of money and cultural influence. On the other hand Iceland had for the first time full control over the fishing banks around the island. The political moves of the nation were characterized by a similar ambivalence between self-reliance and subordination. In a national referendum in the spring of 1944 99% of the population voted for full sovereignty as an independent republic. Only five years later an overwhelming majority in the Parliament made the country an integral part of NATO.
The national identity of Icelanders was shaped in the struggle for independence, which started in the wake of the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848. The romantic quest for the nation's historical roots involved ordinary Icelandic people more than was the case in most other European countries, and the Icelandic sagas and nationalistic interpretation of Icelandic history permeated most people's sense of identity. Nationalism remained at the heart of political ideologies and culture even after Iceland became a republic in 1944. All the main political forces in Iceland strove for legitimation through interpreting of Icelandic history, so that their own ideologies were seen as extensions of the social system of the saga period and the struggle for independence (see Jónsson, 1915-16, Olgeirsson, 1954 and Benediktsson, 1965-75). These were quite different interpretations of the national heritage, but they had a common nationalistic core or frame of reference.
The core of Iceland's national culture was its literary heritage, whose main components were the sagas from the 12th and 13th centuries and the romantic and often nationalistic poems of the 19th century, and which included a nationalistic interpretation of Icelandic history. It was not until the nineteen-sixties and seventies that Halldór Laxness and a few other 20th century writers were included in this commonly accepted inheritance, which was closely linked to a traditionalistic set of values and beliefs.
In the post-war period nationalism formed a cultural hegemony, primarily defined by various movements with rural roots. This cultural hegemony was firmly embedded in institutions such as the schools, the public service radio, newspapers and magazines, and in all art institutions. There was no organized or formulated opposition, and the national culture was not only maintained by the upper strata, but also through a much more active participation by ordinary people than in the other Nordic countries.
But in the realm of everyday experience the wind was blowing in other directions, stimulated by an explosive growth of consumer choice and a steady import of American mass culture, heavily reinforced by the presence of American military forces. All this found a fertile soil in the above-mentioned 'plebeian ethos', and the hunting or gold-digging mentality of the fishing villages now gained greater impact in the city of Reykjavík and in Icelandic society as a whole.
World War II had put an end to unemployment, doubled the level of disposable income and brought new patterns of consumption, mostly American, to the country. Both nouveau riches entrepreneurs and thrifty wage earners could move from unsanitary cellars into their own modern apartments or even houses. They could also collect more and more status-raising consumer durables, from washing-machines to cars. Import restrictions only made these goods more desirable along with fashion clothes, movies and music from the American mass-culture factories.
An important aspect of these new consumer patterns was the dance hall, where the decor and the dress of the musicians, waiters and guests carried people half-way into a Hollywood movie. The leading musicians had studied in the USA, and this was reflected in their music, clothes and their style generally. A new generation of musicians was recruited recruited from what could be called the first youth culture of Iceland, the jazz fans, but now they were grown ups with families - and often a wild life style.
Thus while the dominant culture was occupied with the mourning of old rural values and apprehension of international mass culture, popular culture offered a Saturday-night culture that suited the plebeian life-style of the fishing villagers and post-war golddiggers, and that suggested a positive attitude to modern life.
The rock wave of 1956-63
Icelandic dance bands kept in step with international trends, which they studied in frequent trips to the US and Europe. There was a steady flow of new music and dance crazes, most often with Southamerican origins filtered through the American music industry. The Icelandic bands did not simply copy international hits, but created their own arrangements, and from 1950 onwards they started to record some of these in Icelandic, and there were even some popular Icelandic tunes. When the rock wave hit the US in 1955, Icelandic bands found no immediate reason to add it to their program. This music did not fit in with their ideals of sophisticated pop and, moreover, it was primarily aimed at teenagers who did not set the standards for Icelandic dance bands.
However rock music did make a breakthrough in Iceland in 1956. The clubs on the American base in Keflavík, where pay was good and in dollars, had long been favourite places for the dance bands, and the young American soldiers demanded rock music. The existing bands were highly professional and could easily rehearse a set of rock music. Later they tried it out when they played for the young crowd in Reykjavík, who proved to be extremely receptive to rock music. Rock became a dance craze - and it is important to remember that for most people dancing was the most important feature of rock'n'roll in this first era, a fact that illustrates its democratic character of.
As everywhere in the Western world, rock'n'roll expressed the young generation's reinterpretation of being working class - not only through music but also through clothes, dancing and other attributes of young style. Although in some respects Iceland was less modernized than for instance Scandinavia, this reinterpretation fell on even more fertile ground in Iceland. As has been mentioned, the Icelandic nation was experiencing a rupture and taking more of a giant step into modernity than the other Nordic countries. The fishing villages had fostered a new kind of mentality, resembling the American wild frontier spirit, and in the forties and fifties this mentality started to pervade in the urban areas. Young people could easily become economically independent, working on the sea or land in the cod or herring seasons. They were especially alienated from the dominant culture and had a positive approach to the new life conditions but lacked an appropriate cultural framework.
As long as the young generation mixed with adults in working life, it was difficult to develop a new culture. Even though young people often had high incomes the lack of housing forced them to stay at home until they formed their own families. The seasonal work in the fishing industry offered some opportunities to get away from home and develop some sort of a youth culture. The nascent youth culture was nourished by a school reform in 1946 that made the lower secondary schools generally accessable for all youngsters aged 13 to 17. This education gave no direct vocational training and no access to higher education. In retrospect it is evident that most of these young people became skilled labourers or clerks, but when they were attending school their future was uncertain. They were the first generation of young people in Iceland who had time to experiment with and explore their 'freedom' within wide and flexible parameters, and they became the nucleus of youth culture in Iceland.
From the start lower secondary schools had been a source of a lot of delinquency, which found an outlet in rock'n'roll in 1956-57. The boys began to wear blue jeans and leather jackets, the girls trousers or 'rock-shirts'. Breaks between classes were the most important part of the school day and it was tough being a teacher at these schools. There was often a rock-dance during the breaks, with or without music, and at all schooldances. These schools formed the basis of the rockcliques which in the following years moved on to public dances, as the young started work or embarked on vocational training.
Gradually this youth culture extended its territory. The cinemas had long been popular meeting places for young people; you could arrive early and there was always an intermission. In fact the general rock fever started in the cinemas in early 1957, when three rock movies were shown and young people started dancing and throwing pieces of clothing in the air.
Other meeting places included 'milk bars' in downtown Reykjavík, where you could sit on high barstools and sip a milkshake or a coke through a straw, and where there was a juke-box playing rock'n'roll. These milk-bars became the centres of youth activity in Reykjavík from which new slang and fashion spread. Each milk-bar was often dominated by a certain clique that competed with other cliques. It was also possible to meet in the record stores that changed into dance floors when new rock records arrived. From the end of 1956 those over sixteen could dance to rock music every night in some dance hall, - if they had the money for the entrance.
This first rock wave peaked in May 1957 when Tony Crombie and his Rockets came from England and gave 13 concerts. Around seventhousand tickets were sold to these concerts. This does not mean that 10% of the population went, but more likely that 3% went three times.
Reykjavík dominated the development of rock culture in Iceland, but it also flourished elsewhere in the country. Young people in the fishing villages were immediately attracted by it and since many of them travelled from one village to another in search of work they had an immediate understanding of the expressions of restless American youth. Many of the young fishermen sailed abroad once in a while and in a period with heavy import restrictions they were able to bring home records, grammophones, clothes and other youth culture trophies.
Conflict and mediation
Everywhere in the world rock culture faced hostility and fear, and in Iceland in the 50s and 60s the nationalistic hegemony made these reactions even stronger. The socialists considered the rock culture to be a devious conspiracy of American cultural imperialism. The rural population saw it as the moral degeneration inevitable in urbanization. For bourgeois moralists this degeneration was caused by a too rapid rise of the spending power of working-class youth. However, these guardians of the moral order hoped to be able to restore the balance of the social organism and the respect of young people for law and order through moral and pedagogical campaigns. The police obtained more resources to locate young delinquents and to send them into the countryside for resocialization. In 1957 the City Council of Reykjavík established a Youth Council which tried to keep the young off the streets by offering evening courses in mechanics, sewing and basket weaving.
In 1956-60 there was a lively debate in the Icelandic papers on the 'youth problem'. All the writers agreed that there was a big problem, although they differed as to its seriousness, durability and solutions. No young people participated in this debate; they instead, simply sang for themselves 'Why is everybody always picking on me?' or 'Don't you step on my blue suede shoes!' Not even young intellectuals participated in the debate and I have only found two sympathetic contributions from young journalists during this period. One of them went so far as to state that rock dancing was a better outlet for the frustrations of young people than basket weaving and stamp-collecting. The other compared the rather peaceful and sober Saturday night in the popular 'Ice-bar' in central Reykjavík with the men in smart suits staggering noisily out of the respectable Hotel Borg just around the corner. The second journalist was fired within a week of publishing this review of Reykjavik night life.
The most successful mediation between the rock generation and their elders was carried out by the older and more established pop musicians. They found ways of combining American popular music and the cultural heritage of Iceland by making records in which Icelandic pop-singers sang Icelandic lyrics to American rock-hits. These records were ambitious. As a rule a new arrangement was made, usually rendering a more melodic, often jazzier version than the original. The rhythm was not as strong and the singing was not as wild as some of the original versions. The result was frequently an attractive popular song with a touch of rock'n'roll. The most original contribution was most often the lyrics, which normally did more than simply translate the original. A new genre was invented; rock'n'roll served as a symbol of modernity, i.e. the dissolution of protestant, rural values and the introduction of hedonism and consumerism.
Some examples of the subjects of songs from this period may give an idea of the contemporary view of the old and the modern: A lively farmer takes a trip from his stick-in-the-mud community to the city, where he learns to dance to rock and returns to teach his wife and his neighbours. This turns the community upside down, the authorities lose all power and a revolution is born. Phrases from rock'n'roll are mixed with popular traditional verses and parts of celebrated poems in defiance of the national heritage (this particular song was of course banned from the radio). One song of the period written in the sea shanties tradition refers to the seaman's wet dreams and to his prospects of wetting the bed with his wife when he returns home. This song was also banned from the radio. Perhaps the most typical was the transformation of a nine-line verse in which Elvis Presley asks his girl to go steady, into an eighteen-line epic poem summarizing up the story of urbanization and the resulting consumerism and moral degeneration.
The hard core rock fans were not all that enthusiastic about these Icelandic rock songs. They preferred the wilder American versions and they would rather hear about love and sex than stories from rural Iceland. But these songs had their fans outside the hard core and helped to win some sympathy or at least tolerance towards rock among the older generation. With these songs the pop music business in Iceland built a bridge over the gulf between the rock generation and the rest and between international mass culture and the cultural heritage of Iceland.
In as early as 1956 singers from the 'rockgeneration' were allowed to perform with established dance-bands, albeit only as guest stars. They were never hired on a permanent basis like the more all-round pop singers. The first young rock singers made their recording debuts in 1959 and in the same year the first real Icelandic rock groups, with young rock-loving musicians, entered the general market. The rock generation was finally ready to express its own feelings.
Unfortunately, it was too late. Hard rock was already disappearing from the charts in the US and elsewhere and being replaced by soft popmusic. The Icelandic rockwave can be said to have peaked in 1960, when there were at least six popular young rock groups. The leading groups were the Lúdó-sextett, Disco-sextett and City-sextett. No record company dreamed of releasing a record with these bands then; they were not considered professional enough, (at that time records were always made in one take).
In the early sixties some of these groups and a hard core of the rock fans survived as a subculture. A few dance halls in Reykjavík played some rock music but the local dance halls in the countryside, especially those within a radius of 100 kilometres from Reykjavík, were the true home of this subculture. They were attended by the wilder elements of the young generation, who came in buses or American cars and drank, fought and petted in an atmosphere of rock'n'roll.
But most of the new groups were modelled on the Shadows rather than rock bands. They formed an important link between the rock era and the Beatles era. They made teenage groups legitimate and the music scene was split between them and the older generation of professional musicians who played for all generations.
To sum up: The cultural hegemony of the forties and fifties offered the Icelandic population a national identity based on the past but gave little help to individuals and groups in finding their way in a new world. Fragments of a more up-to-date identity were produced in various processes of everyday life, moving hastily away from nationalistic cultural traditions. In these processes the rock'n'roll-centred youth culture was of special importance. It became a cultural space in which the young generation, who suddenly had more time and money than their predecessors, could experiment with new identities and find their cultural relation to other Western youth.
The younger generation's struggle for identity did not meet with much understanding or help from the older generation, educational institutions, or the cultural élite. On the other hand the older generation of popular musicians tried to adopt new trends to some extent, e.g. by converting rock hits into Icelandic pop music. However, young people had no one to rely on but themselves; they accumulated experience which new generations of youth could draw upon and take a little further, under the influence of new international trends. These young people were learning by themselves to use means of expression borrowed from other cultures from music to body-language. Icelandic youth was so concerned with learning and adapting the various forms of expression which came from abroad that they gave only limited thought to their own roots and the cultural heritage of Iceland. This situation continued into the seventies.
Beat music and flower power
'Beatlemania' swept over England in 1963 without causing even a ripple in Iceland. Most young people were still looking to the US for new trends in pop music, and it was not until the Beatles had conquered the US in February 1964 that Beatlemania made it to Iceland too. In March 1964 there was a 'Beatles concert' in the biggest cinema in Reykjavík and it triggered off Beatlemania in Iceland, with the group Hljómar from Keflavík near the U.S. base, as the Icelandic Beatles. They made the first 'Beatles record' in Iceland in the spring of 1965 with two numbers their guitarist Gunnar Þórðarson had written in the Merseybeat style 'Bláu augun fl'n/Fyrsti kossinn'. The group had written one of the songs in Icelandic and the other in English, but the record publisher did not like these lyrics so, he employed an experienced writer of pop lyrics to write in Icelandic. The same procedure was used in the production of most records in the 'Beatles period' of Icelandic rock until the end of the sixties. Neither the bands nor their young listeners were happy about these lyrics since many thought English was the only appropriate language for this type of music and they regarded the demand to sing in Icelandic as another instance of authoritarian oppression. A few groups made an exception by singing one or two songs in English, and the hard core youth culture took to only these numbers, considered to be signs of rebellion and a commitment to the spirit of beat music.
Beat music made a greater impact on youth as a whole than did the first rock wave. The by now widely recognized period of youth in the life span of every individual was getting longer. More young people stayed longer in the educational system and even those who quit school at an early age remained members of a youth culture. Beat music became a more mainstream phenomenon and clothes and other elements of youth style became more widespread than had been the case in the first era of rock'n'roll.
The boom of the sixties hit Iceland slightly differently than it did other countries of western Europe. The herring boom sparked off a general economic upturn, there was minus unemployment and consequently plenty of well-paid overtime available. At the same time many of the restrictions that had characterized the fifties were abandoned and new consumer goods came flooding into the country. Young people were not qualitatively different from other age groups, they were only more internationally oriented and had more leisure. The young were even more optimistic than the rest of the population about the future and the prospects of social mobility.
The cultural unity of the nationalistic hegemony was disintegrating and it totally lost its grip on the young generation. The young beat groups were forced to sing in Icelandic on records, but in the dance halls nobody could prevent them from singing in English. The English lyrics and the Carnaby Street clothes were symbols of an international, mostly Anglo-saxon orientation, which was reinforced through pilgrimages to London, the Mekka of youth culture.
It took a long time for flower power to gain a stronghold in Iceland. Beat music had been in tune with the fun-loving, hard-working and prosperous Icelandic youth of the mid-sixties, but they were still expecting more from the boom and were not turned on by the idle, psychedelic romanticism of the hippies. It had to be culturally translated into a different Icelandic reality and around 1970 a new cosmopolitan youth culture emerged with new forms of political activity, new music and new life-styles for young people.
The material conditions for this new youth culture in Iceland were in part an effect caused by the rapid expansion of the educational system. At the same time there was a growing tendency among those who quit school not to settle down with a steady job and a family, but to play around - not only in their teens but also into their twenties. The notion began to gain ground, that this life style did not need to be temporary, that you did not have to grow up in the same way as the older generations. Although there never were many full-time hippies in Iceland, lots of young people experimented with this life-style in their leisure time and in short breaks from work or study. The drugs, clothes, slang, decor and other trappings of hippiedom became aspects of the life Icelandic youth.
In 1969 there was a major upheaval in Icelandic rock music. Most of the leading groups were dissolved, and the musicians formed new constellations, with new music. There were many creative bands around, the most popular being Trúbrot and Náttúra. All these bands had the same Achilles' heel - their lyrics. Their Icelandic lyrics met with harsh criticism, and the bands were made to feel that they were being measured by the same standards as literary poetry. So they started to write in English, not only as a reaction to the criticism but also as a part of their struggle to achieve success outside Iceland. The period 1971-75 has been called the 'English' era of Icelandic rock.
Increasing numbers of the young were becoming attached to the Icelandic language in literature and other fields of culture, where modernism and other rebellious forms were challenging the nationalistic hegemony. However the attempts to link this avant-garde culture with the youth culture remained very, very subcultural.
One central tenet of this new youth culture was pacifism, which made it natural not only to participate in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations but also to protest against the American base in Keflavík. There had always been a left-wing, nationalist opposition against the base, but now most young people took part in the protests, and they gradually reformulated the resistance against the base from nationalistic to anti-imperialistic/internationalistic.
The combination of these three elements of youth culture - the cosmopolitan orientation of the rock culture, the modernist view of post-war Icelandic society and the reformulation of the struggle against the American base to an anti-imperialistic struggle - put the reassessment of Icelandic culture on the agenda within youth culture. It would be mistaken to view this change as a result of political agitation; Icelandic youth culture had matured and nurtured more cultural skills, and a natural next step was to extend its international orientation and cultural criticism to the spheres of politics and established culture.
1975: Icelandic rock is born
The hippie scene was already fading in 1972, in Iceland as elsewhere. However, in the middle of the general resignation, new elements were brought into rock music and youth culture. The international degeneration of the Anglo-Saxon rock music gave some space to local or ethnic music, in Iceland as elsewhere. The market for Icelandic rock was stagnant, and in order to survive bands were forced to innovate. Many of these attempts at innovation involved an orientation towards national culture.
Some of the leading musicians from the beat and hippie periods had lost so much faith in ambitious rock'n'roll that they were ready to take the plunge into plain pop music. Icelandic pop music thus went through a generation shift and a change of style towards middle-of-the-road rock music.
Gunnar Þórðarson, former member of Hljómar and Trúbrot, was the leading musician in the shaping of Icelandic pop-rock in the seventies. He was helped a great deal by the lyrics of Þorsteinn Eggertsson, who managed to translate the atmosphere of American country rock to Icelandic settings. Eggertsson's use of language was at once adventurous and accessible. Often his lyrics made use of slang and word-play, especially from the hippie period. Being originally a Presley-imitator, Eggertsson was familiar with the history of Icelandic rock and twenty years later in the revival spirit of the seventies, he was able to put the atmosphere of the early sixties' rock'n'roll into new words and rhymes.
Magnús Eiríksson and his band, Mannakorn, also contributed greatly to shaping Icelandic rock. As well as writing and performing excellent pop music, Eiríksson managed to adapt Icelandic language to blues music.
Some of the younger musicians of the late hippie period had gone to a modern, liberally-minded grammar school in Reykjavík. In 1975 they revived an old school project and made a record under the name Stuðmenn parodying many different rock styles. To make it as corny as possible all the lyrics were composed in Icelandic. The record 'Sumar á Sýrlandi' turned out to be more than a parody; it was excellent pop music as well. The group was obviously enjoying rock'n'roll and making fun of it at the same time. This ambivalence was a key to success. At last rock fans had Icelandic rock of a high standard, and young intellectuals found a useful approach to rock music through the ironic distance of Stuðmenn.
The fourth revitalizing influence on Icelandic rock in 1975 had a rather atypical background. Megas was one of the kids who welcomed rock in 1956, but packed away his records when he started grammar school in 1960. As a young bohemian and writer he was inspired by Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and other rock poets. However his songs were no copies as the lyrics were highly original. In the late sixties and the early seventies they were not accessible to the general public as they were only available in stencil and Megas only perfermed them for the comrades in left-wing and bohemian circles. Some of his friends helped him make the first record in 1972, where his diabolic and satirical lyrics were accompanied by soft acoustic music. The rock crowd and the cultural élite ignored this record, but Megas became a cult figure in the growing alternative arts scene.
By performing his highly original lyrics with the electric rock group, Júdas, in 1975 Megas finally managed to put out a record that gave him a wider audience. Many of his songs dealt satirically with the cultural heritage and with Icelandic society's outsiders. He left no taboo untouched and thus managed to divide the public into a hostile majority and an enthusiastic minority. These songs were excellent poetry; Megas used the Icelandic language in a fresh and innovative manner and in the true spirit of rock'n'roll. In other words he was a provocateur.
Eiríksson and Þorsteinn Eggertsson gained immediate popularity and influenced other artists. In spite of Stuðmenn's huge popularity in the mid-seventies and the relative success of Megas in the latter half of the same decade, the influence of these artists on Icelandic rock did not really become evident until the eighties.
It took a long time for punk to be translated into the Icelandic cultural context, but when it was, Megas was considered part of 'the honorable past' and a source of inspiration. The punk wave of the early eighties asserted itself as an act of rebellion against all previous rock music, but it was also obvious that the punkers were learning from their predecessors. They realized the intentions of the hippie era to create an alternative scene with strong bonds of solidarity. They revitalized dancing as self-expression from the early rock and the Beatles era, and they perfected the stylish performances of all previous periods. Especially important for Icelandic rock was that the punkers incorporated the 'Megasian' mentality of expressing the spirit of rock'n'roll in highly innovative Icelandic. The punk wave carried the potentialities of previous rock periods a bit further in most respects. The punks were more radical, more anarchistic, more creative and, most important of all, they managed to create an alternative scene that was stronger than any of its predecessors.
There was a veritable 'punk boom' in Iceland, especially in Reykjavík, in 1980-82. In the following years this music seemed to decay, but from about 1986 musicians with roots in punk surfaced again. They had put the gloomy features of post-punk behind them and were concentrating on the rock'n'roll joie de vivre. Once again an alternative scene blossomed in Reykjavík, punk thus becoming the fertile soil of for experimental Icelandic rock. This scene is not only important on its own, it also poses a constant challange to the more commercial part of the rock'n'roll and pop scene, which has gained a lot from attempts to incorporate aspects of the experimental scene.
The rock scene in the eighties, especially the more experimental part of it, has had much closer contact than before with similar rock scenes, especially in England, but also in France and the US. At the same time the gradual production of a synthesis between international trends and the national cultural heritage that I have tried to describe has remained a strong part of the rock scene. It has also been the key to international success as the youth of the world has become interested in successful crossings between international mass culture and local cultural roots.
The dominant Icelandic culture was not only unable to cope with the challange of the post-war period, but most of it remained stale into the seventies. Then one field after another of the established arts were taken over by people who had grown up in the youth culture, and the 'rock'n'roll spirit' became a major revitalizing force in most of these fields 3) and in both the traditional as well as the new forms of mass media.
The essence of the synthesis
Icelandic rock was born when rock artists finally managed to bring the spirit of rock'n'roll into the Icelandic language, a process that took several generations of youth culture. It made it possible for rock artists to express their feelings verbally, not only with body language, and thereby also gave them access to their rich literary heritage - on their own terms. From then on the music became more personal and more original because it was combined with words that truly expressed the musicians' feelings and attitudes.
There has been a strong continuity in the development of youth culture in Iceland. Every generation shift has also included an adaptation to and transformation of the youth culture of the previous generation. An important aspect of this continuity can be seen as a steady accumulation of cultural competence in Icelandic youth culture (see the scheme below). At one point, i.e. the mid-seventies, with the schism between alternative culture and disco culture, the basic dance and body language skills tended to be isolated from more artistic and intellectual competence, but since the punk era these have again been integrated. Such a schematic view cannot show the different constellations of these skills that various periods and style phenomena have produced, and important cultural competence produced in other realms of young people's lives cannot be included in this simplified picture.
1956-63: Rock era
1964-67: Beat era
1968-73: Hippie era
1974-79: Alternative & Disco era
1980-83: Punk era
1984-... : Pluralistic era
Note: This scheme should not be taken too literally. Its purpose is to point out how youth cultural style develops body-related expressive cultural skills that become the precondition for the development of artistic and intellectual skills, which later on challange and change the dominant culture in Iceland.
The theme of Icelandic rock in the fifties concerned the transition from rural to urban society, under strong pressure from abroad. By the sixties this transition was complete, and young people were occupied with becoming a part of the international youth scene. In the seventies youth culture was more sensitive to and critical of some aspects of the internationalization, and this forced Icelandic youth to take a closer look at its own roots. In the turmoil of the early eighties all these phases were digested and became a part of youth identity. Icelandic youth did not have to use all its energy to catch up with international fashions or to keep its own roots in the soil; international and historical relations became integrated into youth culture, thus liberating youth to work out an identity in an ever-changing world.
The raw materials of creative Icelandic rock, so my were gradually produced in the fifties, sixties and seventies. The 'new' and magic ingredient of the early eighties was the democratization of rock culture, which liberated the creative energy still at work in Icelandic rock.
Youth culture has not only been productive for its members. It has generated cultural responses to modernization at a time when the dominant culture has been largely unable to cope with cultural change. Thus it has been a major force shaping a modern culture. This has of course not only happened in Iceland. The Icelandic case can in some respects be seen as an example of general processes taking place all over the Western world. But especially the struggle with the national cultural heritage and the gradual emergence of a productive synthesis is most likely clearer in Iceland than in most other European countries.
In my final remarks I would like to stretch the implications of the previous discussion. The people of the Scandinavian metropoles often have an identity as peripheral to the big metropoles of the world, but central to the 'Nordic periphery', which includes Iceland. The academic community and the rock industry are among the actors sharing this identity. Since the punk wave large segments of the Icelandic rock culture have abandoned such centre-periphery parameters, preferring to think of themselves as a part of one of the many centers of a polycentered world.
At the same time the history of Icelandic rock can be read as a history of an isolated periphery, that is suddenly put under heavy pressure from one of the strong centralizing forces of our century - the American mass culture. Contemporary Icelandic rock can be seen as a viable solution to this cultural conflict - and one which took a long time to produce.
Seen as a unity of these two sides the glimpse of Icelandic rock history that has been related here may serve as an inspiration for Nordic youth researchers to revise some of their habitual ways of thinking about youth.
1. The Sugarcubes have issued three LPs on the One Little Indian label, the first one selling more than one million copies and the others only slightly less. Other 'art-rock' groups that have raised some interest abroad are e.g.: Reptile, Bless, Ham, Reptilicus, Kolrassa Krókriðandi and Rosebud, as well as the acid rock bands Deep Jimi and the Zep Creams and Jet Black Joe and the more mainstream groups SS Sól, Júpiters, Kind and Todmobile. The first Icelandic group to enjoy international success, during the early eighties was the jazz-fusion group Mezzoforte, but they were rather isolated from the Icelandic rock culture.
2. Some of the best known names are the novelists Einar Már Guðmundsson, Einar Kárason og Sjón; the film makers Fridrik Tór Fridriksson, Óskar Jónasson and Ásdis Thoroddsen and the painter Tolli.
3. See note above.
ÁSGEIRSSON ÓLAFUR (1988): Iðnbylting hugarfarsins. Átök um atvinnuflróun á Íslandi 1900-1940 Reykjavík: Menningarsjóður.
BENEDIKTSSON BJARNI (1965-75) Land og lýðveldi I-III Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið.
GUDMUNDSSON GESTUR (1990) Rokksaga Íslands Reykjavík: Forlagið.
GUDMUNDSSON GESTUR (1992) Ungdomskultur som overgang til lønarbejde København: Forlaget Sociologi.
JÓNSSON FRÁ HRIFLU JÓNAS (1915-16) Íslandssaga handa börnum Reykjavík.
OLGEIRSSON EINAR (1954) Ættarsamfélag og ríkisvald í fljóðveldi 'slendinga Reykjavík: Heimskringla.
The rock'n'roll era (1957-63)
RAGNAR BJARNASON AND KK SEXTETT: Óli rokkari/Mærin frá Mexícó, HSH 1957. Líf og fjör/Tequila, HSH 1958.
HAUKUR MORTHENS (with JØRN GRAUENGÅRDS ORCHESTRA (Copenhagen)): Lóa litla á Brú, 1958.
SKAPTI ÓLAFSSON: Syngjum dátt og dönsum/Ef að mamma vissi flað (arranged by MAGNÚS INGIMARSSON), íslenskir Tónar 1957, Allt á floti/Mikið var gaman af flví (arranged by GUNNAR REYNIR SVEINSSON), íslenskir Tónar 1958.
GUðBERGUR AUðUNSSON AND KK-SEXTETT: Lilla Jóns/Angelina, HSH 1959, Útíá sjó/Adam og Eva, HSH 1960.
SAS-TRÍÓ: Jói Jóns/Allt í lagi, HSH 1959.
The Beatles era (1964-67)
HLJÓMAR: Fyrsti kossinn/Bláu augun flín, SG 1965. Two LPs and two EPs on SG 1965-68, Memory/Once, and one 2xEP on Parlophone EMI 1966, Show me you like me/Stay on CBS 1967, LP on Hljómar 1974.
DÁTAR: Two EPs on SG 1966 and 1967.
ÓDMENN: EP on SG 1967.
PÓNIK OG EINAR: Two EP on Tónaútgáfan and UF 1967-68 (and more records in the 1970ies).
The hippie era (1968-73)
FLOWERS: one EP on Tónaútgáfan 1968.
TATARAR: Two singles on SG 1969-70.
TRÚBROT: Lifun, (LP) Tónaútgáfan 1971 and three more LPs and two singles on Fálkinn and Trúbrot 1969-72.
ÓDMENN: Two singles and a double-LP in 1970.
NÁTTÚRA: Magic Key (LP), Náttúra 1972.
MÁNAR: Mánar (LP) and two singles on SG 1970-72.
ICECROSS: Icecross (LP), Icecross 1973
The era of disco/Birth of Icelandic rock (1974-79)
STUDMENN: two singles in 1974, Sumar á Sýrlandi (LP), Steinar 1975, Tívolí (LP), Steinar 1976 (Five more LPs and more issues in the eighties).
LÓNLÍ BLÚ BOJS: one single in 1974 and three LPs on Hljómar 1975-76.
MAGNÚS EIRÍKSSON/MANNAKORN: Three LPs on Fálkinn 1975-79 (and more issues in the eighties).
MEGAS: Megas, Megas 1972, Millilending, Demant 1975, Fram og aftur blindgötuna, Hrím 1976, Á bleikum náttkjólum, Iðunn 1977, Nú er ég klæddur og kominn á ról, Iðunn 1978, Drög að sjálfsmorði, Iðunn 1979, six more LPs and other issues on various labels since 1986.
BRIMKLÓ: Five LPs on Geimsteinn, Steinar and Hljómplötuútgáfan 1976-81.
ÞURSAFLOKKURINN: Four LPs on Fálkinn and Þursabit 1978-82.
ÞÚ OG ÉG: Four LPs on Steinar 1979-82.
The punk era (1980-83)
BUBBI MORTHENS - 'The king of Icelandic rock in the eighties': 20 LPs (some of them with the groups Utangarðsmenn and Ego) and other issues in 1980-92, most of them on Steinar and Gramm.
ÞEYR: Seven records on Eskvímó and other labels 1980-82.
FRÆBBBLARNIR: Six records on Rokkfræðslufljónustan 1978-83.
PURRKUR PILLNIKK: Seven records in 1981-82, all on Gramm.
TAPPI TÍKARRASS: Bitið fast í vitið, Spor 1982, Miranda, Gramm 1983.
Note: Recently Steinar records have acquired most of the older record labels and are reissuing many older pop and rock songs in different packages. Smekkleysa (Bad Taste ltd.) have reissued Purrkur Pillnikk and Þeyr and may reissue more bands from the punk era.