The History of Icelandic Rock music
Dátar – Iceland’s most tragic band
Dr. Gunni in Grapevine Magazine (June 2009) www.grapevine.is
The Beatles had completely changed the landscape of the pop scene and therefore, by 1965, every Icelandic garage was full of young boys (and way too few girls) belting out Beatle covers and other hits du jour. The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Searchers and Brian Poole and the Tremeloes – all second division beat groups from Britain – had already visited Iceland when The Kinks came in September 1965. By now The Kinks were highly popular thanks to their megahit, "You Really Got Me". The band wasted no time and started their set with that song, making the crowd of 800 in Austurbæjarbíó cinema break out in a frenzy. Kinks played four nights in a row, eight shows total, and Ray Davies allegedly wrote his semi-hit “I’m on an Island” while holed up somewhere in Reykjavík. Footage made by a Swedish TV crew from one of the shows can currently be found on YouTube.
The Beatle-craze took Iceland by storm. After Kinks came Hollies and Herman’s Hermits, and The Beatles film A Hard Days Nights was a smash hit. Minor league beat-groups Tempo and Bravo from Akureyri had supported The Kinks. They never crossed to the major division by releasing a record. Other minor league beat-groups of the sixties had names like Tónar, Fánar, Ómar and Sómar, all echoing the main band’s name, Hljómar.
While Hljómar were busy getting their wild fuzz beat rock heard abroad (as Thor’s Hammer), other Icelandic acts grasped at the beat pop crown. Óðmenn, Toxic, Sóló and Tónar blossomed in Hljómar’s absence, but Dátar (The Soldiers) soon became the ruling beat band. Decades later, the tragic fate of all the members but one has wrapped the band in cryptic aura.
Immediately after forming, Dátar began playing a lot and soon gained popularity with their trustworthy covers of the newest hits by groups such as The Who and The Kinks. Their first EP was released in February of 1966. It had three songs by the band’s mentor and organist Þórir Baldursson, plus one cover song. During the summer of 1966, Dátar ruled the ball scene. Their singer Rúnar Gunnarsson, then only 18 years old, started to write songs and on the second EP that came out in 1967, all the songs were written by him. Of those, "Gvendur á eyrinni" – a song about a lonely old sailor – was a huge hit. It has lived on to this day as an Icelandic pop classic. The original guitarist and the band’s founder Hilmar Karlsson left in 1966, and was replaced by a guitarist called Magnús Magnússon. Dátar were very popular during the summer of 1967. The band toured fiercely and by all accounts there was a lot of drinking and partying involved. Karl Sighvatsson – a legendary musician that later played with bands such as Trúbrot and Þursaflokkurinn –had joined, and the band was the island’s tightest beat combo.
In the autumn of 1967 Hljómar returned. They wanted their throne back and news spread that the band was working on an album. Dátar had no other option but to make an album too. That was not to happen, unfortunately. “The guitarist Magnús had never been a part of the band,” says Þorsteinn Eggertsson, the bands lyricist and friend. “He never came to parties and always vanished quickly after gigs. He seemed almost like an aliento me. He was the first of those guys to commit suicide. There never was another guitarist in Dátar.”
Magnús’ suicide in 1967 was a blow to the band, and when Karl left to form Flowers, Dátar were over. Rúnar joined Sextett Ólafs Gauks, a very popular but not very hip “oldies style” pop combo. He wrote few songs with the band but left in 1969 to form Tilvera, a band he stayed with for a short time. Rúnar’s trip to the top of Icelandic pop scene had been quick, but his way down was slow and drawn out. He grappled with mental and drinking problems and lost the battle late in 1972, when he committed suicide. This was only few months after he had released two new original songs on a solo single. Rúnar Gunnarsson was only 24 years old. The original guitarist Hilmar clocked off in 1978, Karl Sighvatsson died in a car accident in 1991 and Stefán the drummer died of cancer one year later. This left bassist Jón Pétur the only surviving member of Dátar, Iceland’s most tragic band.
Dr. Gunni's book "Eru ekki allir í stuði?" (Rock in Iceland) will get a revisited update in 2010.