The History of Icelandic Rock
Hljómar Invent Icelandic Pop
Dr. Gunni in Grapevine Magazine (Issue # 10, July 2009)
During 1967 and ‘68, Hljómar were once again the major band in Iceland. After the band’s failure to break through (both internationally and locally) with their “difficult” experimental rhythm & blues (as Thor’s Hammer, later recognised as one of the best music made in Iceland during the sixties), the band set out to play more “comfortable” pop music. The plot worked out fine. The band quickly gained back their earlier popularity and Svavar Gests decided to finance a Hljómar album for his SG imprint. This eponymous Hljómar album was to become the first
Icelandic modern pop album.
The band had to be flown to London, as Iceland’s recording studios at that time ere deemed “not good enough.” Hljómar recorded twelve songs. Five songs were new originals, three by Gunnar
Þórðarson, one by Þórir Baldursson, and one by Dátar’s Rúnar Gunnarsson. The rest of the album featured cover versions of foreign hits with Icelandic lyrics, often by Þorsteinn Eggertsson (who also drew the album’s cover). During the trip to London, the band stocked up on the newest threads from hip shops on Carnaby Street. An Icelandic TV special was made with the band lip-synching to the songs dressed to the gills in hippie gear with flowerpots dangling from their guitars. Hljómar had obviously seen The Beatles’ performance of All you need is Love as their appearance looked similar, with young hip people sitting around, including members of Flowers and other bands, grooving convincingly to the music.
Hljómar played relentlessly at dance balls all around Iceland. The band rarely performed their own songs but mostly cover versions of recent international hits. These balls had little to do with love and peace. Rúnar Júlíusson, the beloved singer and bassist, had originally been prone to shyness, playing with his back to the audience. Now he had turned into a wild animal on stage. He jumped, climbed, dived, even stripped on stage. His stage act was legendary and hasn’t been
matched since. The guests didn’t come for any peace crap either. The drunk and horny crowd often tore down the places to the pounding backdrop of Hljómar’s music. A legendary ball in Sandgerði in 1968 ended in a riot after the band stopped playing at two o’clock instead of four as
promised. Chairs, windows, glasses and bottles were smashed, leaving the place in ruins.
Sheepskin vests for world domination Dreams of world domination were re-kindled when Hljómar tried to break into the Scandinavian market in 1968. In a joint effort with Guðlaugur Bergmann, who had run Reykjavík’s hippest fashion store, Karnabær, for two years, the band
went to Sweden as ambassadors of Icelandic pop and fashion. “The band tends to bring together the traditional Icelandic way and the world of pop,” wrote Morgunblaðið, adding: “Hljómar will all be dressed in sheepskin-vests. Knitted sock-shoes, caps, etc. will be brought along.
Hljómar have arranged ancient Icelandic rhyme motifs and added into their music and the langspil (ancient Icelandic instrument) will be taken along.”
The trip didn’t do much, neither for Icelandic fashion nor Hljómar. The band was offered a support slot for The Spencer Davis Group though, but the members didn’t think that was good enough.
For their second album (also eponymous, but later referred to as Hljómar II), the band added Shady Owens to the line-up. Shady was a 19-year-old daughter of an American soldier and Icelandic mother, and had stayed in Iceland for a while, singing with Óðmenn. She had a
wonderful voice and sang the Icelandic lyrics with a charming American accent.
The album was recorded in London in a record-breaking 35 hours (their first LP had taken 16 hours). Sixteen session musicians played on the album, including keyboardist Nick Hopkins, who had just played on “Revolution” for The Beatles. The album had six original songs by Gunnar Þórðarson on Side 1 and six cover versions on Side 2. Soon after the album’s release, Gunnar admitted regrets for including the cover songs. The album cost much more than SG had intended and sold less than the first album. A lawsuit ensued which ended in Hljómar having
to pay SG back for the extravaganza.
As the hair and beards grew longer and the general rock direction got heavier and more progressive, Hljómar’s pop direction started to date fast. Hljómar’s primary competition had been psychedelic pop band Flowers, and within that band, too, some wanted to move on to play a different kind of music. The band members – especially the two Gunnars (Þórðarson from Hljómar and Jökull Hákonarson, the drummer from Flowers) – discussed a liaison, often in privacy at discothèque Las Vegas on Grensásvegur. The conclusion was Trúbrot, Iceland’s first “super-group”. We’ll get to that next time.
Dr. Gunni, based on his book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland), published in 2000.
A revisited up-date of the book is forthcoming in 2010.