The History of Icelandic Rock Music
Pétur And His P-bands
Dr. Gunni in Grapevine Magazine (September 2009)
Pétur Kristjánsson was the hardest-working rocker of the seventies. In a decade laden with frothy pop music, country ballads and disco, Pétur kept the rock and roll flames burning.
Son of fifties big band leader KK, Pétur soon took after his father, although he went for an altogether different musical direction. Pétur sang and played the bass. His first real band was Pops, a legendary cover band that has counted various members through the years and can still be found playing on occasion. Pops’ only release was a 7” in the early seventies, where the band teamed up with comedian Flosi Ólafsson on the novelty hit "Það er geggjað að geta hneggja"— (“It’s insane to be able to neigh”).
After Pops, Pétur did stints with Náttúra and Svanfríður (already covered here earlier), but after Svanfríður died off in 1973, Pétur formed his most famous rock band, Pelican. Right from the beginning Pelican was a popular band and had a sweet sailing at the Icelandic ball scene. In 1974 the band went to Massachusetts, USA, to record a LP at the Shaggy Dog Studio, where the reformed band Hljómar had already recorded its ill-fated country rock opus "Hljómar 1974". In America, Pelican got in contact with various biz-people, and for awhile it looked like Pelican would sign a record deal and hit the big time.
In 1974, Pelican was the biggest band in Iceland. The first song from the album, “Jenny Darling”, was released on a single in the summer, a frisky number that went on to become Pétur’s signature song. The song was the hit of the summer and when the album “Uppteknir” (a word-play, can both mean “Unpacked” and “Busy”—the album cover featured the band inside a sardine tin), came out in the fall it became the best selling Icelandic album yet, shifting 11.000 units.
Being ultra popular in Iceland wasn’t enough, of course! The band wanted more: international fame. Pelican returned to Massachusetts in 1975 to record the follow-up album, "Lítil fluga", (“Little fly”). The Americans booked the band on a nine date tour of the East Coast, where Pelican played for up to 1.000 people at a time. The band was assigned a legion of roadies, sound-men, lighting engineers, and so on—“the real deal”—and the members were in awe: “We got to glimpse the glory,” Pétur said later.
The band was offered various record deals and the chance to support bands such as the Allman Brothers and the Doobie brothers, and the albino brothers Johnny and Edgar Winter, too. Sweet times lay ahead, and the band returned to Iceland to play for their eager fans. One of the things that the Americans had been talking about was that Pétur wasn’t a good enough singer. Without him, and with a new singer, great things were sure to happen, they said. The other Pelican members took these speculations way too seriously and discussed the possibility of sacking the band’s founder. When Pétur heard this through the grapevine, he confronted his pals, ultimately leaving his own band as a result.
Naturally the news spread fast and people gasped—Pétur kicked from his own band? Pétur had all the pity, and Paradís, the band he formed fresh from the ejection, soon got to be the main band in Iceland, while Pelican with a new singer, Herbert Guðmundsson, quickly faded to obscurity. With Paradís, Pétur behaved in a super professional manner, and ran the band like a business. Eager to top his former bandmembers and under influence from Pelican’s professional stint in America, Pétur invested in hefty sound- and light-equipment and even a smoke-machine, the first one in Iceland. Paradís went through thirteen members during its course—Pétur being the only constant—and five more workers were on board when Paradís played balls in the Icelandic countryside, including a special guy to run the light show and a perky DJ to keep things hopping during breaks. Paradís made an album in 1976, featuring the full-blooded rock that Pétur had been singing for four years now. Some felt Pétur was beginning to show signs of stagnation, and after disappointing sales Paradís split up. In the spring of 1977, Pétur formed yet another band beginning with the letter P: Poker.
Poker’s main goal was to “make it” abroad, and escape the doldrums of Iceland (a recurring theme in Iceland’s rock history). With Pétur came guitar virtuoso Björgvin Gíslason from Paradís, and Pálmi Gunnarsson, Jóhann Helgason, Sigurður Karlsson and Kristján Guðmundsson came in from funk band Celsíus. Many other members were to come and go in the band’s short history. To cut a long story short, nothing came of Poker’s dreams of “making it.” In 1977, however, every member of the band except Pétur and Jóhann, performed on a debut solo album by an unknown 11-year old girl called Björk Guðmundsdóttir.
With his seventies dreams of “making it” wholly immaterialised, Pétur lay low for awhile and concentrated on running his record shop. In the early eighties, some younger boys asked him to join a new band, Start, which played rock in the direction of Loverboy and Foreigner. Start went on to become a popular band and Pétur was once more on top of things. Start’s sole LP offering was released in 1981.
Since then and until his untimely death in 2004, Pétur kept at it with various outfits, sometimes reformed versions of his old bands, sometimes new ones. He was a mentor in the fine art of rock and roll, famous for his record fairs (his relatives still hold a record fair annually at Perlan), a sweet and funny guy that was beloved by all. As promised, "Wild Thing" was played at his funeral.
Dr. Gunni, based on his book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland, published in 2000). A revised update of the book is forthcoming in 2010.