The History of Icelandic Rock
The Kings Of The Seventies
By Dr. Gunni in Grapevine Magazine (# 15, September 2009)
By spring of 1973, both Gunnar Þórðarson and Rúnar Júlíusson had turned 28. Behind were the most popular groups of the beat and hippie age, Hljómar and Trúbrot. Trúbrot had just declined when they decided to resurrect Hljómar and found a record label with the same name. Singer/drummer Engilbert from the original line-up joined the team, along with singer superstar Björgvin Halldórsson. The new Hljómar did an album in 1974, but the music had nothing to do with the Hljómar of old. Instead, the contents were more related to Trúbrot, hard rock and balladry, with a dash of reggae.
“Hljómar 1974,” as the album got to be known, sold a lot less than these guys were used to. There was a lot of money at stake, as the guys had mortgaged their homes for capital. The only way to fight back was, naturally, to make the sort of music that people would pay good money
for. The conclusion was a new band with the same members, called "Ðe Lónlí Blú bojs" (“The Lonely Blue Boys,” written Icelandic style). Their first LP was released in 1975 and became a great success. The LP took its title track from The Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun”— “Stuð stuð stuð”—and featured original compositions by Gunnar along with Icelandicised cover versions of popular foreign hits. One of the tracks became a ‘monster hit of the seventies,’ "Heim í Búðardal"—“Home to Búðardalur.” The lyrics, by living legend Þorsteinn Eggertsson, deal with a guy daydreaming what will await him when he returns home to Búðardalur after slaving away building the Sigalda power station. The song put the small village of Búðardalur on the map, and was so popular that stickers that read “Where is this Búðardalur, then?” became a popular item.
Rúnar ran the Hljómar record label in Iceland while Gunnar moved to England.
He had toiled away in Iceland for more than a decade and wanted to try something new, being a session-man in England sounded good. Not much happened with these plans, but Gunnar worked on several records that Hljómar eventually released. There was his own solo album,
a sophisticated record that sold poorly as it had no hits, and a children’s album, "Eniga Meniga", with songs by young writer Ólafur Haukur Símonarson sung by a young girl, Olga Guðrún Árnadóttir. Eniga Meniga eventually became a huge hit and is considered one of Iceland’s most
beloved Icelandic albums, with its socially conscious lyrics and lively music. Gunnar also finished two more Lónlí blú bojs records, "Hinn gullni meðalvegur" (“The Golden Average”) with more superhits and a Christmas album.
Having sold so many records in 1975, Gunnar felt he wasn’t getting the sort of money he deserved. Rúnar had managed the Hljómar records accounts and when Gunnar sent in his lawyers Rúnar was obviously not impressed. Nothing rotten was to be found, but there was no return to the Hljómar business after this. Instead, Gunnar founded his own Ýmir Records, and Rúnar started his Geimsteinn imprint. This was the end of Gunnar’s and Rúnar’s close working relationship, but they would record together again when Hljómar returned in the 21st century, with two more studio albums and many, many comeback gigs, the last being in Liverpool’s Cavern Club shortly before Rúnar’s untimely death in December of 2008.
Separately, the old blood brothers of Icelandic pop were to make many significant albums. With his Geimsteinn imprint, Rúnar hit it big with country-pop band Brimkló’s debut album and his own debut solo album in 1976. Both albums sold more than 5.000 copies so Rúnar brimmed with inextinguishable optimism ever since and ran Geimsteinn with hits and misses until he passed away.
Gunnar’s Ýmir label had some success too. A comedy album by Halli, Laddi and Gísli Rúnar sold well, but a disco pop solo album by Engilbert Jensen sold less. Gunnar wasn’t really record mogul material though, and he was to have more success making albums for others.
In 1976, along with singer Björgvin Halldórsson and producer/bassist Tómas Tómasson, Gunnar made the album "Einu sinni var" (“Once Upon a Time”), a collection of old Icelandic poems that school kids had learnt in school for decades, set to new music by Gunnar. Many, including some teachers, felt the album should be banned as it “distorted the tradition,” but the general public wholly disagreed and the album went on to become the best selling Icelandic album of all time, selling more than 20.000 copies before Christmas of 1976. A second album failed to repeat the sensation a year later.
Gunnar had many projects running. He made a second solo album in 1978, a double album no less, with “difficult” music and some tracks he had written for director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s short films. With vocal group Lummurnar (The Pancakes), many felt Gunnar had hit an artistic low. Some even went as far as calling him “the biggest enemy of Icelandic music”. Lummurnar sang old Icelandic pop songs set to disco beats programmed and produced by Gunnar. Two albums were made in 1977 and 1978 and sold like, uh, hot pancakes.
"Þú og ég" (You and I) was yet another project of Gunnar, a swank disco duo made out of singers Helga Möller and Jóhann Helgason. Gunnar shows his studio wizardry on the 1979 album "Ljúfa líf" (Sweet life), a honey drenched disco album that naturally went on to sell like crazy. Þú og ég were to make two more albums and had some success in Japan, where—for some unfathomable reason— the Gunnar-produced Icelandic disco hit home run.
Based on his 2000 book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland). A revised update of the book is forthcoming in 2010.