The History of Icelandic Rock
The spontaneous brilliance of Stuðmenn
Dr. Gunni in Grapevine Magazine (Issue # 17, November 2009)
The same core players are involved in three of the best Icelandic bands from the seventies, Stuðmenn, Spilverk þjóðanna and Þursaflokkurinn. All are veritable institutions of Icelandic rock history. In the newest ‘Best Icelandic albums list,’ published in 2009, those three bands have a total of thirteen albums on the top 100. While Spilverk þjóðanna (‘Plaything of the Nations’) and Þursaflokkurinn (‘The Band of Titans’) are kind of serious, Stuðmenn (‘Funmen’) are anything but.
Like many good bands, Stuðmenn were conceived as a joke. In locally infamous artsy college MH, guitarist/singer Valgeir Guðjónsson and keyboardist Jakob Frímann Magnússon, along with two friends, decided to form the corniest band they could imagine. The year was 1970, and their sole objective was to entertain their classmates at an upcoming dance. In the age of long hair, astrology and 20 minute guitar solos, Stuðmenn was the corniest band name they could think of. The band dressed accordingly in old black suits and skinny ties, slicking their hair back with brilliantine. This was some years before American Graffiti, so looking like it was 1959 was a spunky move.
Their fellow students got the joke and the first gig was a hit. The Stuðmenn joke lingered on, but the members wanted to do more contemporary music. Valgeir formed the folk group Spilverk þjóðanna with Sigurður Bjóla and Egill Ólafsson (later to be the front man of Stuðmenn), while Jakob went to London with his pals in the heavy rock group Rifsberja. The idea was to check out all the possibilities the big city had to offer. Alas, nothing came out of Rifsberja’s London trip except poverty and near-hunger. Jakob got a gig, though, playing with old blues dog Long John Baldry, while the rest of the group had to leave when their visas expired.
Fast forward to 1974. For some reason, a label named ÁÁ records saw commercial potential in Stuðmenn and ordered two singles from the group. Thus Valgeir met Jakob in London to record four songs with Cliff Richard’s rhythm section on hire in the studio. The singles did OK in Iceland, and thus Stuðmenn were on the agenda again. Next up was a whole album recorded in London in early spring 1975. Valgeir’s Spilverk friends came along, and Icelandic musicians living in London at the time (and playing with Change, an Icelandic band trying to break through) put in their share. Famous musicians like Chris Speeding and Bill Bruford dropped by as well. The resulting LP, "Sumar á Sýrlandi" (‘Summer in Syria’), became an instant classic when it was released in Iceland in the summer of 1975. “For the first time,” reviewers would say, “a truly original Icelandic pop tone has been found”. The album contains songs that have lived with the nation ever since, and the lyrics are funny in a clever and tongue-in-cheek kind of way. The band played wearing masks, as it initially presented itself as a secret group (like KISS). All the members were unknown, though, so nobody thought much of it when the masks eventually came off.
Stuðmenn followed suit in 1976 with a nostalgic concept album about an amusement park that had been a Reykjavík attraction in the fifties. The band promoted the album with an outdoor gig in the centre of Reykjavík. During the concert’s climax, an aeroplane flew over and showered caramels over the crowd. The "Tívoli" album was considered another pop masterpiece and sold well. However, the members weren’t interested in making further Stuðmenn albums. The Spilverk þjóðanna people were to make few masterpieces in the years to come and Jakob Frímann concentrated on his solo career, playing fusion influenced synth pop.
The third and last Stuðmenn masterpiece happened in 1982, when an old dream of the members, of making a film, finally came true. Originally, the idea had been to make a film based on either of their first two albums, but when it was finally made, the storyline and dialogue was mostly improvised on the spot. “We try to stay true to the modus operandi that worked well for us making music, to let the moment take over, to be spontaneous.
We do not rehearse a lot, and we try to get the Stuðmenn humour and mirth on film,” said Valgeir at the time of filming. That’s exactly what happened. The film, "Með allt á hreinu" (aka ‘On Top’), was premiered to glowing reviews right before Christmas in 1982. When the film finally left theatres, almost half the nation, 115.000 people, had seen it. Long since a classic and one of the most loved Icelandic films, Með allt á hreinu follows the antics of Stuðmenn whilst on tour in Iceland, and the band’s on-going feud with real life girl group, Grýlurnar (appearing as ‘Gærurnar’ in the film).
Fired up with this wondrous success Stuðmenn went into overdrive—and somehow the band is still running on that tank. Stuðmenn have long since hit pay dirt with various monster hits and played gigantic concerts for large portions of the nation. The band has also had various flops on their hands, including two poorly received sequels to the Með allt á hreinu.
Tellingly, the youthful magic of the band’s earliest work has never been matched. In their most tiresome moments, the group has been accused of severely flogging a dead horse.
Jakob is the only original member of Stuðmenn – “Every Icelander’s group”, as the band is fondly nicknamed. Stuðmenn’s last moderate hit came recently, when they went for milking the Icesavedebate with a song called... “Icesave”.
Based on his 2000 book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland). A revised update of the book is forthcoming in 2010.