The History of Icelandic Rock
Dr. Gunni in Grapevine Magazine (Issue 10, July 2010)
Rokk í Reykjavík!
In 1981, filmmaker Friðrik Þór Friðriksson began filming Icelandic rock bands in action around Reykjavík for an upcoming documentary about the scene. Friðrik had at that point already made a short documentary about a recluse in the countryside, as well as an
adaptation of Njáls Saga (“The Story of the burning of Njáll”), which consisted of footage of the book being set on fire with a challenging soundtrack by Þeyr. But now he had his sights firmly set on Iceland’s rock scene.
Friðrik included almost every active Icelandic group in the documentary, so the film is very true to the times, a real and valuable documentation. It was premiered just before Easter in 1982 and is considered an absolute Icelandic classic. It is such a definite movie that this period in Icelandic music has since been known as the ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’-era.
Everybody and everything
In the movie we see everybody and everything going on at the time of filming. Slick rockers Start do their slick rock, the prog new wavers of Þursaflokkurinn do their thing, and girl group Grýlurnar rock out and talk about the isolation they feel being the only women on the scene. Purrkur Pillnikk go bananas and Fræbbblarnir, in a semi sulky mood, tell us that they feel left out, as nobody is considered cool unless “he has worked in a fish factory for ages.” This was a stab at Bubbi Morthens, his notorious work history and the importance it bore during his initial rise to supremacy.
We see Bubbi talk about drugs and an early version of Egó, the band he formed after Utangarðsmenn, plays some classic tunes.
In the opening scene, we witness Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, the founder of the Ásatrúarfélag (“The Ásatrú association”), recite some rímur as he often did at rock concerts at the time. To show a swift transformation to the modern times, rock group Vonbrigði appear abruptly after Sveinbjörn with their classic song "Ó Reykjavík" - an anthem of sorts for the times.
Glue sniffing, hen-killing and Nazi costumes
The movie caused controversy for various reasons.
The young punk rockers in the band Sjálfsfróun
(“Masturbation”) are given plenty of room in the
film. We see them bash out their super-naïve punk
rock, which culminates as singer Bjarni “The Mohican” smashes up his bass with an axe.
The filmmakers then follow Bjarni and his bandmates to bus station Hlemmur, which was a punk rock hang out at the time. Bjarni gives a classic monologue about the glue-sniffing-and-arguing-with-busdrivers existence of an Icelandic teen punk anno 1981. His unabashed speech resulted in the film getting a rating of “banned for ages 14 and under” by the Icelandic Film Administration. A new version with Bjarni's monologue removed soon appeared so the kids could attend the movie.
Notorious performance art group Bruni BB also caused some controversy with their part in the film. Acting under influence from extreme Austrian artist Herman Nietsch, the band always gave very outrageous performances. For ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’, the group was filmed during a show at the Living Art Museum where they beheaded a hen with a paper cutter (perhaps on loan from their art school?). The police arrived on the scene and freed a pig from the museum's toilet stall. It is still unclear if the band had plans to kill the pig or were
just going to have it "perform".
The third cause for controversy was Þeyr's decision to perform in full Nazi regalia. Contrary to most of the other bands in the doc, Þeyr weren’t filmed during a concert. Instead, an ‘acted’ ‘music video’ was used to present the band. It shows the members goose step in Nazi gear towards the Icelandic president's house at Bessastaðir in-between shots of them rocking out in their rehearsal space (which was conveniently located at Álftanes, right next to Bessastaðir). Their Nazi get-up spurred the heated debate "Are Þeyr Nazis on top of being snobs?" The band of course denied all Nazi accusations. They did it ambivalently though, using the old "it was a joke" explanation.
Þeyr soldier on
After the release of their album 'Mjötviður mær', Þeyr tried to break into the English scene. The band hung out in a sinister part of London, met with John Peel (who played them on his BBC show) and were offered a six-month support slot with The Cure (that they turned down). However, they did score a record deal with a new label, Shout Records, which released their album "As
Above" in the spring of 1982. The album had reassembled bits of music from Þeyr's previous Icelandic
releases. It received good reviews, but not much more happened.
Jaz Coleman from the doom rock group Killing Joke had become a good acquaintance of the group and had hung out with them in Iceland in 1981, sometimes searching for "power spots" near Snæfellsjökull glacier. In February of 1982, he freaked out at a concert in London and ran away to Iceland, where he had big ideas for the Icelandic scene. One of them was to open a rock club. He was a heavy drinker though, so not much came
of his ideas. He formed a group with most of Þeyr, calling it Iceland (and later Niceland). The band
recorded three songs that would later turn up on bootlegs.
Parallel to their collaboration with Coleman, Þeyr soldiered on and toured Scandinavia. The band recorded some songs in Denmark, which would be released on the 12" EP "The Fourth Reich" which was dedicated to Wilhelm Reich. The music was now darker and less accessible, and did little for the band's popularity. The end soon came for Þeyr after bouts of existential crisis. The final nail in their coffin was when bassist Hilmar Örn left the band. He had been undergoing stringent music training during all his time with Þeyr, and now had to choose between rock and classical music.
In Iceland, after the premier of Rokk í Reykjavík, it was as if the scene lost its intensity and dynamism. After the great and creative 1981, 1982 felt like a hollow hangover. Þeyr's guitarist God Krist and drummer Sigtryggur would return in 1983 with the band Kukl, featuring other veterans of the ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ era, including a young girl named Björk who had received some attention due to her lively appearance in Rokk í Reykjavík, singing and banging her toy drum with the band Tappi Tíkarrass.
Dr. Gunni, based on his 2000 book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland)