The Liverpool Of The North

The Liverpool Of The North

The Icelandic museum of rock ’n’ roll opens in Kef City

Photos by
Alísa Kalyanova

Published July 17, 2014

According to legend, it was the proximity to the US base that made Keflavík the birthplace of Icelandic rock and roll. But going there, one feels the reason might be more mundane. In a windswept little fishing village in the ‘60s, there might not have been much to do other than practise your chops. Sure, that might apply to many places in Iceland. But even more so here.

Whatever the reason, the city formerly known as Keflavík (now Reykjanesbær) is commemorating not only its own musical heritage, but also that of Iceland as a whole at The Icelandic Museum of Rock ’n’ Roll. And it’s about time too.

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Making The Museum

A long time in the making, the museum comprises artefacts from a pop museum that used to exist in a restaurant called Glóðin and from the famed Lobster or Fame exhibit of the Bad Taste label along with more recently acquired items. Musicologist Jónatan Garðarsson spent more than five years compiling and writing the texts used for the exhibit.

“We wanted to call it the Rock Museum of Iceland, but then mineralogists got in touch and said the name was already taken,” says its director Tómas Young, who is also an organiser of the ATP festival. Keith Richards himself once said that the roll is far too often missing from the rock, so perhaps we should be grateful that the museum uses the full title.

And we should be grateful for the museum itself. Long before eruptions and financial meltdown put Iceland into the global media, it was music that put us on the map. In the ‘90s, sounds started coming from Björk and Sigur Rós that were unlike anything heard in mainstream pop at the time, and many others have since followed in their footsteps.

A Country Without Music

The museum recounts the lyrical tradition of the 19th century romantic poets and moves on to folk singers who performed throughout Scandinavia in the early 20th century before jazz took over around World War II. But how did a country that for so long prided itself mostly on its literature become such a force in the international music world?

The museum has its own cinema playing documentaries devoted to answering this question. In ‘Screaming Masterpiece,’ director Ari Alexander draws links all the way back to the Viking Age with the aid of Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson of Iceland’s pagan society. This is a fun idea, but the fact remains that for many centuries Iceland remained, as was once said of Britain, a land without music. Both, however, have made up for lost time.

Music teacher and former member of the Sugarcubes Einar Melax explains that there weren’t many instruments in Iceland apart from the traditional ‘langspil’ before the 20th century. Thus people didn’t dance to music, but rather to singing.

“When I was growing up here, there wasn’t much to do, so you either had to take up sports or form a band.”

“When I was teaching in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, I met a few grandfathers who had sung a cappella at these types of balls,” Einar says. “The Reykjavík Music School was founded in 1930 and instruments began to be imported. But I think it really started to happen sometime around 1970 when every village wanted to have its own music school. Children no longer just played football but also studied music. Björk was one of those who benefitted from this.”

Keflavík Led The Way

Keflavík was ahead of the curve then, as the band Hljómar was founded in 1963. The building in which the museum is located is called Hljómahöllin in the band’s honour, and it also includes lecture halls and the famous music hall Stapi which has been a part of the local scene for decades.

“It was here that I got drunk for the first time,” local musician Heiða of the bands Hellvar and Unun says wistfully. She is among those represented on a rock map of Keflavík, along with Hljómar and many others, so fans can see where they grew up. One of the recent additions is Brynjar Leifsson from Of Monsters and Men, and among the display pieces is his guitar.

“When I was growing up here, there wasn’t much to do, so you either had to take up sports or form a band,” says Heiða, who belongs to a second wave of Keflavík musicians who grew up in the ‘90s.

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A Treasure Trove

Here you can also see the pluggable neon lit suit worn by pop star Páll Óskar, moonboots from Björk, a life-size wood sculpture of the band Hjálmar and Gunnar Jökull’s drum kit. Gunnar is one of the finest drummers Iceland has had, but his story is a sad one. He was a member of the British band Yes, but left before their breakthrough and played with major Icelandic bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s before abandoning music due to mental issues. He eventually died of HIV-related complications in 2001.

Most of all, though, the museum is a treasure trove of information. One can spend hours at the museum reading the texts and watching videos. Additionally, iPads are available to visitors who wish to delve even deeper into the subject at hand. Those who prefer a more hands-on experience can also try the instruments in a sound booth shaped like a guitar pick.

With the new rock’n’roll museum in addition to another helping of the ATP festival this summer, featuring Portishead, Interpol and a pick of Icelandic talent, Keflavík seems set to reclaim its place as the beating heart of Icelandic rock ’n’ roll. At least until the weather improves.

Check it out here: http://www.rokksafn.is/en


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