Published November 11, 2010
International recognition has always been every ambitious Icelandic pop musician’s goal. And no wonder. Few settle for the limitations of the tiny Icelandic market. Since rock was born here, many have tried to “make it” to little avail. In 1983, the clever jazz guys of Mezzoforte scored a hit with an instrumental fusion ditty, ‘Garden Party’, that got as far as number 17 on the British singles chart. This of course resulted in some national pride. I remember being on Leicester Square in London in the summer of 1983 with a swollen chest as Mezzoforte’s hit piped out of a disco. A few years later, Iceland would finally get its international pop stars: The Sugarcubes.
Pop Group for Money
The obscure bastards in Kukl were of course as far removed from pop music as possible, even though they had performed some melodic songs in their earliest period. In the spring of 1986, the band lay in ruins due to personal squabbles and inter-band friction. Smaller units from the band tried their hand at making music. Guitarist God Krist made some music with Björk singing lyrics by Þór Eldon, Björk’s boyfriend since 1983. They called themselves The Elgar Sisters, and three of the songs would much later turn up as B-sides on Björk singles. Björk and drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson also made some music together under the name Algorythms. Björk and Þór bore a son in June of 1986, so life was taken easy during that summer. Einar Örn finished his studies in London and moved to Iceland. During long night time meetings, him and Þór came up with the idea of forming Smekkleysa (“Bad Taste”). “Bad taste and extravagance” would be Smekkleysa’s motto. Various plans were attached to Smekkleysa: It would be a record label and a book publishing company. The restaurant Mudpit would open in its name, as well as the radio station Radio Devil (unfortunately neither happened). Also the company would hand out “Bad Taste awards” to people that excelled in extravagance and bad taste. Various friends joined Smekkleysa and a pop group was formed solely to make money. Björk, Einar and Þór got bassist Bragi and guitarist Friðrik from Purrkur Pillnikk to join along with drummer Sigtryggur and keyboard player Einar Melax from Kukl.
A Postcard Pays for a Single
“We started to play pop songs that we thought were similar to what other people were playing. It was a total surprise to us that nobody else thought this was pop. Everybody just thought this was weird music,” remarked Einar, many years later. The new band’s first appearance was on the 18th of July, 1986. The band was advertised as Kukl in Morgunblaðið, but called themselves Þukl (“Frisk”) a week later on their second gig. Einar Örn had brought along a gigantic plastic lobster when he came back from London. Pop band Stuðmenn fancied the lobster and made Einar Örn their manager so they could use the plastic crustacean in concert. Þukl was called Sykurmolarnir (The Sugarcubes) when the band supported Stuðmenn in the sports arena Laugardalshöll. Very few people showed up, so Stuðmenn paid their support act in studio hours at their recording studio, Grettisgata. Twelve weird pop songs were recorded during this session, and two of them (‘Birthday’ / ‘Cat’ (in Icelandic)) got released on Björk’s 21st birthday on November 21. To finance the release, Smekkleysa had sold a postcard bearing the image of Reagan and Gorbachev, drawn by guitarist Friðrik. Reagan and the Russian leader met for peace talk in Iceland in October of 1986, and the postcard sold very well, as nobody else had jumped to the occasion and made merchandise.
Oh Shit !
‘Einn mol’á mann’ (“One cube each”), the first Sugarcube single, was pressed in Iceland and most of the edition was defective upon arrival. Only about 300 copies were sold. Few people in Iceland “got” the music, certainly not ‘Birthday’, that nobody could have predicted would be an international hit. Despite his earlier plans Einar Örn decided to spend another winter in London, 1986/87. An old pal from the Crass days, Derek Birkett, formerly a bassist with Flux of Pink Indians, was working in a studio, so him and Einar started to process the songs from the Grettisgata session. Derek had just formed a record label, One Little Indian, and it was decided he would release The Sugarcubes songs in English. The music was remixed, new snippets and sounds added to the mix. Meanwhile in Iceland, the band played several times without Einar. Guitarist Friðrik decided to leave, so Þór would thereafter be the band’s sole guitarist. Film director Friðrik Þór asked the band to provide soundtrack to his film Skytturnar (White Whales). The band made some instrumental music but it was not used much in the film. Three tracks turned up on a soundtrack 12″ though. In the summer of 1987 Einar Örn came to Iceland and the band played several times for 200 people or so, the same group of people that had followed Kukl. One Little Indian released Birthday as a 12″ on the 17th of August 1987. It was supposed to promote the forthcoming LP. A week later Birthday was picked as a “single of the week” in Melody Maker. “Oh shit” was Einar Örn’s first reaction when he heard the news. (Next time: The Sugarcubes – World domination or death!)