Published February 11, 2011
Scoring a ‘Single of the Week’ in the English music press doesn’t necessary mean the instant access to the big time, but in The Sugarcubes’ case it did. After ‘Birthday’ got the honour, One Little Indian Records was swamped with interview requests and offers from record companies, both indies and majors. In the same week in October 1987, The Sugarcubes graced the front covers of both The NME and Melody Maker. As would become customary, Björk was put in the forefront while the band stood in the back, a bit out of focus. As music from Iceland was an exotic novelty, most of the interviews became a tourism promotion for Iceland—”Such a strange country, they eat puffins and drink Brennivín all the time, etc, etc…” This would be the standard style of Icelandic music coverage for decades to come.
As was to be expected, the attention from abroad increased the band’s Icelandic fan base. The venues were suddenly packed with hipsters when the band played local shows. All kinds of wild record deal offers were dutifully covered by the Icelandic media, and Ellert B. Schram, editor of the newspaper DV, wrote an outraged editorial when the band declined an offer that amounted to “a brand new trawler”. For years to come Sugarcubes bassist Bragi Ólafsson would send Ellert postcards from all over the world, relaying made-up excess stories of the band on the road.
Eventually, as “artistic freedom” was regarded over cashmoney, the expanding One Little Indian Records went on to sign the band for Europe while Elektra Records got the American deal. The Sugarcubes’ first album, ‘Life’s Too Good’—a title derived from poet Jóhamar’s sigh of enjoyment after a hearty meal—was released in April 1988 and scored glowing reviews in Europe. The album contains such classic surrealistic pop songs as ‘Cold Sweat’, ‘Deus’ and ‘Motorcrash’, which were all released as singles. The video for ‘Motorcrash’ featured the slick American sedan cars that the Sugarcubes had spent some of their record deal advance on. The video was directed by Björk’s new boyfriend, Óskar Jónasson, who would later direct videos for ‘Planet’ and ‘Regína’ as well. In other love affair news, the new girlfriend of guitarist Þór Eldon, Margrét Örnólfsdóttir (of Risaeðlan), turned up on keyboards that the summer, completing the band’s line-up.
Besides spending their new found pop money on American cars, The Sugarcubes were always very kind and supportive to up-and-coming Icelandic bands. They released their music on their Smekkleysa imprint and brought some of them along on tour, like my own band S. H. Draumur, which supported them in England in May 1988. Later, Ham, Risaeðlan (Reptile) and Bless (me again) would take baby steps on foreign soil with support from Smekkleysa, playing for more than the usual crowd of 200 Icelanders and having their records released abroad under the far-fetched war cry of “world domination or death!”
SHOOT THE SINGER
After Europe, The Sugarcubes went to conquer America. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly in September of 1988, at New York’s The Ritz. David Bowie—who had jokingly been put on all of Kukl’s guest lists—finally showed up, and Iggy Pop—an old favourite—did too. At the time, ‘Life’s Too Good’ had sold about 100.000 copies in England and 350.000 in America. Eventually the album would sell well over a million copies. Finally, after decades of struggle and starry-eyed expectations, Iceland had its first universally known—even famous— rock band.
At this point in time The Sugarcubes were put in rock star mode with endless tours all over the globe. The second album saw release in October of 1989. It was released in English as ‘Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week’ (quoting Toad from ‘The Wind In The Willows’) and in Icelandic as ‘Illur arfur!’ (“Evil Heritage!”). It was the Sugarcubes only Icelandic language LP, even though the band always sang Icelandic when they performed back home.
A new album meant more touring. “Around this time we turned into a rock band machine and lost sight of the creative side,” Einar örn later admitted. The second album sold a bit less than the debut, and in the English media the backlash hit full force. Einar especially got the brunt of the UK press’ ire—Melody Maker’s John White went as far as suggesting the singer should be shot so his yap would stop. All the endless touring got on people’s nerves, so after the band finally reached Iceland in May 1990, it took a well-deserved break.
MY HEAD WAS ABOUT TO EXPLODE
In retrospect the band was mentally finished at this time, but still it would dangle on until 1992. During their break, Björk sang Icelandic fifties pop songs on the ‘Gling Gló’ album with The Guðmundur Ingólfsson Trio (an album that keeps selling to this day, and remains her bestselling album in Iceland), and her and most of the other ‘cubes got together in a 14 strong big band, Konrad B’s Big Band (‘Konrad B’ being Bragi the bassist on drums). The band’s cantor was Sugarcubes drummer Sigtryggur, appearing as “Bogomil Font”. After the Sugarcubes, Bogomil would lead his own band, The Millionaires, performing mambo, salsa and cha cha cha, gaining a considerable local following. One of few Sugarcubes gigs at this time was at their old hangout, tiny club Duus Hús, where they played at the request of the French president Jacques Mitterand and French Culture Minister (and Sugarcubes fan) Jacques Lang.
Björk was especially tired of the status quo. “The Sugarcubes were a group of people that met at my place,” she said in a 1990 interview. “We were different people, did not have much in common musically, had very different ideas of how to do things, but decided to form a pop band as a joke. We thought this was very funny, but we were always in the process of forming other bands. Accidentally this hobby thing just became the main thing. I realised last year (1989) that all of my time was being spent on a hobby.”
Björk’s musical search led her towards the electric scene. She made some music with 808 State in Manchester just to get it off her chest. “I had to do it ‘cos my head was about to explode,” she later remarked.
There was still one more Sugarcubes album to be made according to their contract. Recording commenced in May of 1991 in a studio in Woodstock, New York. Björk tried to get her electric ideas across, to little avail. The recording process was a tiring chore and after the album was finished, Björk decided to quit the band. However, she agreed to do a few promotional tours beforehand.
‘Stick Around For Joy’ came out in February 1992 and included still more happy pop, with one of the songs, ‘Hit’, sailing to #17 on the English chart, matching Mezzoforte’s chart success of 1983.
Offers for American support slots came in from The Cure and The B-52’s, but it wasn’t until U2 called that The Sugarcubes said: “OK, let’s do it.” So during October and November of 1992, The Sugarcubes appeared in 17 of the ‘Zooropa’ concerts across America, performing for a total of 700.000 people. A remix album, ‘It’s It’, (some members referred to it as “It’s Shit”) was released before Christmas 1992, and the band played its final concert at Reykjavík club Tunglið at that same time. No death certificate was issued, but the band was no more (at least not until their 2004 comeback gig in Reykjavík).
Björk was well on her way with her debut LP (second if you count her 1977 album). For her, it was no hobby music, but the real thing. The album, ‘Debut’, was scheduled for release in July of 1993 on One Little Indian. The most optimistic people at the label thought it might shift 20.000 copies.