Icelandic Punkers Grow Old Gracefully

Icelandic Punkers Grow Old Gracefully

Photos by
Skari

Published May 21, 2014

Punk rock faced the same problem everywhere. Whereas rock music grew up and became the soundtrack of Western capitalism, punkers could only either die or become a joke. Sid Vicious did the former, while his former bandmate Johnny Rotten opted for the latter. In the USA, it returned to the art schools from whence it came before briefly re-emerging as grunge. In Britain, a more proletarian version briefly merged with that other music of the disposed, reggae, before mostly disappearing. 

In Berlin, punk stubbornly refused to die, but failed to adapt to the collapse of the Wall and techno—perhaps the least political of all musical styles—became the soundtrack of the revolution. German punk seems perpetually stuck in a time-warp in SO36, where they still trade tapes and party every night like its 1977. Only in Iceland, it seems, did punk manage to truly grow up and conquer first the world and then Reykjavík.

Punk Exploded Everything

Like the industrial revolution and free market capitalism, punk came late to Iceland. But when it did, it changed everything. Unlike many other places, the ‘60s did not leave a major impression on Icelandic pop music, most bands being Beatles or Stones clones. It was only in the ‘70s that Iceland started to find its own voice in popular music. And then punk came and exploded everything. 

Unlike the hippies, the punkers in Iceland went beyond copying their foreign influences and managed to create something truly unique. Many Icelandic bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s dreamed of international stardom. One of the best-known attempts was when some of the biggest local stars formed the band Change, dressed up in tight overalls that were fashionable at the time and tried to conquer London with their falsetto singing. The all-male band became known as “the girls from Iceland” and have since regularly been made fun of in local rock histories.   

But perhaps it was the originality of Icelandic punk that turned it into an export product. Some of the best bands of the era are represented in the legendary documentary ‘Rokk í Reykjavík,’ including a teenage Björk. As the movement was winding down in the mid-‘80s, members of the leading bands formed the supergroup Kukl, which later went on to spawn the Sugarcubes. The latter band went on to become the first Icelandic band to truly make an impact abroad. 

Even The Drummer!

The Sugarcubes disbanded in 1992, after making their final splash opening for U2. The singer Björk outdid the band with her solo ‘Debut’ in 1993, and has remained in the limelight ever since, but the other members have continued to make their mark in Iceland.

You know that a band’s got talent when even the drummer manages to have a successful solo career. Using the name Bogomil Font, stickman Sigtryggur Baldursson turned into a crooner and had one of the biggest selling albums of 1992 in Iceland, and followed this by making an album of the songs of Kurt Weill in Icelandic and other languages. He currently hosts the top music programme on local television. 

“The Annoying One”

Bass player Bragi Ólafsson and sometime air guitar player Sjón (yes, he played air guitar) have become two of the most influential names in Icelandic literature, while keyboard player Margrét Örnólfsdóttir writes for television. The record label set up by the Sugarcubes, Bad Taste, played a part in getting Sigur Rós recognition and is still a force in Icelandic music, running a record store downtown and handling Björk’s records locally, the proceeds of which go to producing other artists. 

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the career of co-vocalist Einar Örn, sometimes known as “the annoying one.” After a stint as a bartender and concert promoter, and occassionally making music with Damon Albarn or the band Ghostigital, Einar Örn finally decided to enter politics in 2010. He was one of the founders of the Best Party and second on the list of candidates, after a certain Jón Gnarr.

Jón Gnarr had been a fixture on the Reykjavík punk scene since the early days, known as “Jónsi Punk” and playing bass with the band Nefrennsli. He and his wife-to-be Jóhanna became good friends with the Sugarcubes, and Björk later dedicated a song to Jóhanna on the album ‘Homogenic’ (“Jóga”). Gnarr became well known locally in the ‘90s as a radio presenter and actor, and became one of the country’s most popular comedians. 

The Best Party, which also included second generation punks such as Óttarr Proppé, surprised everyone by doing really well in the 2010 Reykjavík elections, and now run the city along with the Social Democrats, with Jón Gnarr acting as mayor. Despite calling himself an anarchist, Jón and his team have shown themselves capable of competent governing. A sister party at the national level, Bright Future was set up before the 2013 parliamentary elections and managed to get six seats. Another new party to parliament, the Pirate Party managed to get three seats. Both it and The Best Party are members of the of the International Pirate Movement. Although that election saw a centre-right government take control of Iceland again, Reykjavík still belongs to the punks.


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