Ahh… 1981. The best year in Iceland’s rock history. At least for me, a 15 year old whose life music had taken over completely. Bubbi Morthens and his Utangarðsmenn—the most popular band in Iceland—were already passé for forward thinking dudes like myself. My early idols Fræbbblarnir, with their simple bar grip Ramones-inspired punk pop, just weren’t doing it for me anymore. Now it was time for “deeper” stuff, so I turned to Joy Division and their Icelandic counterpart Þeyr, as The Fall and Purrkur Pillnikk.
In 1981 it seemed like every garage had a band rehearsing in it. The feel was similar, I guess, to what happened in Iceland after The Beatles broke in the sixties. After a period of stagnation and disco pop in the late seventies, suddenly everybody wanted to be in a rock band (or punk/new wave band to be more precise).
In the Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð college, which was already famous for being the breeding ground for bands like Spilverk þjóðanna and Stuðmenn, future Sugarcubes Einar Örn Benediktsson and Bragi Ólafsson along with two friends wrote and rehearsed nine songs in an afternoon in May and played them live for their fellow students the day after. The band, Purrkur Pillnikk, was to become the most active band in Iceland’s music history.
The early songs were short and fast, with clever lyrics. In less than a month, the band had already recorded their debut 10 song 7″ EP, Tilf. The band’s statement—as well as the era’s statement—was rendered in the song Tilfinning (“A Feeling”), a 52 second glorious blast of jazz-punk: “It’s not about what you’re capable of, it’s about what you do.”
Gramm Records was founded purposely to release PP’s début EP, but went on to become the main indie label in Iceland for most of the early eighties, or until Smekkleysa was founded by the same people in 1986. Gramm soon opened a record store where you could get super hip records from labels like Rough Trade and Crass. PP played incessantly. Einar’s stage act was provoking, he was all over the place, screaming and challenging the audience, while the other guys stood gravely staring at their instruments, still learning how to play them.
Einar Örn had already been “punk” since 1977 (he had lived in England with his parents). He had helped with The Stranglers’ and The Clash’s concerts in Reykjavík (1978 and 1980) and acted as the manager of Utangarðsmenn. In the summer of 1981, he accompanied Utangarðsmenn on an ill-fated Scandinavian tour that would end the band 3 months later with fistfights and near-starvation. When Einar returned to Iceland there was no way Purrkur Pillnikk would do the old songs again, so the band set out to write new material. In August they went to England and recorded the classic Ekki enn (“Not Yet”) LP in 50 hours at Crass’ Southern Studios.
The album was released in November and sold well (at least for this kind of music), shifting 1500 copies. The songs were longer, more complex, and the lyrics were powerful and thought provoking as ever—alienation and agony being the main ingredient. The album’s longevity is obvious; it went and scored #46 last year in a “Best Icelandic albums ever poll.”
In early 1982 the band set out to record more new songs. “It’s our pleasure to make records,” Einar said in an interview. “We always lose money making records, we do not stand or fall with our next record.” It was to become Googooplex, a set of two 12″s, “disco-style”. Musically and lyric-wise the 13 new songs did not add much to PP’s palette, but the album included the band’s best known song, Augun úti, much later used by GusGus in the song Forever.
Purrkur Pillnikk had supported The Fall in Iceland in 1981 and in spring 1982 the band travelled to England to play 11 gigs with Mark E. Smith and co. After returning the band set out to play more, but as often happens with Icelandic bands, the country’s tiny population and limited opportunities were wearing their stamina down.
PP’s last ever gig was in late August of 1982, where the band played five new songs in a medley called Orð fyrir dauða (“Words before death”). PP’s death twitches could be heard on two posthumous releases, No time to think, a 4 track 7″ sung in English, and Maskínan LP (“The Machine”), a collection of live recordings. It came out two years after the humble beginnings in MH. To their credit, Purrkur Pillnikk have never made a comeback and probably never will. It was a spur of the moment thing.