Iceland Airwaves is upon us once more. For five days about 750 bands and artists will perform in Reykjavík, of which you only knew three before. The festival has been held annually since 1999, and has gotten stronger and more important by the year. It’s a focal point for the home-grown artists, and a great way to witness fresh winds from abroad. Iceland has been fairly well served by the outside music world. Here are eight examples.
Tony Crombie And His Rockets, 1957
Rock ‘n’ roll had just gotten off the ground, and was super fresh and exciting. When Englishman Tony brought his Rockets to Reykjavík their show was a must see for every youngster, as it was the first (and only) of the early rock bands to visit the island. Drummer Tony was a jazzist who had switched to rock ‘n’ roll when the opportunity arose. The band knew all the tricks and blew the roof off Austurbær cinema. The crowd went apeshit and fierce rock dancing took place in the aisles. About ten thousand people eventually saw the band perform at a total of fourteen concerts and the Tuberculosis Association, who had imported the rockers, got a well-deserved cash injection.
The Kinks, 1965
Eight years later, still at the Austurbær cinema, Beatlemania hit Iceland in the shape of The Kinks. The band had been booked six months earlier and had since then become extremely popular with three songs making it to #1 in the UK. After two local support acts (Bravo and Tempo), Ray Davies and his men—dressed fabulously in the latest Carnaby Street rags, with their backs turned to the crowd as the curtains were withdrawn—hit the opening riff of ‘You Really Got Me’ and the mass had an eargasm. Kinks played a total of eight concerts at the cinema, with shows happening every day at seven and eleven pm (so their skimpy gear had to be dragged off the stage for the daily film showing at nine pm). Every garage in Iceland filled up with bands after The Kinks experience, and Ray Davies wrote a song inspired by his Iceland tenure, ‘I’m On An Island.’
Led Zeppelin, 1970
The first Reykjavík Arts Festival included Zep playing the recently opened Laugardalshöll stadium. This was the first foreign rock band to visit in three years, so attendance was high: 5.000 people flocked to see Robert ‘Mr. Super Shrill’ Plant and his men rock their brains out. In hindsight this gig has been painted in rosy red colours—”We hadn’t seen anything like it before,” etc – but at the time the local know-it-alls weren’t all that impressed: “I had a strong feeling that they regarded us as backwater people with very isolated opinions on pop music,” guitarist Björgvin Gíslason remarked soon after the gig in a local newspaper. At the soundcheck the band was heard playing a new song—“Ah ah ah ah…”—and they apparently got the inspiration for the lyrics whilst here with the midnight sun and all that: ‘Immigrant Song.’
The Stranglers, 1978
Somehow someone got the crazy idea of taking The Stranglers to Iceland in 1978 to promote their third album, ‘Black And White.’ The band was riding the spit-dripping wave of punk and in Iceland lived up to the image of unruly wildmen. The Stranglers gig in Laugardalshöll stadium was an eye opener for all the youngsters who had never heard of punk before, let alone seen a punk band play live. The generation gap was evident with the Icelandic support acts, comedy act Halli and Laddi and Poker, an AOR rock band. Later that same year, Iceland’s first punk band Fræbbblarnir played their first gig.
‘We Demand A Future’ was a big and important concert held at the Laugardalshöll stadium, with England’s punk anarchists Crass as the main attraction. Gramm Records had been selling Crass’ lively punk records for a while and the band had got quite popular with Iceland’s punk rockers. After a long line of support acts—including Kukl playing their first concert ever—it was finally time for Crass. Instead of playing their “hits,” Crass opted to play their latest opus, ‘Yes Sir I Will,’ in its entirety. As it is one of the most boring albums known to humankind, most of the audience had left when Crass finally played some familiar songs by the end. The concert was allegedly all about peace and love, so many people were perplexed by all the car windows that got smashed outside the stadium after Crass’ performance.
Happy Mondays, 1990
Future Airwaves-boss Grímur Atlason did his first bit of foreign band importing when he got those drooling Manchester idiots to play the Hamrahlíð College. When the band (and its posse, including Shaun Ryder’s dad) had finished most of the drugs they smuggled in, Grímur was sent looking for more. He was expelled from the college a little later, after a police investigation. It didn’t help much that the band had literally thrown the head teacher out of the school when he tried to stop the backstage partying. Happy Mondays’ biggest Iceland impression was noting that shopkeepers in Laugarvegur put a pair of shoes on display, not just one shoe like in Manchester. They then topped their moronic residence by trying to steal Bubbi Morthens pricey acoustic guitar, which had been borrowed for their use. Grímur barely managed to save the guitar from the idiots’ luggage at the Keflavík airport.
The Prodigy, 1998
All in all, Liam Howlett and his band of dancing dummies played four times in Iceland. First in 1994, then in 1995 at the notorious E-popping Uxi outdoor festival, then in 1998 at Laugardalshöll stadium and at last in 2004. The 1998 concert was the highpoint. The band was at the height of popularity with ‘The Fat of The Land’ topping charts, and they gave their best in a memorable concert. The bands’ poppy dance music had direct impact: local superstars Quarashi were as much Prodigy-influenced music as they were Beastie Boys-influenced, and Ingibergur Þór, who would later edit the ambitious music magazine Sánd, started his publishing career with a Prodigy fanzine.
Eric Clapton, 2008
During the recent banking bubble, Icelandic music lovers had almost an overdose of big foreign bands playing the reef. The króna was flying sky high, so it was dirt cheap to get big artists to play here. After a slew of huge acts (Metallica, James Brown, Pink, Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, Pixies, Korn and many more played here in 2004 alone) had played, in 2008 it seemed only old farts would visit. After John Fogerty, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan’s second show in Iceland, it was time for Eric Clapton to play the Egilshöll stadium. Few cared for Clapton’s homey blues though. The collapse was imminent and the backstage was full of drunken banksters—”we could hardly keep up with bringing them booze,” remarked a crewmember after the show. The first foreign gig post-collapse was with good-natured Danish rockers D.A.D. All the income went to benefit depression-struck Icelandic pensioners and students in Denmark!