Taking a tour through the local movement’s key locations and turning points with historian Unnur María Bergveinsdóttir. (Photo still from ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’.)
Iceland was a very different place in 1980. Most of the population were born after World War II and under 40-years old. Half the population lived in Reykjavík, but the city was still regarded as a place of corruption and most children spent their summers in the countryside. Only thirteen places sold alcohol, but the economy was good and there was more work than one could ask for no matter what the profession.
This looked nothing like the anarchy of the UK or the need to be sedated in New York, where punk as we know it was already in full force. Instead of “no future,” it looked like a bright future. Yet the counter-culture of punk had been spreading as an ideological movement around Reykjavík since around 1978 and its subscribers were making the case for urbanism.
I LOVE LIVING IN THE CITY
“The politics of punk had more to do with the culture and the idea that Reykjavík could be a capital in its own right,” says Unnur María Bergveinsdóttir, a historian and the tour guide of the Reykjavík Punk Walk, taking place throughout the run of Airwaves. “As a movement, it’s very visual and it has a strong connection to cities, so that was kind of the cultural politics that punk promoted here – the city versus the countryside.”
Unnur is currently completing her Master’s thesis on the history of the punk movement in Iceland, from its inception in the late 1970s through to 1984, mainly as an oral history conducted with key figures of the early scene. Starting at 14:00 today, she is literally taking her knowledge to the streets to guide music lovers, sociology nerds and hardcore punks alike through a lesser-known subsection of Reykjavík’s culture.
BLANK TAPE GENERATION
Exploring the ideologies that were transferred between people, the way punks defined themselves and the things they rejected rather than adopted has given Unnur an intuitive understanding of this cultural shift that went on to influence many of Iceland’s most revered bands and artists. She also gained an in-depth knowledge of the practical aspects of punk life around these parts.
“The way people got their records was very important, since the mainstream record stores here wouldn’t import the more cutting-edge music,” says Unnur. “Restrictions on imports were being lifted and it was becoming easier to go abroad than before, so if you knew someone who was going to London, you would send them with a list of bands that you wanted music from, and then you would copy the record on cassette and that would get copied and so on.”
This organic form of needle-drop and hand-to-hand distribution of albums became so viral that it eventually demarcated one of the most prominent youth movements in the country. “The whole punk versus disco thing was really played up by the media,” says Unnur. “In the newspaper’s youth pages, they would go interview people and ask “So are you a punk or are you disco?” They were really playing up on the difference between these two groups. Although some people I interviewed told me ‘I was definitely a punk, but I did listen to disco music. I just didn’t do it publicly’.”
IF THE KIDS ARE UNITED
The live music scene also exploded at this time. “One of the people I spoke to said that in 1980, if you rode your bike from Hlemmur to downtown, you’d get stopped at least three times by people telling you there were concerts happening,” explains Unnur. When the rockumentary ‘Rokk Í Reykjavík‘ came out in 1982, punk experienced a turning point of gaining widespread awareness and cultural clout.
In contrast to other places that punk was pervasive, though, Iceland’s community wasn’t highly fragmented. “In other countries you would have sub-groups of punks – skinheads, gothic punks, street punks, art punks,” says Unnur. “The group was so small that you don’t really get these internal splits. What defined the punks here more were the things that they rejected rather than the things that they adopted.”
MARCH OF THE PUNKS
Unnur’s tour will take people to the key sites of punk’s foundations and old local haunts. “We will take a walk through the city centre and visit some concert venues,” she says. “The venues we’ll visit mostly don’t host shows today, like Austurbærbíó and Hafnarbíó. It would be great to get a bus and go to all the old spots in Breiðholt and Kópavogur but I’ve figured out a few spots on the hill where you get a good view of them, so that’s how I’ll tackle those.”
She will also take walkers to the locations of former record stores such as Stuðbúðin, a fairly short-lived shop, and Grammið. The latter originated as a record label that put out Purkur Pilnikk’s first album and eventually grew into Smekkleysa, a store and label associated with the band The Sugarcubes and the first promoters of Iceland Airwaves, Mr. Destiny.
The whole tour will take an hour and a half and it begins and ends at the Reykjavík Backpackers hostel on Laugavegur. She invites her guests to stick around at the end to have a beer, have a chat and ask any other questions they have about the history of punk. Although she doesn’t define herself as a punk per se, she delights in a good debate on what punk is and what it means. It start
The Reykjavík Punk Walk will take place on every day of Airwaves at 14:00 starting and ending at the Reykjavík Backpackers hostel on Laugavegur 28. It costs 2.500 ISK and takes 1.5 hous. For more information check out the Facebook event page.