The History of Icelandic Rock Music: Part 7 - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The History of Icelandic Rock Music: Part 7

The History of Icelandic Rock Music: Part 7

Published August 4, 2009

Icelandic popular music has in every major way developed similarly to pop music internationally. By 1969, Icelandic pop was – much like abroad – increasingly being divided into two major classes: lightweight pop for the masses (AKA “bubblegum” or “commercial” music) and heavy and deep pop (not called rock until later, as in 1969 the term just reminded everybody of Elvis) for the forward thinking music lover (AKA “progressive” music). Of course, every serious musician wanted to turn their attention to the latter.
Hljómar had been the leaders of the sixties beat-boom. The same core players were to be the leaders of the hippie-rock movement: composer/guitarist Gunnar Þórðarson and singer/bassist Rúnar Júlíusson. The super duper hippie-group Trúbrot (Breach of Faith) was born after much preparation and discussion, mainly between Gunnar Þórðarson and Gunnar Jökull, the inventive drummer from beat band Flowers. At 17, Gunnar Jökull had left Iceland for London were he joined local band The Syn and played on two great psychedelic pop singles. As The Syn evolved into Yes, Gunnar Jökull chose to return to Iceland, were he joined Flowers and just missing world fame drumming with prog giants Yes.
    The birth of Trúbrot was major news on the Icelandic scene. Along with Gunnar and Rúnar came singer Shady Owens from Hljómar, and Gunnar Jökull brought along keyboard virtuoso Karl Sighvatsson from Flowers. Right off the bat, the members of Trúbrot were full of great expectations for the future. The feeling was that the old bands had become stagnant and not original enough; the new band was to be fresher and more inventive. Despite these sublime goals, Trúbrot’s first LP in 1969 was not a giant leap from Hljómar’s second LP from the previous year. Yet again a studio in London was used to get the music on tape. To begin with, the band had wanted to make an album with original songs only, but in the end four foreign cover versions had to be added. One of the songs was a 9-minute jam/mini-opera aptly titled Afgangar (Leftovers).
    The album sold well though, in parts thanks to news coverage of Trúbrot’s hash-smoking escapades. By this time, drug use in Iceland was on the rise so laws had to be made to prevent further moral decline. Trúbrot got their supply mainly from soldiers they knew at the Keflavík army base, but the band was never charged for their smoking as they just escaped the new laws. The cannabis thing damaged many peoples’ goodwill towards the band though, and the band had some trouble booking gigs while the affair was hot and one festival organizer wanted the band to sign a statement that the band didn’t use any drugs any more. Trúbrot of course declined the offer, saying their smoking was their personal matter, and all real hippies smoked anyway.
    In 1970, Trúbrot were crippled with line-up problems. Singer Shady left to tend to her homesickness in America, while keyboardist Karl, who many felt had never blossomed with the band, left for a music school and drummer Gunnar Jökull left because he felt Trúbrot hadn’t fulfilled their original goal of playing heavy progressive music. Rúnar and Gunnar soldiered on, adding keyboardist Magnús Kjartansson from Keflavík band Júdas to the line-up, along with a new drummer. The original line-up’s last gig was at the famous Reykjavík club Glaumbær in June 1970 and the band rocked like never before, perhaps thanks to the fact that all members of Led Zeppelin were present, fresh from playing a legendary gig in Reykjavík.   
    With the sixties officially gone, other bands seriously started to dent Trúbrot’s throne of rock. There was Ævintýri (Adventure), a band that started out playing bubblegum pop but evolved into harder territories; Tatarar (Gypsies), a hard rocking college band that scored a hit with “Dimmar rósir” in 1969; and Náttúra (Nature), the heaviest and most progressive of them all. Only Óðmenn (Madmen) released an album at the time though, and a double album at that.
    Óðmenn had started out as a beat group in the sixties and mainly worked as a popular cover band. In 1970, the band had been chiselled down to a trio lead by bassist/singer Jóhann G Jóhannson. The band modelled itself obviously after Eric Clapton’s power trio Cream and got a gig composing music for and playing in Iceland’s first original rock musical, Óli. This material ended up on the eponymous double album along with some new songs. The music is groovy and cool and has aged well, except the fourth album side which consists solely of one boring jam called Frelsi (Freedom).
    All of Óðmenn’s songs were in Icelandic (except one), some about nagging current matters like war and pollution. Trúbrot, however, sang everything in English (except one song) on the second album (the band had Icelandic lyrics only on their eponymous debut). The album was titled in Icelandic though, Undir áhrifum (“Under the Influence”), and fared the least well of all four Trúbrot’s albums. The music sounded much like soft American rock bands (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, et. al.), with only the closer, longer lasting Stjörnuryk (7:28) hinting at future progressive leanings. More of that next time.   – Dr. Gunni

By Dr. Gunni, based on his 2000 book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland). A revisited update of the book is forthcoming in 2010.

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