Obviously I have no first-hand experience of clubs before I started playing in 1980, but from what I’ve heard there were some pretty cool venues operated before my time.
The most exotic one was operated in the fifties. It was called Vetrargarðurinn (“The Winter Garden”) and was located at the Tívolí in Vatnsmýri, an amusement park in the mire beside Reykjavík airport (the Tívolí was run from 1946 to 1964 and brings a lot of nostalgia to some). Vetrargarðurinn was small and got hot and steamy, even when it was frosty outside. It had our grandparents hopping along to primitive rock ‘n’ roll by early Icelandic rock groups such as Lúdó and Falcon. The place was a bit cut off so folks had to take a taxi or walk home afterwards, and presumably many Icelanders were conceived in the ditch besides the road.
Glaumbær is the most legendary beatnik and hippie venue in Reykjavík, not the least because of its burning down in 1971. Glaumbær was the place to be in the sixties: two floors of narrow corridors, bars and two stages. Bands in matching suits gave way for lambskin vested longhairs as the sixties turned into the seventies, and Rúnar Júlíusson from Trúbrot could often been seen hanging from the chandelier in a hippie rock frenzy. The source of the fire was said to be a cigarette from the previous night’s festivities. Some of hippie band Náttúra’s gear burned down with the place, and in the weeks after the fire some bands held rallies urging the city to rebuild Glaumbær. Nothing came of this, and the place lay dormant for years until The National Gallery of Iceland opened on the site in 1987.
My first gig was at Kópavogsbíó (Kópavogur’s cinema) in 1980. It is where Icelandic punk was undeniably born through punk band Fræbbblarnir’s relentless efforts. The cinema opened in 1959 and also served as a community hall. The place had become quite shabby when the punkers took it over 20 years later, throwing concerts there occasionally over the next three years. The gigs at Kópavogsbíó usually started at 2 PM on Saturdays and were all ages ones, as no booze was for sale. You might have been able to buy popcorn though.
During the ‘Rokk í Reykjavík era’ (1980-1982, when punk and new wave finally made it to Iceland, as documented in Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s legendary 1982 documentary, ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’), the main venue was Hótel Borg. This swankiest of hotels in town opened in 1930 and has sporadically housed dance events and concerts since then. This is where British and American troops came to get some action during the occupation years. The high roofed hall was on the first floor, and by 1980 the former glory could be spotted through the prevalent shabbiness. The hotel still proudly stands by Austurvöllur, remodelled to match its former swankiness, but its days as a concert venue are mostly in the past.
The place to play in the early eighties (besides Hótel Borg, of course) was Safarí, a low roofed, 450-capacity club on Skúlagata. The dance floor featured blinking lights, much like the ones at legendary disco club Hollywood. There were no ‘disco freaks’ at Safarí, however, just hip people from the Rokk í Reykjavík era, now gone all ‘new romantic,’ dancing endlessly to The B52s’ ‘Rock Lobster,’ or so it seems in my Alzheimer-lite version of the place.
Safarí opened in 1983, but had one year operated as Villti tryllti Villi (“Wild, furious Villi”), a teen club that sold soda and hamburgers instead of alcohol. Safarí was to change names, owners and ID numbers frequently over the next years, as business was sloppy. It became Roxý, then Roxzý, and eventually Casablanca.
My most memorable gigs there were supporting German noisemakers Einsturzende Neubauten and Australian rock band Crime & The City Solution in 1986 with my band S.H. Draumur. The Germans had brought teen girls along (from Bahnhof Zoo presumably) and Blixa and co. had us out of the backstage room before the gig (so they could shoot up heroin, I guess). The Australians were more relaxed and we hung out with them backstage. This was quite awesome for me, as two members of the group had previously played in The Birthday Party, a band I absolutely loved at the time. Unfortunately, I was not in Iceland a few months later when Nick Cave—the main guy from The Birthday Party—showed up to play Roxzý with The Bad Seeds.
Duus-Hús on Fischersund opened in 1984, but Stuðmenn were the first band to play the club in 1986, when a new room was added to the place. For the next few years, this would be where everyone from Ham to The Sugarcubes could rig up a gig. As the room was small, fifty people would make it feel like a packed house. The highlight of Duus-Hús’ existence happened in August 1990 when The Sugarcubes played a private concert there for French political leaders, President Mitterand and Minister of Culture, Jack Lang (who was a Sugarcubes fan) during their official visit to Iceland. After Duus ceased to exist the place was squatted by the down and out for a while, until it was torn down and eventually replaced by another building.
Tunglið (and Bíókjallarinn, and Rósenberg)
In the late eighties, Tunglið (“The Moon”), opened in a building that had originally housed a cinema (Nýja bíó – “New Cinema”). Many legendary gigs took place there, like Ham’s ‘farewell’ gig in 1994. The place was quick to become shabby even though an ambitious mural of President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was painted on the most prominent wall. Tunglið’s cellar housed a tiny club called Bíókjallarinn (later Rósenberg). It housed everything from biker rock gigs to ecstasy raves. Tunglið probably housed up to a thousand people, so often the attendance looked quite tragic. The place burned down in 1998 [via arson], after years of continuing shabbiness. A new house was built on the premises and is now known as the Iða house at Lækjargata.
Tveir vinir og annar í fríi
By the mid-nineties, the comparatively best venue was the weirdly named Tveir vinir og annar í fríi (“Two friends and another on vacation”) on Laugavegur. It was a carpeted cellar run by Ragnhildur “Hilla”, a kind elderly woman who handled show bookings in-between everything else. The place had a karaoke machine and a widescreen TV, too. It was more “real rock” then the other venue at the time, Gaukur á stöng (“Cuckoo on a stick”), which was more ‘pub rock’ or ‘corny pop’. This place hasn’t burnt down yet, but it was changed to a strip club—Vegas—in the late nineties.
There has never been an abundance of good live music venues in Reykjavík—and there has never really been a really great place to play either, at least not for the last 30 years. There are usually some shabby holes available for bands to pick from, ranging in size—but maybe current places like NASA and Rósenberg shouldn’t be called “shabby holes” though. Yet venues continue to go bankrupt or burn down. The last one to catch fire was Organ, a fine shabby hole that burned to the ground last year.