Some decades arrive late, in a pop cultural sense at least. The ‘50s started in 1955 with the simultaneous advent of James Dean and rock’n’roll. The ‘60s became swinging in Britain with the Beatles first album in 1963, a year later in the States. As if to compensate, they spilled over well into the ‘70s which first found own voice in the heyday of disco and punk. In Iceland, things happen even later. Arguably, the sixties here didn’t really get going until the ‘70s and 1980 was the year that punk broke.
The 1990s, however, arrived just on time. And why not? It was the decade that brought the global infiltration of the internet and the low-cost airline. Admittedly, these things only really got going later in the decade, but in a musical sense the ‘90s took off in 1991.
R.B.I. (ROCK BEFORE IRONY)
The year saw a slew of albums that were to dominate the first half of the decade and which remain among its best. One of the most eagerly awaited were not just one but two new albums by Guns’n’Roses, which the band spent the next three years touring before imploding. The ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums were probably popular music’s last attempt to rock out without any sense of irony attached. Bare-chested gentlemen in snakeskin boots and very tight leather trousers (ok, stretchy bike-pants by this stage) may have become easy targets for ridicule just a few years later, but the albums still, well, rock.
Metallica’s black album was poppier than their previous outings, and reached a much larger audience. Diehard fans may have felt betrayed, but the album still, for the lack of a better word, rocked. The band’s ability to stick together, even allowing the drummer to have his say (if not necessarily the bass player) later led to them sailing past Axl and co. (ok, just Axl by then) in the supergroup sweepstakes.
FROM BARE CHESTS TO FULL NUDITY
In 1991 too, three young men from Seattle made themselves known to the world at large and bare chests, whether adjoined to leather trousers or stretchy pants, would not be as acceptable again for a long time. Instead, torn jeans (if sometimes designer-made) and lumberjack shirts became the order of the day. Mickey Rourke’s character in the movie The Wrestler later laments this moment as the end of the glory days of longhaired beefcakes. Be that as it may, ‘Nevermind’ remains, along with Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer,’ perhaps the most seminal album of the ‘90s. To say that it simply rocked would not do it justice.
Radiohead were themselves signing their first record contract before years’ end, but the single ‘Creep’ would not emerge until 1992.
Nirvana may have put bare-chested men temporarily out of business, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers were not afraid to bare all. They also had other attributes.
‘BloodSugarSexMagic’ rocked, but being somewhat more funky managed to be more contemporary than the Gunners who seemingly neither knew nor cared that the ‘70s were long over.
ROCK VS. POP, AGAIN
It can, in fact, be amusing to muse over how teenage influences manifest themselves a decade or so later. Axl Rose was entering his teens in 1975, when stadium rock was at its apogee. Kurt Cobain was 13 in 1980, when punk was the cool thing to be. In 1991, these two worlds would clash again, more or less with the same results.
Around this time, the music itself was undergoing one of its periodic re-brandings. In the ‘50s it was known as rock’n’roll, in the ‘70s the moniker was shortened to just rock, but by the 1990s, guitar driven bands now became known as “alternative.”
One established guitar band that tried hard to be accepted as alternative in 1991 was U2, who made their last truly great album with ‘Achtung Baby.’ They sampled some of the dance oriented music that most other old-style rock groups saw as threatening to their existence, in much the same way that the Rolling Stones incorporated disco and punk on their last great album, ‘Some Girls.’ Massive Attack, however, were the real deal and emerged with their debut album ‘Blue Lines,’ which would lead the way to their later masterpieces, ‘Protection’ and ‘Mezzanine.’
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HIP-HOP?
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In 1991, when rock was becoming alternative, one is tempted to ask: Alternative to what?
Pop music continued the decline that had started in the late 80s. Before the Beatles (who were both rock and pop), most pop bands were disposable product controlled by their producers, record companies and/or managers. Lennon and McCartney, seizing control and writing their own material, changed all that, but Stock/Aitken/Waterman took the power back (away from the artists) by writing and producing forgettable ditties for interchangeable teen heartthrobs. Pop music has never really recovered.
Before the days of gangsta and macho posturing that made even the headbangers look meek, rap was the most dynamic new kid on the block. Its golden age was coming to an end in 1991, but still had a few punches left. One its foremost exponents, NWA, released their last album ‘Efil4zaggin’. The album took pot shots at former member Ice Cube, while Cube shot back on his ‘Death Certificate’ album. Cubes’ near namesake, Ice-T, scored a career highlight with the album ‘O.G: Original Gangster’ and toured with rock band Body Count which was to make one of the most hilarious albums of 1992. It’s hard to remember that before their movie careers, Ices Cube and T were the kings of cool.
The greatest hip-hop band of them all, Public Enemy, crossed over into rock with thrash metal band Anthrax guesting on ‘Bring the Noise’ on the album ‘Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black.’ At the time, it sounded like it might open up new and exciting directions for both art forms. No one could have predicted Limp Bizkit.
Meanwhile, with rap fully entering and even taking over the mainstream, A Tribe Called Quest were making their own form of alternative rap with ‘The Low-End Theory,’ reflecting the divisions which had already taken place in other genres.
THE END OF ISOLATION
In 1991, Iceland was still largely outside the musical mainstream. No Icelandic artist had achieved global superstardom, and the bands that came to Iceland were mostly heavy metal bands past their prime, which had at this point not yet discovered that they could have profitable second acts in Eastern Europe. The years’ concert highlight was held in Hafnarfjörður and included Slaughter, The Quireboys and headliners Poison. The headliners never showed up, but the Quireboys briefly became world famous in Iceland.
The Sugarcubes had started to break Iceland’s musical isolation in the late ‘80s and in 1991 had their last hit with ‘Hit.’ They would release an album, support U2 and break up in the next year, but it was Björk’s solo debut that finally put Iceland on the musical map a couple of years later.
Domestically, the big five were Bubbi, Todmobile, Nýdönsk, Sálin hans Jóns míns and Síðan skein sól. The last two, affectionately dubbed “Sálin” and “Sólin,” vied with each other for supremacy on the countryside ball circuit with their catchy pop hooks, the only way to make a real living out of playing music in Iceland. They succeeded so well that stories of members arriving at concerts in private helicopters started to circulate, but the local music market did not support such extravagance in the long run.
ART-ROCK AND THE KING OF ROCK
More musically innovative were the bands Todmobile and Nýdönsk. Todmobile released their third album, the ambitiously titled ‘Ópera,’ which continued honing their own sound with the prominent use of cello and singer Andrea’s distinctive vocal. The lyrics, however, always seemed like a more of an afterthought to bandleader and superproducer Þorvaldur Bjarni.
Also making their third album, as well as an EP, were art-rockers Nýdönsk. ‘Kirsuber’ was one of summer’s most appealing songs and the same could be said of ‘Alelda’ during the Christmas season. The video to the haunting ‘Landslag skýjanna,’ about a mad scientist learning to fly in black and white, remains one of the most innovative in Icelandic pop. Nýdönsk would go on to sell more records in the next year, but ‘Deluxe’ was probably their last truly vintage album.
The big five got together at 1992’s Bíórokk, with Bubbi as the only solo performer. At this point, he was still indisputably the king of Icelandic rock and when he entered the stage with just acoustic guitar in hand, the crowd sang his signature song to him. Bubbi started 1991 at the top of the charts, having had both the best-selling album and book of the previous year. By summer, he resurrected the career of “Icelandic Beatle” Rúnar Júlíusson and together they recorded some of the last great rock songs of Bubbi’s career for the album GCD.
DEATH IN THE UNDERGROUND
If this was the music that people were buying, then in the underground strange things were taking place. At the annual battle of the bands, Músíktilraunir, most of the bands for some reason seemed to be playing variations of death metal, with Infusoria (later Sororicide) winning the studio time on offer and making their debut album as a result, which remains a fine testament to the short lived early Icelandic death metal scene.
While death metal bands disbanded and practitioners formed grunge bands once the full impact of Nirvana became clear, in quite different basements, another revolution was brewing. The Icelandic punk scene reached its zenith around five years after its predecessor in London, but in the early ‘90s the electronica scene in Iceland seemed to be never more than five weeks behind its sources of inspiration. The world had grown that much smaller in course of a decade.
‘EVERYBODY DANCE NOW’
In the early ‘90s, while grungers, headbangers and later Britpoppers did their best to emulate their ‘60s and ‘70s heroes, the electronica scene seemed to be creating something entirely new. In a sense, it was to the ‘90s what rock’n’roll itself had been to the ‘60s. And just like in the late ‘60s, every month seemed to bring out a new subgenre such as acid rock, folk rock, country rock, one now had a hard time keeping up with even the names of various styles, be it techno, drum’n’bass, trip-hop or jungle. This would all come to light some years in the future, even as the seeds were being sown in the underground raves of 1991.
Electronica made its way over here quickly, but hip-hop in Iceland lagged behind the times. Rap revitalised popular music here at the same time it was becoming institutionalized everywhere else during the later ‘90s. In 1991, the ‘90s were just beginning. Arguably, they would never again sound this good.