No matter what anyone tells you, the 101 Reykjavík nightlife scene is druggy, and it is a cousin of both tears and regrets. People who frequent clubs and bars during the weekend are most likely found in the city’s movie theatres on Sunday nights, as those give a great excuse to not talk at all for two hours or so. Preferably more.
What we have here is a city filled with unhappy, traffic-jammed, annoyed folk that magically transform into party-hat wearing, breast-flashing Vikings come Friday night. And these are chemicals at work, the people and the alcohol and the nicotine (I don’t have a valid source for this, but it is often suggested that Iceland has the world’s highest ratio of weekend-only smokers).
So, this is not a clean-living, healthy city, and its inhabitants are anything but balanced. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes for some decent nights out, as vapid vacantness and desperation are bound to breed decadence; what those out after the hours of 1am on a Saturday are surely looking for.
I was thus surprised when told by a veteran of the 101 dance music scene, at the site of a show by recently revered techno-hipsters Booka Shade, that he could “hardly spot any drugs on anyone.” I had just assumed otherwise, going by what I thought I knew.
See, I am naïve. I am from the countryside, and I have no idea how to tell if anyone is sorted for Es and whizz. Where I come from, we stick to beer and glue-sniffing. Add to that the fact that I decided on reviewing the Booka Shade show in question out of curiosity; because I hadn’t really attended such an event up until then and thought it would provide ample opportunity to acquaint myself with Reykjavík’s dance music culture, and dance music in general.
“How can you tell,” I asked, and he answered that he usually just could. “You learn to notice. Tonight is marked by a notable absence of some of the drug crowd that I’m used to seeing at these events.”
What he was perhaps insinuating was that Booka Shade, surprise techno superstars and the night’s headliners, were appealing to a much wider crowd than these dance-offs usually do. This seemed obvious upon further inspection. Among those present was an unusually high (I’m told) percentage of people rarely seen outside of Reykjavík’s rock clubs. People wearing Motörhead T-shirts. This is clearly techno for the masses, as was made abundantly clear as the night progressed.
As I entered Gaukurinn, a crowd pulsated. It cheered as it flung its arms into the air. Some lights blinked, and blinked. All this commotion was in order to prove that said crowd was “ready for Booka Shade!” – something that had been repeatedly questioned by a blonde woman standing on a stage more accustomed to hosting shitty Icelandic pop-rock outfits than Teutonic techno giants. After untold hours of well-received warm-ups from popular local artists such as FM Belfast, Hairdoctor and Jack Schidt, Booka Shade’s appearance was finally imminent.
I was drawn from where I stood at the short-stocked bar, conversing with some rocker types whom I hadn’t expected meeting here, by a pulsating melody I couldn’t recognise but made for a sort of siren song through my g&t induced haze. In an interview with Polish web-zine Juju, Booka Shade’s Arno Kammermeier cited British new-wave and electronic music from the eighties as a prime inspiration. The Smiths, Tears for Fears, Soft Cell. “That’s probably where our love for melancholic melodies comes from.” And that may explain some of their appeal to rock audiences weaned on the legendary club ‘22’, where those bands were played non-stop, and the people did indeed dance.
And so, my face turned to the stage, I was entranced.
Booka Shade somehow managed to conjure sounds that appealed at once to my booty and my brain, bringing to mind some exotic blend of the finest pop I’ve heard and the heaviest metal. I was lost in music, as were my compatriots out on the dance floor. I thought some thoughts: “Why would the crowd in a dance-music event be facing the stage? Shouldn’t they be grinding against one another? Or dancing? Why are the girls here prettier than at rock shows? Why do the audience participate more than at regular concerts, instead of bouts of head nodding and foot-tapping?”
It slowly dawned on me that I was asking the wrong question. For what I was witnessing was no techno dance spectacle, I was witnessing a rock show. And this is why most of the crowd, especially those who had been exposed to the band’s songs during visits to non-musically segregated clubs like Kaffifbarinn, loved it, while techno purists were intrigued and, in some cases, put off.
See, Booka Shade’s show is highly marked by… showmanship. Something that seems to be sneaking through the back door of dance music once again, after The Prodigy all but killed it with their silly haircuts and sub-par albums. One of techno’s trademarks for a long time has been the relative anonymity of its artists. They will release countless albums under countless monikers, slowly making names for themselves within small circles of informed hipsters. It is pointedly anti-celebrity. So what am I to make of the two deutschmen standing on stage before me? One of them is playing ‘E-drums’, triggering samples by hitting plastic shields. The other is singing into a microphone. No audible lyrics, but he’s still singing. It’s actually pretty corny. And their melodies are reminiscent of The Cure. So this is a hybrid of sorts, and this is why they seem to be reaching out to a greater audience. And this is why the purists were confused, while those out of vogue loved it.
Booka Shade’s command of their audience was all but revelatory. Although forward-facing, and noticeably drug free, they managed to shake them like no rock band I’ve ever seen (with the exception of Black Sabbath feat. Ronnie James Dio and my mom, in ’92). Their big hits, Mandarine Girl and Body Language, set the room afire and even got my chubby legs shakin’.
It was a notably sweaty, happy crowd that left Gaukurinn that Friday night. Leaving, I thought: “Booka Shade are more like a rock or pop act than a techno one.” This is maybe why I really enjoyed myself. I like rock, and I like pop, and I know how to read those genres. The fact also made this less of a learning experience for me than I had thought. It was kinda like Sebadoh at GrandRokk in 2003, in a way.
Some things I did learn, however, were that you can supposedly tell if someone’s on E if they’re dancing with arms interlocked, speed or coke if their jaws are grinding, and just plain drunk if they’re stupidly dancing, facing the stage.
That’s what I did.
Who: Booka Shade
When: January 19, 2007
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