From Iceland — Bringing It All Back Home

Bringing It All Back Home

Published December 17, 2010

Bringing It All Back Home

In the 1960s, pop music in Iceland was often referred to as
Bítlatónlist (“Beatle music”) and today many even speak of Bítlaárin
(“Th e Beatle years”). Despite the proximity of the American Naval
Base and US Armed Forces Radio, musical influences here mostly came
from the UK.
Some say that this was because the rough sailor types of Keflavík
(known as Bítlabærinn or “Beatletown”) found a kinship with the scene
in Liverpool, others that it was because most Icelandic musicians went
to London to buy records unavailable here. In any case, Bob Dylan and
folk rock made relatively little impact here in the ‘60s. Perhaps the
real reason was that Iceland had almost no proper concert venues where
people could just go and listen. Rather, rock music was enjoyed at
drunken country balls and was decidedly more for the feet than the
They say that in Iceland everything happens five years too late. So it
was only in the early ‘70s, ironically when Dylan’s influence in the
English-speaking world was at a low, that echoes of him could be heard
Hörður Torfason was the first major singersongwriter to emerge in
Iceland. On his first album in 1970, he wrote music to other people’s
poems. By his second, in 1971, he was finding his own voice as a
The next year, a young man who had been working as a night watchman in
Norway recorded his début album. The album, named after its creator,
Megas, was iconoclastic in more ways than one, dealing with some of
Iceland’s most esteemed heroes. We meet national poet Jónas
Hallgrímsson lying around syphilis-infected and drunk, and hear that
the settlement of Iceland itself was an unfortunate mistake by the
nation’s founder. That album, as well as subsequent ones, established
Megas as something of a national poet in his own right. Meanwhile,
Hörður came out of the closet and told Icelanders he was gay, one of
the first prominent Icelanders to do so. The response was somewhat less
than celebratory, and forced him to relocate temporarily to Denmark. He
soon returned, and became a strong gay rights advocate.
Megas eventually established himself as a master of the Icelandic
language, though initially many disputed his use of slang and English
or Danish ‘loan words’ mixed with highly literary Icelandic. In 1979,
after a slew of brilliant albums, he retired to go to art school.
In the early 1980s a new troubadour emerged, one influenced by both
Megas and Hörður Torfa as well as Dylan. His name was Bubbi Morthens,
and he almost instantly eclipsed both of his Icelandic forerunners in
terms of sales. Urged on by Bubbi, Megas re-emerged in the mid-’80s to
near-respectability and ever greater critical and commercial success.
In 1988, master and apprentice Megas and Bubbi teamed up to record the
album ‘Bláir draumar’, which was intended to rescue the faltering
record label Grammið from bankruptcy. This might have been successful,
had the album not included a track called ‘Litlir sætir strákar’ (“Cute
little boys”), sung from a paedophile’s viewpoint. Both album and label
tanked, and Megas spent roughly a decade and a half in the commercial
wilderness, at least partly due to this one song. The album was later
re-released on two different CDs—one for each artist— and is currently
unavailable in its entirety.
Even though usually broke and despite lucrative offers, Megas was the
very model of artistic integrity, refusing all offers of using his
songs for advertisements. He often had problems getting his music
released by record labels, and his house was paid for by a former
backing singer of his called Björk [some of you might be familiar…].
Megas, who once said that he grew up with readings of Halldór Laxness’
works in one ear and Elvis singing into the other, was nevertheless in
the year 2000 celebrated along with Laxness as one of Iceland’s
greatest writers of all time. In early 2008, his career went through a
commercial resurgence with a new band and two new albums that outsold
previous output. Megas, the rock ’n’ roll Laxness, was belatedly going
through his Elvis phase.
 Even though his financial troubles should have been behind him, it was
at this point that Megas sold one of his classic songs to Toyota
(perhaps inspired by Dylan, who was by now doing Cadillac commercials).
A few months later, the economy collapsed. Coincidence? Probably not.
Re-enter Hörður Torfason. Largely ignored in Iceland by the general
public, apart from his annual and usually sold-out autumn concert, it
was Hörður who now stepped forth. Trained as a theatre director and
hardened by his civil rights struggle on behalf of the gay community,
he began organising the weekly protests that later escalated into the
pots and pans revolution. Many troubadours have sung about revolution
throughout the years, but Hörður may be the first one to actually make
it happen. He has stepped out of the shadow of his contemporaries and
surpassed them all, at least in terms of direct political influence.
Dylan, surely, never did this.
1988 did not only see the Megas-Bubbi team up. The Big Three, Bubbi,
Megas and Hörður Torfa jointly held a Concert Against Aids (as it was
known) in Háskólabíó. Bubbi was then at his peak, Iceland’s biggest
selling artist by far, and the other two were also enjoying commercial
resurgence. The concert, however, was not a success. Megas later
quipped in a Fréttablaðið interview that few had attended as they were
afraid of catching the disease, as many had misconceptions about it at
the time. The concert was released on VHS, and again Megas joked that a
third of the printing had an American thriller with the music to the
concert, another third had the visuals with soundtrack to said crime
film, while only a third had both correct sound and vision.
That same year, a band calling themselves Dýrið gengur laust (“The
animal walks freely”) released a spoof called ‘Bláir draumar’ (“Blue
Dreams”), after the Bubbi/Megas album. The song graphically detailed a
homosexual orgy of the country’s three leading troubadours. It was in
poor taste, but legend has it that Bubbi, the most physical of the
three, actually paid the songwriter a visit and clocked him for his
labours. Perhaps that is why people in general have been reluctant to
criticise him (perhaps this writer may be expecting a similar visit?).
 Again, in 1988, the Big Three of the acoustic scene converged in
Háskólabíó. They had been coming from very different places, and were
to go on to more different places still.
Ironically, it was Hörður Torfa who started out as the most commercial.
In the early ‘70s, he was something of a golden boy with his blonde
hair and blue eyes, working as a model as well as a singer before his
coming out put a temporary halt to his career. Despite not being
overtly political as a songwriter, it was he who was to have the most
direct impact on Icelandic society. First he took part in founding
Samtökin’78 (called The National Queer Organisation in English) which
certainly must be one of the most successful in history. In the three
decades since its founding, gays in Iceland have gone from a closeted
existence to more or less complete acceptance. One of the last hurdles
was crossed this year, as the National Church has now accepted same-sex
marriages. Thirty years later, Hörður started his one-man show outside
the Parliament building, which escalated into the biggest protests in
Icelandic history and brought down the government.
Bubbi first appeared a decade later than Hörður, as an angry young man
and part of the then-rising punk movement. He never fit in easily,
being some years older (at 24) and a lot more rock and roll than his
teenage contemporaries. His politics, clearly left wing and honed by
almost a decade working as a labourer in fish factories around the
countryside, were in direct opposition to the punks’ urban anarchism.
The fact that he became the one to break into the mainstream probably
says something about the mood at the time, as well as the power of his
The first side of his seminal début ‘Ísbjarnarblús’ was electric and
the second was acoustic (much like Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back
Home’), and ever since he has gone between the two formats. Although
still popular in the ’90s, he started dabbling in commercials. In early
2005, he took the final step and sold his entire catalogue to Sjóvá
insurance company and Glitnir Bank.
Bubbi again embodied the spirit of the times and when the economy
collapsed he went down with it, in financial terms at least, being
heavily in debt. He has lately become something of an apologist for
disgraced bankers, one of very few Icelanders to do so. No longer the
spokesman of the working classes, but perhaps we can still find some of
his old punk spirit in going so brazenly against popular opinion?
Megas has always been a wild card. Although he obviously abhors the
Conservatives, he seems equally happy to take shots at the left or any
group that seems to him to be too self-righteous. He even presented his
selling out to Toyota as a practical joke against those who were too
dogmatic against commercialisation, even though there were few of these
left in the country at the time.
Unlike other troubadours, who often may appear as white or dark
knights, Megas always plays the part of the joker, pointing out faults
but rarely proposing solutions. His songs are often socio-critical but
rarely political. His sympathies lie with the freaks, the outsiders and
the bums, and he sometimes seems to oppose all groups and organisations
His career is never predictable, except perhaps in its
unpredictability. Every time he has some inkling of commercial success,
he always takes a step back and goes in a different direction, as he
seems to be doing right now. After the comeback success of 2008, who
would have thought his next move would be a team up with old friends
and drinking buddies Gylfi and Rúnar, both long out of the limelight?
Megas largely managed to preserve his sanity through the general
craziness of the boom, and his analysis in a Grapevine interview from
2003 (when the gold rush was really taking off), is as sharp as any:
“Poverty is increasing. People are fooled with a carrot called “good
times are coming,” so they invest heavily and unsoundly. Everyone
becomes heavily in debt, and has no choice but to continue being where
they are, doing the jobs they do. It was the same in the old farming
society when people where literally banned from moving about.
Nero and Caligula were both men who were reasonably sane before they
came to power, but then suddenly become raving mad. A bit like
Icelanders. In most countries, it takes absolute power to corrupt
absolutely, but here a little power is enough… these men would sell
their own grandmother, but not even hand her over once they had gotten
the money, and then sell her over and over again.”
This, in fact, is more or less exactly what was going on in Iceland, though few at the time could see it.
His solution: “You can try to express your opinions as clearly as
possible, and give those who are still struggling ideological weapons…
but the good guys are always by nature weaker than the bad. The victory
of good is never more than symbolic, and then only in retrospect.”
There is a lot to this. Hörður, however, would probably disagree. His
approach is more direct, and a good thing it is too. We need our white
knights as well as our jokers.

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