Published December 27, 2017
Yes, rock is dead. It is dead in the sense that punk is dead. Or classical. Punk by now belongs in a museum (you can find one on Bankastræti) and classical music can still be enjoyed at the Harpa concert hall, in between tributes to Meatloaf and Neil Young. They’re even importing Beatles cover bands now. People still listen to rock and roll. But no one expects very much from it anymore.
Rock is dead, we must agree, but this invites a few questions. What has come in its place, now that even movies hardly matter? What today could have the same generational impact that ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ did in 1967 or ‘Star Wars’ in 1977? There is TV, of course, with ‘Game of Thrones’ to name but the most obvious example. And then there is the surprising return of books. The Harry Potter series is surely the closest we have come to Beatlemania this century. And perhaps the Hunger Games then plays the part of the Stones. Or even Twilight (remember those?).
Rock is dead, to be sure, but when did it die? It’s hard to tell, but at least we can point with some accuracy to the last time it was truly alive. Yes, it was 20 years ago today. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the same year that the first Harry Potter book came out. 1997 produced the last contender so far for the best album of all time. It was also the last time there was a musical revolution, of sorts, with the mainstream acceptance of techno. But first, let’s have a look at what the good old boys were doing.
Tony Blair and the End of Britpop
In 1997, U2 released, after many a delay, their ‘Pop’ album. And while it was a disappointment to many, it was also, in a sense, their last good album, before they became a revival act. While not as focused as their 1991 masterpiece ‘Achtung Baby’, at least they were still trying. Even the title is mildly subversive. It’s strange to think that way back in the 80s, rock purists looked down on pop music and “authenticity” was everything. Now the biggest rock band in the world was dressing up as the Village People and claiming to be playing pop. Perhaps the most U2 moment of them all was when they got stuck inside their giant disco lemon at a concert in Norway. But ‘Pop’ remains far better than anything they have done since.
Also on its last legs in 1997 was the Britpop phenomenon. Oasis released their highly anticipated ‘Be Here Now’ to great acclaim, although its reputation has suffered in retrospect. Blur went to Iceland to record their self-titled fifth album, which finally broke America with “Song 2.” Damon Albarn, previously snobbish towards the Colonies, now cited Pavement as a major influence on their new, less pop direction. Pavement themselves, however, were going mainstream with their explanatorily-titled ‘Brighten the Corners’.
Suede and Pulp were largely absent in ’97, but perhaps it was Tony Blair, swept to office on the winds of Cool Britannia, who finally killed Britpop. Playing guitar badly and being, well, younger than most of the Tories, he invited the main bands to Number 10. Noel Gallagher showed up. In the ‘Live Forever’ documentary, this is described as the spiritual equivalent of having his balls cut off. Albarn declined on grounds of being a communist. Blur 1, Oasis 0.
The Last Gasp of the 60s
For some, then, 1997, much like today, was a year of realignment, away from Britain and to the continent. Rammstein scored an international hit with their ‘Sehnsucht’ album, but no record exists of them being wooed by Gerhard Schröder, also new on the scene that year. Industrial metal was in general riding high and found a new audience through David Lynch, with Rammstein, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails all appearing on the ‘Lost Highway’ soundtrack.
A very different kind of goth was Nick Cave, who, having finally scored a hit the year before with Kylie Minogue, now released the introspective ‘Boatman’s Call’, dealing with his breakup with PJ Harvey. It is hard to point to highlights in an even career that has yet to produce a bad album, but this remains one of his most enduring works.
Cave turned 40 that year, but 1997 might also have been the last vintage year for the 60s triumvirate of the Beatles, Dylan and Stones. Dylan, at 56, released ‘Time Out of Mind’, perhaps his last great album, despite being absent most of the year due to a potentially fatal respiratory disease. He also played for the Pope, got a medal from Bill Clinton and won his first Grammy (but really, who cares?). Paul McCartney released ‘Flaming Pie’, a return to form inspired by his work on ‘The Beatles Anthology’ and featuring Ringo Starr on one track. He also made his second classical album, ‘Standing Stone’, featuring photographs by his terminally ill wife Linda. And the Stones returned with ‘Bridges to Babylon’, featuring an ill-advised foray into sampling and rap. Jagger and Richards were not on speaking terms for most of the production and had to work in separate rooms, with Keith getting three whole solo numbers, a personal record. They have since only made one more album of originals, but the tour, inspired by U2’s PopMart, was a great success despite the absence of a disco lemon.
The high point of the 90s
Another Keith, Flint, was making waves with a new techno-punk look and the new album of his band The Prodigy, ‘The Fat of the Land’. Dance music had been one of the most interesting underground phenomenons of the first part of the decade but now made the big time. Many took offence at their new single “Smack My Bitch Up” and the ensuing video, which seemed designed to attract controversy. David Bowie also jumped on the dance music bandwagon with ‘Earthling’, something of a disappointment after his return-to-form ‘1. Outside’ two years previous. His 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden featured a younger generation of musicians but only one old friend in Lou Reed. And then there was Björk, of course, who got ever stranger with ‘Homogenic’, still today considered one of the best electronic albums ever. But Britain wasn’t over, not just yet, and still dominated 1997. In addition to the above, one of the most exciting new bands was the Verve, which broke through with ‘Urban Hymns’. And Spicemania continued with the ‘Spice World’ album and film, though it would all be over soon.
With ‘Fat of the Land’, ‘Homogenic’, ‘Be Here Now’ and ‘Urban Hymns’, 1997 can be said to be the year of the difficult third album, the release of which saw many of the bright young things of the early 90s at the peak of their power. But surely the mother of them all was ‘OK Computer’ by Radiohead. If the 90s has a ‘Sgt. Pepper’, this is it. Along with ‘Nevermind’ and a handful of others, it is one of the generation-defining, life-changing albums of an era. And Radiohead have never equalled it, although as seen here at Secret Solstice last year and with their Theresa May-ousting performance at Glastonbury this year, they remain a potent live band. We may never see their like again.
But what about Iceland in 1997?
Turns out it was, in fact, a seminal year in Icelandic music. Björk had kicked the door to the world open four years previous and kept up the pace with ‘Homogenic’. Waiting in the wings as the next big thing was Sigur rós, with their debut album ‘Von’ promising greater things to come. Electronic collective GusGus managed to break the UK top 200 with ‘Polydistortion’. Meanwhile, the previous group of frontman Daníel Ágúst, Nýdönsk, resurfaced with a Best-of; this was voted the musical event of the year in the Icelandic music awards. Which hardly qualifies 1997 as a turning point, but other things were brewing.
Underground heroes Maus continued the third album trend (see main article) with ‘Lof mér að falla að þínu eyra’ and electronic/rock act Stjörnukisi made their acclaimed EP ‘Geislaveisla’. Dr. Gunni made a final attempt to conquer the world with a four-track English-language EP by his band Unun, but later in the year settled for making the classic children’s album ‘Abbababb’. Old warhorse Bubbi Morthens released ‘Trúir þú á engla’, arguably his last truly good album. And songwriting genius Megas continued his comeback with ‘Fláa veröld’, though it was less acclaimed than his offering the previous year, ‘Til hamingju með fallið’.
But really, 1997 in the annals of Icelandic popular music is the year rap broke. Subterranean made their influential ‘Central Magnetizm’, which can claim to be the first Icelandic rap album. In the autumn, the Beastie Boys-inspired Quarashi released their self-titled debut, which topped the Icelandic charts. The band would later score a worldwide hit with “Stick ‘Em Up.”
1997 may not have been the best year in Icelandic music, but the groundwork was being laid for what was later to come, with Sigur rós crafting their distinctive sound and the belated appearance of hip-hop, which is probably still the most interesting genre here today. Rap had come to Iceland, but it would take a few more years before people started rapping in the local language.