Published July 25, 2003

Ragnar Egilsson

A brief look at the bands that have been here

The Kinks were here in ´65 and played at Hótel Borg, today’s oldest surviving hotel in downtown Reykjavík. This was the first notable pop band to visit Iceland. Because they were playing at a small venue they had to do two gigs a night, half the normal length, and wound up giving eight performances all in all. Ray Davies is rumoured to have written the song “I’m on an Island” during his stay, a phrase that must have burst into the minds of the Icelandic kids as a desperate revelation when The Kinks left and they had to wait five bleeding years for the next half-decent act to come along, years spent in a cultural purgatory void of TV, Playstations and banned narcotics such as beer.
The hippy movement caught on late in Iceland and didn’t have the same cultural grounding as in the US and rest of Europe. We lacked the means of infection, our media could not fuel the fever as needed and our government was unreasonably fair in every respect and gave young people little to rebel about (editorial note: ho-hum). But Led Zeppelin still came here in June in 1970. They played at Laugardagshöll which has since then been the most popular venue for imported bands. They did some tunes, shagged some birds (some women in very respectable position today are said to have been in questionable positions with the band members at the time), and then followed The Kinks´ example and got an idea for a song here. It was of course “Immigrant Song” where they point out that here we have cold weather and hot springs (they didn’t have time to look around much). The year after Deep Purple played at the same venue, blew the sound system and stormed away in a bad mood.
The rest of the decade was mostly uneventful and it wasn’t until the wonderful 80´s that things started to pick up. Not only was there an unprecedented shipping of foreign talent to our shores but the local bands really started to shape up and new progressive musicians were born, laying the foundations for the Björks and Sigurrós´s of today. So maybe here we have an answer for those who want to know why we have such a flourishing and inventive music scene, it might be because it was effectively born in an era of punk. Punk was never about sitting still or being quiet. And we had bands such as The Clash performing here in 1980 and showing us how things should be done. When The Stranglers came in 1978 we hadn’t been ready for them but they didn’t leave without planting seeds in the hearts of a generation. So The Clash, at their peak with the London Calling tour, got a very warm welcome – we even had a punk band of our very own to thaw out the crowd, the now legendary Outsiders.
Everything opened up. The tempest of mullets and new wavers the following years brought us The Fall, Gary Numan, Echo & The Bunnymen, Madness, Human League, Grace Jones, Classix Nouveaux and Crass to name but a few. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds stumbled over but it was during their drugged-out-of-this-or-any-other-world-phase and they still can’t remember their stay so Cave had to come back in 2002 to make up for it. In 1987 Meatloaf graced us with his presence, and the glitzy one hit wonders Europe, which at first was a lame but fun band, then became lame, then fun again a few years ago for sarcastic indie shoe gazers, got played to death and are now lamer than ever.
Boy George, Uriah Heep, Leonard Cohen, Status Quo and Kiss came in 1988, Meatloaf again in ´89. In 1990 the Happy Mondays seem to have some recollection of coming here and puking their way about the place. A mediocre performance but at least they beat Boney M and Tom Jones who were here the same year.
1991-´92 was the era of washed up rock bands, for whatever reason. Since not enough time had gone by since they lost their cool, even in our instant nostalgia times, Iron Maiden, Jethro Tull and Black Sabbath (minus Ozzy), were nothing to call home about. Ozzy was originally supposed to come here in place of Black Sabbath, but a Christian organisation prayed that this would not happen, Ozzy duly caught a cold and cancelled the show and his old bandmates were hired as a replacement. Skid Row came here the same year at the peak of their powers, but these were, admittedly, slight.
Many Icelanders still remember the mini music event held in a stadium in Hafnarfjörður where Poison was supposed to play, but bailed out at last minute due to a bass player’s finger injury. Whitesnake had done better a few years before when they went on despite singer Coverdale´s being incapacitated by a sore throat, and made up with extended guitar solos and local singers stepping in. In 1992, however, we had the Quireboys (Queerboys originally but they had to change their name), Thunder, Slaughter and Norwegian-Icelandic group Artch to keep our rock glands secreting at said festival despite (or because of) Poisons absence. A year later, in 1993, Rage Against the Machine rushed the same stage and all hell broke loose. Axes and knifes were confiscated, and Icelandic kids drunker than Shane McGowan in a distillery became among the first to discover the bands genius. Rage Against the Machine were not impressed.
This year, 1993, was a turning point because that was the year Björk Guðmundsdóttir hit it big. The Sugarcubes had built it up but after this Iceland was ensured cool status and has had little difficulty signing big bands to these shores since. Marking this occasion, I have compiled an incomplete list of the visitors of the last 10 years: Underworld, St. Etienne, The Prodigy, Bobby Gillespie (of Primal Scream), Atari Teenage Riot, Ash (peculiar because they hadn’t made it at all when they came but the machine was put into action and all singles were played around the clock everywhere until Ash became famous here and the promoters made money), The Cardigans, Pulp, Blur (twice – and Damon Albarn ended up buying a house here), Coldplay, Propellerheads, David Bowie, De La Soul, Goldie, Fugees, Massive Attack, Robbie Williams (made it onto the Icelandic blacklist along with Jerry Seinfield after Robbie acted like a prick and had a hissy fit on stage just because someone threw a bottle at him), Garbage, Mercury Rev, Fugazi, Stereolab, Modest Mouse, Elton John, Ian Brown, Bloodhound Gang, Shellac, Wiseguys, Low, Thievery Corporation (twice – as part of the first two Icelandic Airwaves – which has since become the only real music festival here and not a bad one at that), Flaming Lips, The Hives, Rammstein, The Strokes, Sasha, NOFX, Blonde Redhead, Fatboy Slim and finally the bleached technocriminals of Scooter!
Foo Fighters will be the next name to add to the list as they will play on the 26th of August at Laugardalshöllin.
A big sloppy “thank you” to Dr. Gunni for writing the most extensive guide to Icelandic rock culture ever with his book “Eru ekki allir í stuði?”.

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