Published March 6, 2009
Iceland 1956. Only few years have passed since Icelanders lived in mud huts and died young. Second World War had made (some of) us rich and the modern ways were slowly creeping in. British, and then the much hipper American soldiers, had brought chewing gum and Forties pop music. Youngsters, being only used to old time psalmody and Icelandic country songs, got hip to listening to jazz and pop around the soldiers’ barracks.
Cue in pop singer Haukur Morthens who had a weekly radio show at the only radio station (The state radio – Rás 1). One day a foresighted stewardess brought him “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis and asked him to play it. “It sounded unworldly and crass. So much beat and volubility. Today it sounds just easy and cosy,” commented Morthens, thirteen years later in 1969. The kids liked what they heard, but legend has it that in Höfn a farmer had a heart attack when Elvis sounded on the radio.
Iceland got its share of the international rock and roll craze. The Icelandic kids went gaga over the flaming hot new music, just like kids everywhere. More and more rock music got played on the only radio station, much to the dislike of many. “This filthy American noise will spoil the youth”, said the cultural elite, adding, “Thankfully rock music is just a bubble that will burst soon enough.”
Early American rock films were shown in theatres and the first rock combo played in Reykjavik in 1957, Tony Crombie & and his Rockets, a British former jazzist who had jumped on the rock bandwagon to make some quick cash. The band put on a convincing rock show night after night, playing altogether for around ten thousand Icelanders. Sometimes the police was brought in to calm down rock crazy teens.
Icelandic musicians, most of them being jazz snobs, didn’t like this new thing at all. “This is crap music, if you can call it music”, they said, all the while forced to play “the crap” because the kids and the young audience liked it so much and asked for it at the dancehalls.
The record industry’s initial attempts with rock fumbled at best. Pop singers were given slightly “rock-ish” songs to sing; sometimes the only indication of them being of the genre was that the word “rock” was mentioned in the song. Skapti Ólafsson was the first to nail the new thing. He sang six rock songs on records that sounded pretty convincing between 1957 and 1958. The most famous song was “Allt á floti” – an Icelandicized version of “Water water” by Tommy Steele (Britain’s first rock n roller). The song was banned from the radio, presumably because radio personnel thought it included sexual messages. This was the best publicity possible and the single sold like a motherfucker. Eventually Skapti was to buy a refrigerator for the income.By Dr. Gunni, based on his 2000 book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland). A revised edition of the book is forthcoming in 2010.