From Iceland — The History of Icelandic Rock

The History of Icelandic Rock

Published May 8, 2009

The History of Icelandic Rock

The development of rock music was much the same in Iceland as in the rest of the world. First we had “early-American rock” copycats, then a bunch of Cliff and The Shadows soundalikes, and then when all hell broke lose with Beatlemania, we had ourselves some Hljómar-mania.
    Hljómar (“Chords”) from Keflavík were the first “real” modern group in Iceland, as the band – primarily Gunnar Þórðarson – wrote much of their own songs. He was taking cues from Paul and John, just as Mick and Keith had got hip to songwriting following the initiative of the boys from Liverpool. Before that, Paul and John had started to write songs taking cues from young Texan Billy Holly who was, then, probably the biggest influence on how songwriters within the bands became the norm, rather than songs being manufactured elsewhere and then adopted by singers and groups.
    The closeness of the US Navy base had a strong influence on the Hljómar boys. In Keflavík one could pick up signals from the Navy radio and sometimes young Keflavík boys got to know about rock n roll from young Americans. The Holy Grail for bands was to play at one of the clubs at the base. Beer (then forbidden in Iceland), hamburgers, foreign atmosphere; a whole tantalizing otherworld waited inside the fences at Miðnesheiði.
    In early 1963, self-educated guitarist Gunnar Þórðarson, then 17 years old, was playing with older dudes in a “ball-group”. He was also in a school band aptly named Skuggar (“Shadows”) that played at school events. News of Beatlemania in the UK widened the generation gap and Gunnar left the older dudes to form Hljómar. He enlisted his friend Rúnar Júlíusson to play bass, an instrument Rúnar had never touched before. After two weeks of severe rehearsals the new band was ready to play. The drummer suggested the name “Hljómar” which the others found too silly. Nobody came up with anything better in time for the first gig, so the name stuck, for better or worse.
    In the beginning of 1964, Beatlemania had hit Iceland full force. In March, Hljómar played “all the latest Beatles-songs” four nights in a row at Háskólabíó theatre along with other delegates of the new breed. “Four groups played mostly the same songs over and over again,” said newspaper Morgunblaðið. “The house was packed with teenagers, aged 14-18. When the noisy playing and the shrill screams of the singers reached its peak, big sections of the crowd lost control, clapping, screaming and stomping their feet, some on the floor, some standing in the seats. Most mesmerising were Hljómar. When they played the din in the house was so loud one could hardly hear the music.”
    For the rest of 1964 Hljómar were kings. The band played relentlessly all over Iceland and caused havoc as Icelandic teenagers took out their Beatlemania on them. Hljómar was the only “Beatle”-band in Iceland to live entirely off of playing music. In February 1965 it was time to record the first single. Two originals by Gunnar were chosen, Fyrsti kossinn (“The First Kiss”), a fast rocker that Gunnar later admitted to have based on “She loves you”, and Bláu augun þín (“Your blue eyes”), a ballad sung by Engilbert Jensen, the drummer/singer. The single sold 4.000 copies, an unheard of number at that time. Both songs are now considered Icelandic classics.
    Despite all this, a switchover was imminent in the Hljómar world. After a year of total domination of the scene, Hljómar had formed some new goals. Following the arrival of Pétur Östlund to the band, a skilled drummer who liked modern jazz, Hljómar now wanted to make more complex music. They wanted international success too. More of that next time.

  • By Dr. Gunni, based on his 2000 book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland). A revisited update of the book is forthcoming in 2010.
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