From Iceland — The History of Icelandic Rock Music: Part 4

The History of Icelandic Rock Music: Part 4

Published June 9, 2009

The History of Icelandic Rock Music: Part 4

Having been the island’s pop superstars for a whole year, Hljómar set out to conquer the rest of the world in the summer of 1965. This was the first, but definitely not the last, case of Icelandic pop musicians trying to “make it” abroad.
    Reynir Oddsson, a young film director, offered to make a feature film about the band’s antics, concentrating on the Icelandic “country dance” phenomenon. The band was convinced to foot half of the movie’s bill. Shooting started in July 1965 and lasted for three months. All in all, 27 hours of Hljómar playing at various places out in the country were captured on film, with all the hippest dudes and chicks of the times doing the go-go on the side. The movie was called Umbarumbamba, which presumably means some kind of “South African love declaration.”
    At the same time a world-wise American from the Keflavík naval base, Dan Stevens, stepped in as the band’s manager. Now plans for world domination were put to full effect. An audition was set up with Parlophone Records in London: The Beatles’ label, no less. Hljómar – now calling themselves Thor’s Hammer – played stressfully for a bunch of stern British “suits” in a studio where they afterwards recorded a bunch of original songs written by Gunnar Þórðarson. The audition proved successful and Thor’s Hammer scored a record deal.
    Hljómar/Thor’s Hammer’s music had changed a lot since the early innocent beat pop. Guitarist Gunnar had gotten himself a fuzzbox, one of the first fuzz boxes to enter the market in 1965, and he used it a lot. The jazzy drummer took cues from Keith Moon and the band had changed to English lyrics. As they boasted: “We’re mostly concentrating on foreign markets now” – an explanation often heard from Icelandic musicians ever since.
    Hljómar had spent lots of money to finance the film, as they thought of it as a safe vehicle towards international fame and fortune. Finally in the spring of 1966, the movie came to Iceland and was premiered in the band’s hometown of Keflavík. Umbarumbamba the film had been constantly hyped in the Icelandic media so everybody was expecting a lot when the lights finally dimmed.
    The movie turned out to be only 15 minutes long and the storyline did not make any sense whatsoever. The band was in shock and thought the film was “extremely corny.” Naturally, the band wanted their money back – or some of it, at least – and bitter feuds between the band and the director ensued. The movie was only shown for two days in Keflavík and hasn’t been seen since. Ever. The director presumably has it somewhere in his possession, so there’s still some hope that Icelandic pop enthusiasts will eventually see this holy grail of major fuck-up.
    The music from the film was no fuck-up though. The Umbarumbamba soundtrack, 6 tracks ambitiously packaged on two 7” EPs in a gatefold-sleeve, came out several weeks after the movie had vanished. As can be envisioned nobody had much interest and the record vanished quickly as well.
    It took several decades for the world to discover the great music that Thor’s Hammer had committed to vinyl. The tracks – great, raw garage rock, drenched in fuzz and manic drumming – are some of the best Icelandic music of the sixties, and definitely the most original and powerful. The EP is famous amongst collectors and sells for thousands of dollars whenever a copy surfaces. The music has been released on CD and you should definitely check it out.
    The lack of world domination – the constant struggle and disappointment – was weary and tiring. The band had lost most of its Icelandic fan base due to their “difficult” music style and their tendencies to “jam” the songs for up to twenty minutes at dances. The band had lived on music for two years but now everybody was broke and feeling down. The old kings were losing out miserably to more dedicated beat groups such as Óðmenn, Toxic, and especially Dátar, the new and rising princes of pop. Something had to change. More of that next time.

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