From Iceland — The Progressive Folk Rock Brigade

The Progressive Folk Rock Brigade

Published February 8, 2010

The Progressive Folk Rock Brigade

In the seventies, Icelandic progressive folk music was mainly taken care of by two bands, Spilverk þjóðanna (“Plaything of the Nations”) and Þursaflokkurinn (“Band of Titans”). It all started in legendarily artsy college MH, which would later become the breeding ground for lots of other bands. Spilverk þjóðanna, or Spilverkið as the band was normally called, started playing in 1972 but released its eponymous debut in 1975 (also nicknamed “The Brown Album” as it came in a brown paper sleeve). The album was recorded in the recently opened Hljóðriti studio in Hafnarfjörður, the first real studio in Iceland.
The three core members—Valgeir Guðjónsson, Egill Ólafsson and Sigurður Bjóla—were also active in Stuðmenn at the time (see chapter 13). For the first Spilverk album, a fellow MH student, Sigrún “Diddú” Hjálmtýsdóttir, had been added to the band. She is the older sister of Icelandic gay superstar Páll Óskar and the fourth member of Spilverkið who had a mother named Margrét!
Spilverk’s music started out as laidback folk, but got more rock heavy as the years wore on. The band played a lot in colleges, which were places that hadn’t been used for gigs up to that time. The next album came in 1976, and was recorded live with an audience and still the lyrics were in English. The bands members had high hopes for foreign record deals and prosperity abroad and sang English on the first two albums. The second album was called CD (Nærlífi)—or the “Blue album”—and featured really laidback tunes for the most part. It didn’t do nearly as well as Spilverk’s first album, which had been a hit.
1976 was a hectic year. Stuðmenn released their second album (Tívolí) and Spilverkið made their third one. It was called Götuskór (Street shoes) and was released just before Christmas. Now the band sang in Icelandic, as all hopes of popularity abroad had been given up. “They only wanted some ABBA-stuff,” Egill said of the foreign moguls. “We can do much better things here in our own environment.” This was true, because as soon as the band started to sing in Icelandic the masterpieces started to flow.
Sturla, released in the summer of 1977, is considered to be the best Spilverk album. Some of the songs came from a teen play, Grænjaxlar, which the band wrote music for, but others were written especially for the album. The band had never been as hard rocking. Electric instruments made an appearance and Sigurður Bjóla had bought a drum kit. The humorous lyrics squeezed zits on the face of the national spirit. The band had a left-wing spirit to it, and sang anti-songs about things that bothered lefties at the time: The giant aluminium factory at Straumsvík, the right wing prime minister (nicknamed “Geiri Smart” on the album’s most popular song, Sirkus Geira Smart), the American navy base and how some Icelanders got wealthy licking Yankee arse. “We probably get on many people’s nerves for being commies, even though we are not commies, even though we are commies,” Valgeir said cryptically at the time of release.
Right after Sturla—which has since become known as one of the best Icelandic albums ever—the Spilverk members started working with singer/songwriter Megas on another album that is also known for being amongst the top Icelandic albums, Á bleikum náttkjólum (“Wearing a pink nightgown”).  The first two certifiable Icelandic punk songs are on the album, along with many other unforgettable masterpieces. In 1977, the muse was especially favourable to those guys, as they were also involved in making the Hrekkjusvín (“Bullies”) children’s album, which had an adult overtone and is presumably the best Icelandic children’s album ever. In 2009, when a list of the 100 best Icelandic albums ever was published in a book, all three of the 1977 Spilverk’s related albums were on Top 20: Á bleikum náttkjólum at #3, Sturla at #10 and Hrekkjusvín at #17.  
So where do you go after you have reached the peak? Down of course. Or not. By the end of 1977 Egill Ólafsson split Spilverkið to form another band, which was to become Þursaflokkurinn. The old Icelandic ethnic folk music had tickled his interest and he wanted to do something with it—“make it rock!”
Egill’s split from Spilverk þjóðanna was not altogether painless, but the remaining Spilverk members nevertheless soldiered on, making two more albums, Ísland in 1978 and Bráðabirgðabúgí (“Temporary Boogie”) in 1979.  Soon after that, the band split for good as both Valgeir and Diddú were going abroad to further their studies. The band has rarely made comebacks since, but the albums live on and continue getting new audiences. Later Valgeir was to make his mark on Icelandic music as a member of Stuðmenn in the eighties and nineties, but Diddú is a renowned opera singer and quite well known in Russia as of late.
Þursaflokkurinn’s brew of old Icelandic folk influences and progressive music (think Jethro Tull and the Dutch band Focus) hit paydirt. The band’s eponymous debut was voted album of the year in 1978, and the following album, 1979’s Þursabit, received an equally raving reception. The band played frequently and went abroad and did the longest foreign tour any Icelandic band had done to date. The band was good and tight after all this, so it came natural to record a live album in 1980 at the National Theatre. Þursaflokkurinn was the first band ever to play there.
Next up was a stint at the play Grettir and in 1981 the band built its own studio, Grettisgat. There the band recorded its third studio album, Gæti eins verið (“Might as well be”). Now the folk influenced had largely been swapped for new wave-ish synth pop influences. The band started working on a yet another album, but that never came out as the old joke band Stuðmenn was about to take over everybody’s time (Þursaflokkurinn’s Egill, Ásgeir, Tommi and Þórður all played in Stuðmenn too). Þursaflokkurinn has had various comebacks since, the greatest one in 2008 when the band played with the Caput Ensemble at Laugardalshöll and released all their albums in a box set featuring one disc of unreleased material.
By Dr. Gunni, based on his 2000 book Eru ekki allir í stuði? (Rock in Iceland). A revised update of the book is forthcoming in 2010.

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