From Iceland — Sálin Reign Over The Country Balls

Sálin Reign Over The Country Balls

Published September 30, 2011

Sálin Reign Over The Country Balls

March 10, 1988 was a big day for Icelandic music. In a long-since burnt
down club called Tunglið, HAM were playing their first ever concert,
and in the building’s basement—at an adjoining club called
Bíókjallarinn—Sálin hans Jóns míns were also making their stage
premiere. Sálin (“The Soul”), as they are usually referred to, started
out as a soul revival cover band, but soon evolved into Iceland’s most
popular pop act of the nineties.
Putting together a cover band to perform the then-increasingly in vogue
soul music had originally been radio presenter Þorsteinn Joð’s idea. He
asked Jón Ólafsson—a piano man and frisky radio DJ at the time—to get
some guys together to play songs from the Blues Brothers movie at club
Sigtún in 1987. This is where Sálin’s future core first met singer
Stefán Hilmarsson and guitarist/songwriter Guðmundur Jónsson. The band
did not have a name at the time, but when Jón revived the band in early
1988, Sálin hans Jóns míns (a silly play on an old folk tale with the
same name) had been decided upon as a suitable name for the collective.

Jón Ólafsson (who you might know from the band Ný dönsk) got two
friends from his other cover band (sixties tribute act Bítlavinafélagið
(“The Beatles’ Friends’ Society), drummer Rafn Jónsson and bassist
Haraldur Þorsteinsson to join, along with Stefán and Guðmundur. Shiny
golden band uniforms were purchased, and Sálin harked on into the
autumn. Their first LP came in the summer of 1988, ‘Syngjandi sveittir’
(“Singing and sweaty”), with four original compositions and six covers
songs, all recorded live at Bíókjallarinn.  
The album was successful. Singer Stefán had already become famous after
he sang Iceland’s third Eurovision entry in the spring of 1988 (Sverrir
Stormsker’s ‘Sókrates’ – final Eurovision position: 16) and that added
to the draw. The LP had some popular songs, including ‘Kanínan’ (“The
Rabbit”), a song that had already served as a hit for drummer Rafn with
his Ísafjörður band Ýr in 1976. For decades, nobody in Iceland knew who
wrote ‘Kanínan’ (with Ýr stating that they had pieced it together from
a song they had taped off Radio Luxembourg), but last year the
inspirational Radio Lux track was located: ‘Kanínan’ is originally a
Greek pop song from 1972 called ‘Ela Ela’ by the band Axis.
Bítlavinafélagið started playing again after a brief hiatus in the
autumn of 1988, so Stefán and Guðmundur found themselves without a band
to perform with. The pair thus had to locate new members for Sálin,
which they kept going even though the band was by then an altogether
different outfit. After some shuffling in the personnel, they had
acquired bassist Friðrik Sturluson, saxophone/keyboard player Jens
Hanson and drummer Magnús Stefánsson, formerly of Bubbi’s Utangarðsmenn
and Egó. This fivesome went on to record Sálin’s first “proper” LP in
1989, which was named ‘Hvar er draumurinn?’ (“Where’s The Dream?”) and
became a big hit.  
“What were you listening to at the time?” I asked singer Stefán ten
years later. 

”Guðmundur listened to U2 a lot, but I was such a kitten
and didn’t dig deep for music. Our primarily goal was to make music to
play live at whatever venues were available. Subsequently, our music
became poppy and easy to digest. It wasn’t made to be played at
concerts, but at dances. The country balls are our concerts. If we had
any plans at all, it was to be able to play solely our own music at
these balls—no cover songs—and this goal we attained some years later.”

‘Hvar er draumurinn?’ sold in huge quantities and the title track
became an immortal smash hit. Sálin could hardly keep up with local
demand, but did its best playing all over the country at various dances
and balls. The band dignified old Icelandic band rites of ‘running
around naked whilst on the road’ while going from one small town to the
next in their tour bus. Sálin’s streaking speciality was to run naked
through every tunnel they came across.
The band had a roadie that was very fond of his own faeces. They
reportedly got a kick out of holding his arms while he shat out of the
bus (bonus points for hitting a cycling tourist), and at an afterparty
in Ísafjörður Sálin roadie’s faeces fetish hit overdrive when he
encountered a table with a glass plate. The giggling band got comfy
under the table face up and then the roadie… well you know what.
Tales of Sálin’s shit prank travelled at light speed in Ísafjörður and
did not dent the band’s popularity in the town at all.
Sálin went on a leave in the autumn of 1990, but when the band returned
in the spring of 1991 a new drummer, Birgir Baldursson (formerly of my
own bands, S.H. Draumur and Bless) had replaced Magnús. A sixth member,
keyboardist Atli Örvarsson (formerly of Stuðkompaníið), had joined
Sálin’s ranks as well. The band soon was up to its old form, playing
all over the reef and putting out new songs that swiftly got hugely
popular. Before Christmas it was time for the third album, which they
simply called ‘Sálin hans Jóns míns,’ and which sold 14.000 copies. It
remains Sálin’s bestselling album to this day.
By this time Sálin’s “sound” was fully formed, and the Guðmundur/Stefán
written songs were the usual fare, even though other members
occasionally contributed. Guðmundur made pure “Icelandic” pop out of
international influences (traces of popular artists like U2 and Lenny
Kravitz can be heard in his songwriting) and Stefán wrote bombastic
lyrics, usually about girls, relationship and/or love in general.
Iceland laid panting at Sálin’s feet but of course that wasn’t enough,
so in 1992 the men of Sálin tried their hand at some good ol’ fashioned
world domination through their record label, Steinar Records, that had
ten years prior scored a hit with Mezzoforte (the effervescent ‘Garden
Party’). The second Sálin album’s vocals had been re-recorded in
English, and it was now released in the Benelux countries and
Scandinavia as ‘Where’s My Destiny?’ Sálin reportedly came close to
signing with Warner Brothers, but a while after informing the Icelandic
media about that pending contract, it turned out that big business had
no interest in the band. Maybe Sálin’s English name had something to do
with it. They called themselves “Beaten Bishops” abroad.
Sálin/Beaten Bishops toured a few times through Sweden and Norway,
sometimes playing for mildly enthusiastic crowds and something playing
to almost nobody in canteens in the middle of nowhere. Being used to
wildly passionate fans back home, Sálin put dreams of international
fame soon to rest and instead went to work cementing their position in
the motherland.
The summer of 1992 brought the compilation ‘Garg’ (‘Scream’) with eight
previously released songs from various compilations and three new ones
that all went wildly popular: The Red Hot Chili Peppers-y ‘Krókurinn’
(“The Hook”)—performed with legendary singer Pétur Kristjánsson—the
superballad ‘Hjá þér’ (“With You”), and the title track from Óskar
Jónasson’s Sódóma Reykjavík. The song is probably Sálin’s best-known
song, and was recently voted the “Most fun Icelandic song ever.” At the
same time, a Sálin documentary was released on VHS showing the band on
the road, warts and all. The highlight of the film is Stefán’s tantrum
after his baseball cap is snatched off his head by a drunken fan.
Everybody in Sálin had become quite comfy money-wise after ceaseless
ball-playing and (to a lesser degree) record sales. Guðmundur was the
musical dictator of the band and gave his bandmates “the evil eye” if
they dared to improvise on stage. This did not go too well down with
his mates. They grumbled to each other, but thought about their bank
balance and kept at it. At the annual Vestmannaeyjar outdoor summer
festival in 1992, Friðrik the mild mannered bassist—probably fuelled by
his tequila intake—got one “evil eye” too many and head butted the
guitarist during a solo. This was a rotten bummer festival for poor
Guðmundur, as some drunken idiots peed on him from the rafters as well.
So finally, democracy won in the Sálin camp and the next album was
co-written by every member of the band. Instead of sticking to what had
proven to be successful, Sálin released next the “difficult” and
“heavy” album ‘Þessi þungu högg’ (“These heavy blows”). The album
contained some Pixies-sounding tunes, some punk rock songs and some
mildly experimental stuff. A few of the album’s tracks went on to
become popular hits, but it nonetheless sold much less than earlier
records, “only” seven thousand copies, which was, believe it or not, a
blow for the band.  
Sálin (sans Guðmundur) is probably most satisfied with this record
though. “This is my favourite Sálin album,” Stefán said in 1999. “It
was made during a special time in our career, there was tension and
everybody wanted to be in charge. Usually I don’t listen to my own
records but this one I can still listen to.”
The frustration did not diminish; instead it just increased with every
show the band played. The ballgoers flocked to the balls as usual, but
weren’t exactly asking for the ‘Þessi þungu högg’ songs. Finally the
band decided to “breath different oxygen” and quit in March of 1993
after a series of shows that were advertised as “Sálin’s last ball.”
Stefán and the headbutter Friðrik formed Pláhnetan (The Pla-nut) with
two ex-Rikshaw guys, but Guðmundur joined the reformed Pelican. Pétur
Kristjánsson’s seventies rock band Pelican had been very popular in
1974-75 but in 1993 nobody seemed to care, even though there was a new
album and all. Pláhnetan fared much better and some Sálin-sounding hits
gained immense popularity.
Sálin returned in 1995 and now Guðmundur was again in control in terms
of songwriting. The band is responsible for a slew of radio friendly
hits and the Sálin formula has been the blueprint for many “country
ball groups” such as Skítamórall (“Shit Morale”), Magni’s Á móti sól
(“Against the sun”), Land og synir (“Land and sons”) and even Írafár
Today the band is not run on a regular basis, but pops up occasionally
with a new album (such as 1999´s “unplugged” hit album ‘12. ágúst ’99’
and 2005’s ‘Undir þínum áhrifum’ (“Under Your Influence”), and highly
ambitious projects such as the musical ‘Sól og máni’ (“Sun and Moon”)
2003, playing with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra or a grand gospel
Sálin’s newest album, ‘Upp og niður stigann’ (“Up and down the
staircase”), their fourteenth, was released in 2010 and is a brass
heavy prog pop album (sort of). If you see an advertisement for a Sálin
ball you should hurry up and go. You will not find a more “Icelandic”
pop act.
1.    The Beaten Bishops album is a rarely seen phenomenon. Legend has
it that the band bought all the copies that made it to Iceland and got
rid of them.
2.    Sálin in a photo spread in teen mag Æskan in 1992. From left to right: Jens, Friðrik, Stefán, Atli, Guðmundur, Birgir.
3.    Sálin in the 21st century: Guðmundur, Jens, drummer Jóhann Hjörleifsson, Friðrik and Stefán.

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