>The History of Icelandic Rock Music
The Story of The Sugarcubes
Dr. Gunni in Grapevine Magazine (Issue 17, November 2010 & Issue 2, February 2011)
International recognition has always been every ambitious Icelandic pop musician’s goal. And no wonder. Few settle for the limitations of the tiny Icelandic market. Since rock was born here, many have tried to “make it” to little avail. In 1983, the clever jazz guys of Mezzoforte scored a hit with an instrumental fusion ditty, ‘Garden Party’, that got as far as number 17 on the British singles chart. This of course resulted in some national pride. I remember being on Leicester Square in London in the summer of 1983 with a swollen chest as Mezzoforte’s hit piped out of a disco. A few years later, Iceland would finally get its international pop stars: The Sugarcubes.
Pop Group for Money
The obscure bastards in Kukl were of course as far removed from pop music as possible, even though they had performed some melodic songs in their earliest period. In the spring of 1986, the band lay in ruins due to personal squabbles and inter-band friction. Smaller units from the band tried their hand at making music. Guitarist God Krist made some music with Björk singing lyrics by Þór Eldon, Björk’s boyfriend since 1983. They called themselves The Elgar Sisters, and three of the songs would much later turn up as B-sides on Björk singles. Björk and drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson also made some music together under the name Algorythms. Björk and Þór bore a son in June of 1986, so life was taken easy during that summer. Einar Örn finished his studies in London and moved to Iceland. During long night time meetings, him and Þór came up with the idea of forming Smekkleysa (“Bad Taste”). “Bad taste and extravagance” would be Smekkleysa’s motto. Various plans were attached to Smekkleysa: It would be a record label and a book publishing company. The restaurant Mudpit would open in its name, as well as the radio station Radio Devil (unfortunately neither happened). Also the company would hand out “Bad Taste awards” to people that excelled in extravagance and bad taste. Various friends joined Smekkleysa and a pop group was formed solely to make money. Björk, Einar and Þór got bassist Bragi and guitarist Friðrik from Purrkur Pillnikk to join along with drummer Sigtryggur and keyboard player Einar Melax from Kukl.
A Postcard Pays for a Single
“We started to play pop songs that we thought were similar to what other people were playing. It was a total surprise to us that nobody else thought this was pop. Everybody just thought this was weird music,” remarked Einar, many years later. The new band’s first appearance was on the 18th of July, 1986. The band was advertised as Kukl in Morgunblaðið, but called themselves Þukl (“Frisk”) a week later on their second gig. Einar Örn had brought along a gigantic plastic lobster when he came back from London. Pop band Stuðmenn fancied the lobster and made Einar Örn their manager so they could use the plastic crustacean in concert. Þukl was called Sykurmolarnir (The Sugarcubes) when the band supported Stuðmenn in the sports arena Laugardalshöll. Very few people showed up, so Stuðmenn paid their support act in studio hours at their recording studio, Grettisgata. Twelve weird pop songs were recorded during this session, and two of them (‘Birthday’ / ‘Cat’ (in Icelandic)) got released on Björk’s 21st birthday on November 21. To finance the release, Smekkleysa had sold a postcard bearing the image of Reagan and Gorbachev, drawn by guitarist Friðrik. Reagan and the Russian leader met for peace talk in Iceland in October of 1986, and the postcard sold very well, as nobody else had jumped to the occasion and made merchandise.
Oh Shit !
‘Einn mol’á mann’ (“One cube each”), the first Sugarcube single, was pressed in Iceland and most of the edition was defective upon arrival. Only about 300 copies were sold. Few people in Iceland “got” the music, certainly not ‘Birthday’, that nobody could have predicted would be an international hit. Despite his earlier plans Einar Örn decided to spend another winter in London, 1986/87. An old pal from the Crass days, Derek Birkett, formerly a bassist with Flux of Pink Indians, was working in a studio, so him and Einar started to process the songs from the Grettisgata session. Derek had just formed a record label, One Little Indian, and it was decided he would release The Sugarcubes songs in English. The music was remixed, new snippets and sounds added to the mix. Meanwhile in Iceland, the band played several times without Einar. Guitarist Friðrik decided to leave, so Þór would thereafter be the band’s sole guitarist. Film director Friðrik Þór asked the band to provide soundtrack to his film Skytturnar (White Whales). The band made some instrumental music but it was not used much in the film. Three tracks turned up on a soundtrack 12″ though. In the summer of 1987 Einar Örn came to Iceland and the band played several times for 200 people or so, the same group of people that had followed Kukl. One Little Indian released Birthday as a 12″ on the 17th of August 1987. It was supposed to promote the forthcoming LP. A week later Birthday was picked as a “single of the week” in Melody Maker. “Oh shit” was Einar Örn’s first reaction when he heard the news.
Scoring a ‘Single of the Week’ in the English music press doesn’t necessary mean the instant access to the big time, but in The Sugarcubes’ case it did. After ‘Birthday’ got the honour, One Little Indian Records was swamped with interview requests and offers from record companies, both indies and majors. In the same week in October 1987, The Sugarcubes graced the front covers of both The NME and Melody Maker. As would become customary, Björk was put in the forefront while the band stood in the back, a bit out of focus. As music from Iceland was an exotic novelty, most of the interviews became a tourism promotion for Iceland—”Such a strange country, they eat puffins and drink Brennivín all the time, etc, etc…” This would be the standard style of Icelandic music coverage for decades to come.
As was to be expected, the attention from abroad increased the band’s Icelandic fan base. The venues were suddenly packed with hipsters when the band played local shows. All kinds of wild record deal offers were dutifully covered by the Icelandic media, and Ellert B. Schram, editor of the newspaper DV, wrote an outraged editorial when he band declined an offer that amounted to “a brand new trawler”. For years to come Sugarcubes bassist Bragi Ólafsson would send Ellert postcards from all over the world, relaying made-up excess stories of the band on the road. Eventually, as “artistic freedom” was regarded over cashmoney, the expanding One Little Indian Records went on to sign the band for Europe while Elektra Records got the American deal. The Sugarcubes’ first album, ‘Life’s Too Good’—a title derived from poet Jóhamar’s sigh of enjoyment after a hearty meal—was released in April 1988 and scored glowing reviews in Europe. The album contains such classic surrealistic pop songs as ‘Cold Sweat’, ‘Deus’ and ‘Motorcrash’, which were all released as singles. The video for ‘Motorcrash’ featured the slick American sedan cars that the Sugarcubes had spent some of their record deal advance on. The video was directed by Björk’s new boyfriend, Óskar Jónasson, who would later direct videos for ‘Planet’ and ‘Regína’ as well. In other love affair news, the new girlfriend of guitarist Þór Eldon, Margrét Örnólfsdóttir (of Risaeðlan), turned up on keyboards that the summer, completing the band’s line-up. Besides spending their new found pop money on American cars, The Sugarcubes were always very kind and supportive to up-and-coming Icelandic bands. They released their music on their Smekkleysa imprint and brought some of them along on tour, like my own band S. H. Draumur, which supported them in England in May 1988. Later, Ham, Risaeðlan (Reptile) and Bless (me again) would take baby steps on foreign soil with support from Smekkleysa, playing for more than the usual crowd of 200 Icelanders and having their records released abroad under the far-fetched war cry of “world domination or death!”
Shoot the singer!
After Europe, The Sugarcubes went to conquer America. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly in September of 1988, at New York’s The Ritz. David Bowie—who had jokingly been put on all of Kukl’s guest lists—finally showed up, and Iggy Pop—an old favourite—did too. At the time, ‘Life’s Too Good’ had sold about 100.000 copies in England and 350.000 in America. Eventually the album would sell well over a million copies. Finally, after decades of struggle and starry-eyed expectations, Iceland had its first universally known—even famous—rock band. At this point in time The Sugarcubes were put in rock star mode with endless tours all over the globe. The second album saw release in October of 1989. It was released in English as ‘Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week’ (quoting Toad from ‘The Wind In The Willows’) and in Icelandic as ‘Illur arfur!’ (“Evil Heritage!”). It was the Sugarcubes only Icelandic language LP, even though the band always sang Icelandic when they performed back home. A new album meant more touring. “Around this time we turned into a rock band machine and lost sight of the creative side,” Einar Örn later admitted. The second album sold a bit less than the debut, and in the English media the backlash hit full force. Einar especially got the brunt of the UK press’ ire—Melody Maker‘s John White went as far as suggesting the singer should be shot so his yap would stop. All the endless touring got on people’s nerves, so after the band finally reached Iceland in May 1990, it took a well-deserved break.
My head was about to explode
In retrospect the band was mentally finished at this time, but still it would dangle on until 1992. During their break, Björk sang Icelandic fifties pop songs on the ‘Gling Gló’ album with The Guðmundur Ingólfsson Trio (an album that keeps selling to this day, and remains her bestselling album in Iceland), and her and most of the other ‘cubes got together in a 14 strong big band, Konrad B’s Big Band (‘Konrad B’ being Bragi the bassist on drums). The band’s cantor was Sugarcubes drummer Sigtryggur, appearing as “Bogomil Font”. After the Sugarcubes, Bogomil would lead his own band, The Millionaires, performing mambo, salsa and cha cha cha, gaining a considerable local following. One of few Sugarcubes gigs at this time was at their old hangout, tiny club Duus Hús, where they played at the request of the French president Jacques Mitterand and French Culture Minister (and Sugarcubes fan) Jacques Lang. Björk was especially tired of the status quo. “The Sugarcubes were a group of people that met at my place,” she said in a 1990 interview. “We were different people, did not have much in common musically, had very different ideas of how to do things, but decided to form a pop band as a joke. We thought this was very funny, but we were always in the process of forming other bands. Accidentally this hobby thing just became the main thing. I realised last year (1989) that all of my time was being spent on a hobby.” Björk’s musical search led her towards the electric scene. She made some music with 808 State in Manchester just to get it off her chest. “I had to do it ‘cos my head was about to explode,” she later remarked.
There was still one more Sugarcubes album to be made according to their contract. Recording commenced in May of 1991 in a studio in Woodstock, New York. Björk tried to get her electric ideas across, to little avail. The recording process was a tiring chore and after the album was finished, Björk decided to quit the band. However, she agreed to do a few promotional tours beforehand. ‘Stick Around For Joy’ came out in February 1992 and included still more happy pop, with one of the songs, ‘Hit’, sailing to #17 on the English chart, matching Mezzoforte’s chart success of 1983.
Offers for American support slots came in from The Cure and The B-52’s, but it wasn’t until U2 called that The Sugarcubes said: “OK, let’s do it.” So during October and November of 1992, The Sugarcubes appeared in 17 of the ‘Zooropa’ concerts across America, performing for a total of 700.000 people.
A remix album, ‘It’s It’, (some members referred to it as “It’s Shit”) was released before Christmas 1992, and the band played its final concert at Reykjavík club Tunglið at that same time. No death certificate was issued, but the band was no more (at least not until their 2004 comeback gig in Reykjavík). Björk was well on her way with her debut LP (second if you count her 1977 album). For her, it was no hobby music, but the real thing. The album, ‘Debut’, was scheduled for release in July of 1993 on One Little Indian. The most optimistic people at the label thought it might shift 20.000 copies.