Was having a derpy FB chat last night about classic Icelandic bands, when i realised that there is one massive problem I have as a non-Icelander reviewing the music scene here, even more so that the lyrics (which often take me over 2 days to translate, and even then i miss most of the nuances due to thinking in English sentence construction mode). It’s the differing way that i end up viewing many Icelandic artists and musicians from the past through my cultural prism, which is often very different to that of my Icelandic brethren.
Take for example the duo ÞU OG ÉG. They released a couple of disco themed albums in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Recently they reformed and played at this year’s Innipukinn festival, where despite playing four songs, the crowd apparently went absolutely nuts for them.
The guy from Þu Og Ég, Jóhann Helgason, is often known as the “Disco King” of Iceland and even took part in a recent collaboration with FM Belfast for the Hljómskállin TV show.
And here is a track from their 1979 album ‘Ljúfa Líf’
The thing is that music of Þu Og Ég leaves me a little cold to say the least. The disco is very string heavy, lays on the melodramatic emotion with a trowel, and has a decidedly strong whiff of Eurovision cheese to it. Jóhann went on to produce several solo albums, often veering between electro nu-pop and tacky ballads. To someone like myself growing up in the 1980s, this would have been VERY uncool to listen too. But to many Icelanders both young and old, he is pretty much a stone cold legend.
Then you have the likes of Sálin Hans Jons Míns. Fellow writer Dr Gunni did a great potted history of them for the Grapevine a while back. But to many people In Iceland, these guys were the live band of their youth, as the constantly toured Iceland on the Sveitaballin circuit (think the pub rock circuit in the UK at the time).
Here is one of their biggest hits, “Hvar Er Dramurinn?”
And to see them in action here is a live clip from 1992.
It’s fun watching these guys perform. Technically very proficient, but it’s the whitest of white soul mixed with a little standardised ’80 new wave rock (Think Huey Lewis), with some decidedly dodgy dress sense.
At this time, I was 16 and would have been getting into the likes of Ride, PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, Sugar, all the while being swept up like everyone else with techno and rave music. Looking back then, as now, these guys seem way of the pulse of anything that was going on in the western world at the time. I would´t be seen dead at this gig.
But this is relativism at work. Growing in the UK in 1992, I would have had access to a lot more cultural input from TV, Radio and the press, as well as being able to buy the latest music. It’s very easy for someone like me to forget the cultural landscape in a place like Iceland at the time, where not everyone was a 101 cool hipster artist who was getting their stuff released by Smekkleysa. Comparing the cultural access with that of my wife, the difference is VERY stark, where she had no knowledge of the stuff i was into. In 1992 If you were in the Icelandic country, all you had was a single TV station, 2 state radio stations, no music press and a life that often consisted of school and work. And lots of farmyard animals.
If you lived in that type of barren environment, you’d jump at any chance of entertainment you could get, even if it was an act like Sálin. If you look at their live video, the crowd are going mental for these guys, singing along to the songs and everything. And that is the biggest challenge for a non-Icelandic cultural critic – trying to get into the mindset where Jóhann and Sálin (along with the likes of Ný Dönsk, Stuðmenn, Todmobile, et al) were seen as musicians worthy of the title “Legend”.