“Rokk í Reykjavík” Documentary DVD

I’ve written before about the amazing double album Rokk í Reykjavík, which is actually the soundtrack to the 1982 music documentary of the same name. Originally aired on Icelandic television, the film is now available on DVD in an all-regions format with English subtitles, something I’d been waiting on, not so patiently, for quite a while. It’s incredibly fortunate that director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson decided to take an in depth look into the country’s growing punk and new wave scenes way back in the day, as his documentary has to be the cornerstone of any attempt to understand the development of the popular music scene in Iceland.

The film actually opens with footage of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson performing rímur, the traditional Icelandic style of chanted poetry and a form of singing that many punks cited as an influence, being that it is so ingrained into the country’s social fabric. From there, though, it’s moves straight into the contemporary scene with live concert footage of Vonbrigði performing their classic hit, “Ó Reykjavík,” the opening salvo in a barrage of punk, rock, and new wave performances. The roster of bands featured is a veritable who’s who of Icelandic music – Purrkur Pillnikk, Q4U, Tappi Tíkarrass, Egó, Þeyr… the list is long, with most bands having at least one complete song filmed live at various venues, studios, and basements. If there is a downside, it’s that sometimes you can’t figure out which band is playing unless they happened to have been interviewed immediately prior to their song footage (which isn’t always the case) or you’re already well versed in the history of Icelandic music.

Bubbi Morthens gets a lot of screen time, both singing and being interviewed. His renowned contrarian streak is on full display as he criticizes the government and society as a whole and advises, “I think people should use as much dope [as] they possibly can.” Perhaps even more powerful than the Morthens footage, however, are the interview clips featuring Bjarni Þórir Þórðarson, the then 15-year-old singer of the band Sjálfsfróun (“Masturbation”) who talks about the difficulties in coming of age in what he sees as an overly structured, rules based, and boring society. He smokes as he talks about sniffing glue and how when that’s not available he resorts to paint thinner or gasoline, even if he has to steal it from a car. He is totally matter-of-fact, clearly aware of the dangers huffing poses as he describes the permanent damage it has done to people he knows, and you can’t help but be struck by the hopelessness he sees in his situation (Þórðarson died in a car accident in 2005 at the age of 39). Sjálfsfróun’s three live songs are sloppy but packed full of raw energy and anger, culminating in Þórðarson completely demolishing his bass on stage with a hatchet.

A handful of the performances stick out, and my favorites include Vonbrigði’s high energy, live rendition of “Ó Reykjavík” and Egó’s basement recording of “Sieg Heil.” Some of the footage veers off the rails, however, most notably a famous live “show” by Bruno BB that involved killing birds using what looked like a large table sized paper cutter, an incident that actually resulted in the police showing up to shut them down, all of which was captured and included in the film. They also wrapped someone up in shrikwrap and lit him on fire before putting him out with a fire extinguisher.

Þeyr have a distinctive and important place in the film primarily due to their performance of Rúdólf, a song about the Nazi Rudolph Hess. What’s unique here isn’t so much the subject matter, which is typical punk fare, but that the band is actually shown in a full-blown music video, one that mixes both footage of them performing in a basement and scenes they shot outside dressed in Nazi regalia doing a sort of storyline about an arrest and execution. They also incorporate a couple of quick clips of two dancers in the footage of their other song, “Killer Boogie,” placing themselves outside the norm by more fully exploiting the visual aspects the filming opened up to them.

The most famous “image” is undoubtedly that of a 16 or 17 year old Björk dressed like a little girl and performing with the band Tappi Tíkarrass, a still of which appears on the front cover of the DVD and the soundtrack CD booklet in order to capitalize on Iceland’s most internationally famous citizen. It’s an iconic image of the young and seemingly innocent singer, but one that clearly belies her immensely powerful voice and punk rock attitude.

If you’re even remotely interested in the rise of the Icelandic punk and new wave scenes, Rokk í Reykjavík is a much see. It’s gritty and edgy, offering no narration other than the interviews of the people who are part of the scene. Even if you’re not specifically interested in Icelandic music it’s still an intriguing look into a very young, rapidly changing local music scene, one in which a lot of different bands and performers are trying to find their place and ways to express their own individual ideas. The entire thing is posted on YouTube, though without the English subtitles, and many of the individual songs are broken out into their own vides. Well worth the look.

Vonbrigði – “Ó, Reykjavík”

It’s been a while since I posted about an Icelandic band, and I don’t want my Icelandic readers to feel neglected! With that in mind I flipped through my shelf of Icelandic vinyl to see what gems in there I haven’t written about before, and I got pretty deep into the selection before pulling out Vonbrigði’s Ó, Reykjavík, a killer record I haven’t listened to in quite a while.

I wrote about the Vonbrigði album Kakófónia a few months ago, but this was actually the first of their records I acquired, in large part because it was a compilation of early material that was put out by German label Mauerstadtmusik in 2010 so it was still available new and I got it off of eBay. At seven songs it’s more of a mini-album, but no matter. Vonbrigði pack a lot of power into their music, which is straight forward, early 1980s style punk rock (all the songs are from 1981 and 1982).

The title track “Ó, Reykjavík” is the strongest and certainly most well-known of their songs, having been chosen for inclusion on the seminal Rokk Í Reykjavík documentary and album, where it holds down a place of honor as the very first track (and the only one the band had on the record). “Skitseyði” is another great song, with it’s driving bass line and chanting vocals sung by multiple members of the band, almost giving it that soccer chant quality that defined the Oi! subgenre. It’s not all fast, though. The band can slow it down as well, as they do in the song with the same name as the band, “Vonbrigði”, which means “disappointment” in Icelandic. The plodding pace and disjointed guitar sounds actually give it a musical feeling that matches its title, making you feel down and out of sorts. The sound quality of the entire record is great, though the last track, “Ný Friðþæging”, is from a demo tape and sounds like it, but that’s cool since it’s still decent and has a live feel.

The record comes with an insert that features the lyrics to “Ó, Reykjavík” in both Icelandic and English on one side, and a solid write up (in English) about the history of the Icelandic punk scene from 1978-1983, something I hadn’t noticed before but will now make sure to read. Vonbrigði was a great punk band, and given how limited their early 1980s output was (new material started to be recorded in 2004, about 20 years after the band disappeared from the scene) and therefore very expensive today, this new compilation is a very approachable way to experience the band’s music, and one I highly recommend.

Q4U – “Q1 Deluxe Edition 1980-1983”

My first exposure to Q4U was on the Rokk Í Reykjavík record, and they pulled the impressive feat of sticking out on a compilation that included a lot of great bands. Their style is that perfect marriage of punk as it transitioned into new wave at the start of the 1980s, that brief moment in musical time that just begged for an aggressive female singer, and Q4U had one in Elínborg Halldórsdóttir, who actually makes me think of a punk rock Cyndi Lauper…. which may make you love her hate her unfairly without even ever having heard her, but I mean it as a compliment.

Q4U’s debut album and only release on vinyl, Q1, came out in 1982 and it’s basically one of those “holy grail” type records for Icelandic music. There are actually three copies for sale on Discogs as I write this, ranging in price from $165 to $240. I asked around for it when I was in Reykjavik a few months ago but came away with nothing more than snorts and head shakes. So when I found out that Q1 was being re-released this year with a whole slew of additional tracks I was pretty stoked, and I bought the first copy I came across on eBay from Ear Candy Music in Montana. Which makes sense, because when I think of early Icelandic punk the first place I think of is Reykjavik, and Missoula is a close second. But somebody obviously has good taste and knows their stuff.

Q1 Deluxe Edition 1980-1983 has 16 tracks, including six of the seven songs from the original release (for some reason “Odur” doesn’t seem to have made the cut). Those first six tracks are well recorded and incorporate some interesting sounds, including a few notes from a Christmas song I can’t seem to place and some kind of tune played by a jewelry box. The last two songs on side A are a lot more raw, rehearsal recordings that originally appeared on the band’s 1982 cassette only release Skaf Í Dag and these, unlike the others on this side, are both in English. The beats are more driving here – it’s less out-there-arty and more structured and driving, but still keeping that intensity that is the band’s hallmark.

Side B is also a mix of songs from 1982-83, including both studio and rehearsal recordings. “Miracle Man” is the cleanest, most radio-friendly sounding song on the record – it sounds like something that could have made it onto MTV or the radio station I used to listen to when I lived in South Carolina in the early 80s, something I could have rocked out to in my bedroom while dancing around in my black parachute pants. It probably would have been part of a song block wedged in between “Mental Hopscotch” by Missing Persons and Berlin’s “Riding on the Metro,” though to be fair I probably wouldn’t have liked it at the time as I wanted my new wave more polished and poppy a la Flock of Seagulls or Soft Cell. The Fixx was probably as crazy as I would have gotten (I nearly wore out my 45 of “Saved by Zero”) back then. My interest in new wave faded pretty fast once I discovered Quiet Riot and Ratt, but I could have ended up in either direction – such things often depend on what you’re friends are into, and my friends who liked music were into the hair metal scene, so…

But I digress. Actually I kind of went off the rails there a bit, but whatever. Q4U. They’re fantastic and probably not like a lot else you’ve heard before unless you were heavy into the early post-punk/new wave scene and had broad tastes. But even if you were and did, you probably haven’t heard Q4U, and with this new release the band hasn’t been this affordable on vinyl since 1982. In Reykjavik. So do yourself a favor and check out Q1 Deluxe Edition 1980-1983. If you’re not a vinyl junkie luddite like me, you can even get it on iTunes delivered right to your computer for only $9.99, which you’ll probably have to do if you live in Missoula because I bought the vinyl the record store there was carrying. Sorry about that. Of course, if you’re smart you’ll actually buy Q4U: Best Of instead, because for the same $9.99 price you get all the songs off Deluxe Edition plus six more studio tracks and six live songs. That’s something crazy like $0.40 per song! Either way, iTunes is a great way to check out Q4U. You’re online already, so just go do it!


“Northern Lights Playhouse” Compilation

I figured since my last two posts were about Icelandic compilation albums I should just keep that train rolling and spin the last of the comps we brought back from our recent trip. My own Icelandic vinyl great white whale. Northern Lights Playhouse.

Now, back when I made the somewhat ridiculous decision to get back into vinyl, I knew I wanted to take advantage of our international travel to hit record stores in far-flung places and pick up discs by local bands I’d never heard of before. So with that in mind, before our trip to Iceland for Airwaves in 2011 I did a bunch of research online and came up with a list of old school Icelandic punk and new wave bands to look for. I trotted down to Lucky Records with my list, and that visit yielded not only a healthy stack of records but also sparked a friendship with my buddies Ingvar and Gestur.

One of the records on my list back then was the Northern Lights Playhouse compilation. Released in 1981, it included some of the earliest and most influential punk and new wave bands of the time – Þeyr, Utangarðsmenn, Purrkur Pillnikk, Fræbbblarnir, and oddly Iceland’s own Bob Dylan, Megas (also included is a band called Taugadeildin who I literally will be hearing for the first time in a matter of moments when the song currently playing ends and they kick in). This had all the bands I’d read about and was right up there with Rokk Í Reykjavík. Lucky didn’t have either during that 2011 visit, nor again when we went back for Airwaves in 2012… but I did find a nice copy of Rokk Í Reykjavík at the flea market which I quickly scooped up as I high-fived myself in the aisle like a total dork.

But Northern Lights Playhouse continued to elude me. On our third trip to Reykjavik following my foray back into vinyl I hit up all the local shops again, and still no Northern Lights Playhouse. I was beginning to think it was just another Nordic myth like valkyrie or that fermented shark meat makes suitable food. But then I made my last record store stop at a small shop called Geislandiskabud Valda. I didn’t find anything that really excited me, but figured I’d pick up at least one local oldie that looked interesting because if for no other reason it’s a good way to strike up a conversation with the guy running the store. And lo and behold… he has some “good stuff” behind the counter if I was interested (I was). And it was good stuff… though I had everything in that small stack… everything that is except this copy of Northern Lights Playhouse! Turns out it wasn’t a myth after all.

Technically speaking there are 17 songs on this album, which seems like a lot at first blush. But… our friends Purrkur Pillnikk contribute the first 10 songs of side B, which range from 30 seconds to 1:50, so that certainly allows you to cram more tracks onto one LP. That being said, this is a great mix of post-punk and new wave tunes by the bands that ruled the local scene at the time. Turns out this was never released on CD and it’s actually a pretty rare record, so chances are if you find it, it’ll cost you. Realistically if this period in Iceland music interests you, you’d be much better served by picking up Rokk Í Reykjavík – it’s a double album, and while it’s more expensive on vinyl, you can get it on CD for a pretty reasonable $20-25. But if you’re a vinyl junkie like me, you’ll have to buy it. If you can find it. Just call me Ishmael.

“Rokk í Reykjavík” Soundtrack/Compilation

I got back into vinyl in the summer of 2011, and when we went to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves later that year I brought home some old school Icelandic punk and new wave records. Over the course of the next year my vinyl collection (damn I hate that word… makes my records sound like things that just sit inert on a shelf!) grew and my musical interests widened, and I decided to do some online research on Icelandic music prior to our 2012 trip to Reykjavik so I could arrive with a list of bands to look for. Needless to say, if you don’t speak Icelandic there’s not a whole hell of a lot out there, but fortunately musician and historian Gunnar Hjálmarsson (aka “Dr. Gunni”) wrote an entire series of 20+ articles about the history of rock music in Iceland that appeared online on the Reykjavik Grapevine. In English. Thank you, Dr. Gunni! It’s also worth noting that Gunni has written two amazing coffee-table type books devoted to the Icelandic music scene though these are unfortunately (for me, and probably most of you) in Icelandic, but totally worth the price if for no other reason than all the great photos.

So… armed with Gunni’s writing I began poking my way around the web, unearthing various bands here and there, taking notes, and being generally obsessive. My list of “bands of interest” was probably around 25 or 30 when we went to Airwaves in 2012, and I picked up vinyl (and some CDs) of a number of them at Lucky Records, meaning the work paid off. But there was one record that the guys at Lucky didn’t have, one that pretty much was the seminal collection of early Icelandic punk and new wave – Rokk í Reykjavík. I really, really wanted a copy of it. The double album is the soundtrack of a television documentary of the local music scene that aired in Iceland in 1982 (and I believe can be found in its entirety online in various places, though I confess I haven’t watched all of it yet), and one I was obsessed with finding both because of its importance and the fact I could get a lot of music that doesn’t exist on CD without having to buy a dozen or so separate, relatively expensive albums.

Seemingly thwarted in my search through Reykjavik’s record stores, I decided to take a stroll over to the flea market. After all, used records are the sort of thing one expects to find in places like that, though my hopes weren’t high. But there was one vendor there who, in the midst of box after box of albums by the Eagles and David Bowie had a small section for Icelandic artists. And it was there that I came face to face with Rokk í Reykjavík. I quickly counted out what cash I had left (no credit cards at the flea market, man!) and had just enough for three albums, including both this one and Bjork’s early Tappi Tikarrass LP Miranda. Score!

So what of Rokk í Reykjavík? Well, for one thing it’s packed with music – 19 different bands contribute a total of 33 tracks and most of the heavyweights are here, including a number of groups I’ve written about in the past like Tappi Tikarrass, Purrkur Pillnikk, Þeyr, Grýlurnar, and most recently Vonbrigði. It also has a bunch of other great artists like Bodies, Q4U, Fræbbblarnir, and Egó. There was a double CD version released which is probably a more affordable option if you can find it, though I’m not sure if it’s still in print (but I’ve seen copies online in the $25-35 range, a bargain compared to the vinyl). Quite a few of the tracks were recorded either live, or live in studio, which I think is great because it keeps the sound raw and maintains the energy of the music.

I was certainly familiar with many of these bands prior to playing Rokk í Reykjavík for the first time, and they often stick out. I mean, you simply can’t miss Bjork’s vocals on the Tappi Tikarrass tracks, and both Purrkur Pillnikk and Þeyr have distinctive sounds. But I was really excited impressed with some bands that were new to me. The low, plodding sound of Bodies’ “Where are the Bodies” stands in stark contrast to the energy and frenetic stylings of many of their country-mates; prog rockers Þursaflokkurinn stick out like a sore thumb with a much more standard style rock fare, but one that style sounds like it has that weird, twangy guitar tuning that I associate with so much 1980s Icelandic music; Friðryk almost sound like they’re channeling Meat Loaf with their live track “Í Kirkju” (“Paradise by the Northern Lights” anyone…?). My favorite new-to-me band is probably Q4U, since I’m a sucker for punk bands with female singers, and of their three tracks on the album I probably like the straight forward “Creeps” the best.

While most of the songs are sung in Icelandic, don’t let that scare you away from Rokk í Reykjavík. It’s the perfect time capsule, a snapshot of the Icelandic prog/new wave/punk/rock scene in 1981-82, a scene that was surprisingly varied and rich given the small population and relative musical isolation of the country at that time. The CD is absolutely worth the price if you can find a copy, especially if you just want to get your feet wet and see what this stuff was all about. Maybe after that you’ll start to get obsessive about it like I am. Who knows? Maybe it will even inspire you to visit Iceland!