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Organic Intelligence XXVIII: Iceland Before The Sugarcubes
Irina Shtreis , January 15th, 2024 20:41

A slight jiggle around this month as we release tQ’s Low Podcast next week and bring you the latest antidote to the algorithm – Irina Shtreis on the experimental punk rumblings of late 70s and early 80s Iceland.

In August 1987, One Little Indian released The Sugarcubes’s song ‘Birthday’, a charming and intimate account of odd habits in a bizarre relationship – “she scratches his beard” and “[he] sews a bird in her knickers”. The precursor to the band’s debut album Life’s Too Good was praised as a single of the week by NME and the British music press’ focus on The Sugarcubes introduced Iceland’s game-changing indie-pop outfit to an audience beyond its rocky shores.

Although the land of ice and fire has been on the map of music enthusiasts for a long time, acts from the pre-Sugarcubes era are less well known. Punk arguably arrived in the country two years later than in the Anglophone world, though with no less mythologising: in May 1978, The Stranglers played their first-ever show in Reykjavik which, legend has it, made a similar impact on the local scene to that of The Sex Pistols’ gig in Manchester’s The Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976. According to the contemporaries, half of those went to Laugardalshöll (Reykjavik’s Sports Hall) to see The Stranglers later formed their own bands.

The country’s small population meant many of these collectives often featured the same members. Thus, the line-up of The Sugarcubes is also associated with at least three pivotal post-punk/new wave/anarcho-punk bands: Purrkur Pillnikk, Þeyr and Kukl (not to forget Björk’s first punk venture Tappi Tíkarass).

Although the artistic hurly-burly was (and still is) largely associated with Reykjavik, some other notable bands originated from neighbouring Kópavogur, though the scenes didn’t always overlap. The Reykjavik movement, based around collectives like Fan Houtens Kókó and Bruni BB, tended to go further into the realm of avant-garde art, while the likes of Purrkur Pillnikk, Þeyr and Kukl pushed towards new wave while also embracing the passionate anger of anarcho-punk. In this issue of Organic Intelligence, we attempt to embrace the diversity of the Icelandic scene from the inception of local punk to the formation of The Sugarcubes in 1986.

Purrkur Pillnikk – ‘Vaterland’

The original line-up of this venerable collective featured Bragi Ólafsson, Einar Örn Benediktsson, Ásgeir R. Bragason and Friðrik Erlingsson. The band’s intensity and original sound attracted like-minded English mavericks The Fall, with whom Purrkur Pillnikk (the name translates as “Sleepy Chess-Player”) toured Britain in 1982. One of the outstanding tracks from the collective’s 1981 debut Ekki Enn is ‘Vaterland’, an articulate and powerful commentary on nationalism. “That lyric came from being nationalistic and how nationalism can in the end get you killed”, Einar Örn told the author earlier this year. This song and other material have just been reissued on Orð fyrir dauða, a complete collection of Purrkur Pillnikk’s works. 

Kukl – ‘Dismembered’

Shortly after the eighteen-month volatile Purrkur Pillnikk adventure came to a close, Einar Örn Benediktsson became a member of Kukl (picture above). The band, whose name means “witchcraft”, had a fittingly jaw-dropping line-up with three future members of The Sugarcubes: Björk and Einar Örn on vocals, Sigtryggur Baldursson on drums, plus guitarist Birgir Mogensen and keyboard player Einar Melax. ‘Dismembered’, the song from their debut album The Eye, was notoriously performed on local TV station RUV and had a profoundly shocking effect on Icelandic sensibilities – the blurry footage shows the band enjoying themselves with Björk, pregnant with her first child, dancing in a short top.

Fan Houtens Kóko – ‘Söngur Fyrir Siouxsie’

With its name inspired by the Dutch chocolate and cocoa powder brand Van Houten's Cacao, this Reykjavik band was an offshoot of the surrealist group Medúsa. Their live performances combined music with recitation, dancing and performance art. The group made two few (now highly sought-after) cassette releases. ‘Söngur Fyrir Siouxsie’, one of the songs from their 1981 Musique Elementaire album, sums up the collective’s surrealist pop approach. Ostensibly dedicated to Siouxsie Sioux, the track seems to have an underlying irony similar to MGMT’s ‘Lady’s Dada Nightmare’.

Fræbbblarnir – ‘False Death’

The collective from Kópavogur released their debut EP False Death in 1980, arguably the first Icelandic punk record. With its “punk will never die” message, ‘False Death’ throws down the gauntlet to Icelandic publications of that time, who tended to be more interested in disco. The cartoon-esque outfits and punk-pop sound of Fræbbblarnir allude to the British counterparts – The Damned, Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias and The Sex Pistols.

Þeyr – ‘Rúdolf’

This propulsive song from the band’s second album Mjötviður Mær was featured in Rokk í Reykjavík, a documentary about the punk and new wave scene in Iceland. The band appeared in SS uniforms as part of what was intended as a satirical, antifascist stance, but led to the song and further endeavours of Þeyr being mistakenly treated as pro-Nazi. Still, Rúdolf was one of the most successful and popular indie hits on the native soil and could have led to more attention beyond Iceland when the band were invited to support The Cure on their six-month UK tour in 1982. However, the offer was declined as they felt they were not ready for such a demanding venture.