Frakkarnir – “1984”

Mike Pollock’s name seems to pop up all over the place in the Icelandic music scene during the 1980s.  He was a member of Utangarðsmenn, Bodies, and Das Kaptial, plus released a solo album called Take Me Back in 1981.  The singer/guitarist covered a lot of musical ground from punk to hard rock to folk.  Not bad for a kid born in California and who didn’t move to Iceland until the 1970s when he was already a young adult.  By 1984 he was ready to take on something new:  new wave.

As he does on Take Me Back, Pollock sings in English on 1984, making the album much more approachable for non-Icelandic speakers.  It’s a new wave record, but certainly one with other musical influences such as disco (“Boogie Man”) and some heavy doses of funk (“1984”).  The sound is a bit on the darker side of new wave, with a dive bar vibe, a feeling like you’re in a big, impersonal city on a cold rainy night and need to hunker down for a bit and have a shot and a smoke before going back outside.  It’s right there in the song titles – “New York,” “Berlin,” “Babylon,” “Armagedon,” [sic] and “1984” (about an Orwellian not-so-distant future).  Side B in particular captures a feeling of alienation that is difficult to escape.

Just because you’re paranoid,
That doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.
— “1984”

1984 is a solid new wave effort, every bit as good as the more well-known albums coming out at the time.  Definitely worth a listen.

Bodies – “Bodies” EP

The Utangarðsmenn were a short-lived Icelandic punk band from 1979-81 that broke up just before the release of their second full length album when lead singer and Icelandic music icon Bubbi Morthens quit his own group.  The rest of the band soldiered on, however, and took the name Bodies for their first and only release, a self-titled four-song 12″ EP that came out in 1982.  Led by the talented guitarist Mike Pollock, who took over singing duties upon Morthens’ departure, all four of Bodies’ tracks were sung in English in an effort to make the band more marketable, though the simple folded paper jacket includes the lyrics in both English and Icelandic to stay connected to the locals.  Pollock is a major Icelandic talent in his own right, having played with just about everyone in the country’s music scene as well as releasing his own solo material.

Bodies makes a strong move towards new wave, particularly the slower, darker version of the genre.  The songs have a moody feel, though they still maintain a more traditional rock/pop sound – the band didn’t make the move toward synths like perhaps New Order or Depeche Mode did, with the only effects per se being used a little on the vocal tracks and perhaps the guitars in “Dear Suzie”.  The lyrics are a touch on the melancholy side, as I’m sure you can gather from titles like “I’m Lonely” and “Never Mind,” and while side A definitely rocks harder, side B goes deeper.

I bought this at Lucky Records in Reykjavik last year, having passed on it the year prior.  I’m glad I gave it a second chance (at Ingvar’s insistence), because it’s a solid piece of work.  Heavy and slow, but not in a depressing kind of way as the strong beat keeps you anchored and connected to the songs.  I’m not sure if you can find the vinyl anywhere outside of Iceland, but amazingly you can get not only the four songs on Bodies but also an additional six tracks on iTunes for $9.90.  So if you’re a post-punk/early new wave fan, you have no excuse not to get online and at least listen to Bodies.  You can thank me later.

“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 PillnikkÞeyrGrýlurnar, 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!