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.

Egó – “Breyttir Tímar” and “Í Mynd”

I’m getting to the last of the records I bought on our trip to Reykjavik about six weeks ago.  Finally!

Here’s that pesky Bubbi Morthens again.  The bottom line is you can’t talk about Icelandic pop and rock music in the 1980s (and probably the 90s as well) without Bubbi Morthens coming up at some point.  He fronted a number of incredibly popular and influential bands like Utangarðsmenn, Das Kaptial, and Egó, plus he was prolific as a solo artist and working on joint projects with other musicians.

Morthens formed Egó after allegedly being fired from the Utangarðsmenn, and it didn’t take him long to show up his old bandmates.  Egó’s 1982 debut Breyttir Tímar (Changing Time) was a mainstay at the top of the Icelandic charts and was one of the best selling albums ever by an Icelandic artist.  I have to say after giving it a listen that it’s a solid album.  The music could best be simply described as “rock”, though Morthens and the boys mix up the styles a bit.  The title track actually remind me a lot of Icelandic metal masters HAM, not in that it’s a metal track but due tot he slowed down, plodding, ominous sound – about 10 seconds into hearing I was wondering if HAM possibly covered this song at some point because it sounded that familiar.  The closing track, “Jim Morrison”, shares this heavy sound, while “Vægan Fékk Hann Dóm” is probably the hardest rocking cut on the record.

Immediately after listening to Breyttir Tímar I plopped Í Mynd on the platter.  Impressively Egó released both these full length albums in the same calendar year, 1982, which is a good thing because they basically broke up shortly thereafter, but still fulfilled their contractual obligations to produce a third LP which came out in 1984.  I don’t hear a lot of stylistic differences in the second album when compared to the first, though I was taken in by the last song on side A.  It’s got a cool ska feel to it, and when I looked at the jacket to see the name I found, “Dancing Reggae With Death”.  A closer listen and I suddenly realized this song was in English, the only song on these two albums that’s not in Icelandic.  Which I think is just further proof that when I hear vocals, I generally focus on their sound and not the words, something that drives a lot of people I know crazy but probably explains why I don’t have any problems listening to music that’s not in English, whereas a lot of my friends really struggle with that.  Regardless, “Dancing Reggae With Death” kicks ass and is a great song, and not because it’s in English.

Egó is good stuff, and it even got the Holly Seal of Approval.  Bubbi Morthens is one of those talented musicians who is good enough and original enough that pretty much everything he puts out is at the very least decent, and often excellent.  He’s still churning out solo material and appears to be collaborating with half of Iceland, which is great to see.  I may have to track down some of his more recent solo work on our next trip and see what he’s up to these days.

Das Kapital – “Lili Marlene”

Bubbi Morthens is one of the the longest lasting, most successful, and almost certainly most prolific musicians in Iceland, though very few people from the rest of the world have ever heard of him.  He was in one of the country’s first and most popular punk bands, Utangarðsmenn, circa 1979-81, before moving on to form a pivotal new wave band called Egó that released three important LPs between 1981 and 1984.  With the demise of Egó, Bubbi reunited with one-time Utangarðsmenn guitarist Mike Pollock to put out an album under the name Das Kapital in 1984.

Now, take a look at this cover.  After reading the above intro and looking at the band’s one and only album, what genre do you think would best define Das Kapital?  Punk… maybe no wave… hey, maybe even heavy metal.  No.  This album has violins on some tracks.  And harmonicas.  And saxophone.  It’s certainly a rock album, sometimes moving towards some rockabilly, but one thing it is not is hard.

The cover actual makes some sense if you know the reference to the album’s title, Lili Marlene.  “Lili Marlene” was a poem written by a German soldier during World War I later published in 1937, then turned into a very popular love song in 1938.  While the girl on the cover is perhaps a bit young to be the woman the soldier dreams of in “Lily Marlene,” the inclusion of World War I general and later post-war president of Germany Paul von Hindenburg, juxtaposed with the skeletons (the war dead) and the youthful soldiers give one pause… especially given that the band is named after the famous Communist manifesto Das Kapital.  The band includes their own cover of “Lili Marlene” as the opening track of side B, one that starts slow and soulful before breaking out into the most punk sounding song on the album.  Morthens also sneaks a song in English onto that side called “Fallen Angels,” which showcases a bit of his punk chops.

This was a pick-up from Lucky Records in Reykjavik when we went to Iceland Airwaves last year.  I’d had a copy in my hand the year prior but didn’t pull the trigger, and I kicked myself for a year while I waited to go back.  This copy is a punch out, so with the hole in the cover and a few small scratches, so I actually got it for a decent price and in the long run it was probably worth the wait.  Lili Marlene is actually available online as a digital download for around $12, but I don’t really know that it would appeal to a wide audience.  Perhaps the big selling point here is Das Kapital’s role in the progression of Morthens’ long and illustrious career in Icelandic popular music, a sort of way-point as he transitioned form punk to new wave then into a more straight forward style of rock (and some of his later recordings seemed to have moved more towards bluesy rock), so if you’re an Icelandic music geek (like me) it’s a must-have.  Otherwise… well… take a listen and decide for yourself.