I like to read about music and musicians. A lot. Probably more than I should, since arguably I’d learn more about music by listening to more of it, not reading about it. But I enjoy reading, so there you go. And, frankly, books on music have opened my eyes (and ears) to bands and genres I might not have explored otherwise. Some of those new “discoveries” in 2013 included The KLF, Shonen Knife, Flower Travellin’ Band, and The Sonics. When I read I take mental notes which serve me well when digging through used vinyl and CDs.
Last month I wrote a review of Dr. Gunni’s English language history of Icelandic pop music, Blue Eyed Pop. In many ways this was the book I’d been looking for since I started getting into Icelandic music five years ago – something that gave a sometimes broad, sometimes detailed history of the scene and mentions lots of different bands, making it a perfect resource for someone like me looking to go back in time. But Gunni’s book wasn’t the first one to tackle this topic in English. While I’d be hesitant to make a definitive proclamation about the truly first one on the subject, my best guess is Paul Sullivan’s Waking Up In Iceland: Sights and Sounds from Europe’s Coolest Hotspot which was released back in 2003 in the days when Airwaves was still relatively new and you (assuming you’re not from Iceland) probably needed no more than one hand to count off all the Icelandic musicians you could name – and that would be if I let you count Björk and the Sugarcubes separately.
Sullivan’s book is very loosely centered around Airwaves, but only in that he was in Reykjavik for the festival and stayed for a while afterwards doing further research. Part travelogue and part cultural history, most of Waking Up In Iceland focuses in some way on music, or at the very least the Icelandic poetry style of rimur, a sort of poetic chanting that has existed there, more or less in the same form and using the exact same language, for somewhere approaching a thousand years. Rimur is such an important part of the culture that a performance of it was even included on the seminal Icelandic punk compilation, Rokk Í Reykjavík. So even the parts of the book that don’t deal directly with “popular” music are still relevant to the discussion of the nation’s musical culture.
The book is wide ranging, with chapters devoted to rimur, rock ‘n’ roll, the punk movement, pop, and even sveitaball, which are dances held in many of the smaller towns that feature live bands who play primarily covers for the hammered locals. There’s even an entire chapter that is more or less devoted to folk rocker and social critic Megas. Sullivan interviews artists, musicians, record store owners, label owners, and just regular people. Sure, Sigur Rós and Björk are here; but so is Sigríður Níelsdóttir, aka the Casio Lady, who started her musical career in her early 70s with just a Casio keyboard, a microphone, and a dual tape deck, making lo-fi pop and gospel tapes in her kitchen. She put out almost 60 albums in the last years of her life, all straight to cassette and later copied to CD, all without a label to produce and distribute them. You’ve got the whole gamut here.
Waking Up In Iceland is the perfect companion to Blue Eyed Pop. It’s written from the perspective of a curious outsider, so it doesn’t take for granted that you know anything at all about Iceland or its music. Sullivan provides depth where it is needed, not only so you can learn about some of the seminal artists, but also what it means to be a musician in Iceland with both the benefits and challenges that entails. While it’s out of print, I had no trouble finding a used copy online, and it’s also available as a Kindle ebook, which is how I first read it (before later buying a print copy). If you really want to know more about Icelandic music, I suggest starting with Waking Up In Iceland and then following it up with Blue Eyed Pop, which will fill in a lot of the blanks.