There’s no question that Iceland currently punches above its weight in the popular music world. For a nation with the population of a British town, the country has spawned a remarkable number of admirable artists, and if you were to look at their output – from Bjork to Sigur Ros to Olof Arnalds – you’d be forgiven for thinking that Iceland has always been a hotbed of experimentation and wilful obscurity. So this new compilation CD is quite the eye opener, telling as it does the story of pre-punk Icelandic pop, a time of bubblegum bands, generic hard rock, glam and bland balladry. It’d more novelty than essential historical listening for anyone outside Iceland, but for anyone looking to one-up their mates in terms of obscure pop, this is worth a punt.
The small size of Iceland meant that groups would form and break up, swap members and change direction frequently. Most of the acts here have interchangeable lineups, and all had to head to England or America in the forlorn hope of making it big. And no one here is creating a new or unique sound – each band and artist on this album is climbing onto whatever bandwagon was around at the time. Like local bands who scraped together the cash to release an immediately forgotten single, these acts never had any impact outside of their local area, and so this is a fascinating look at a time and place. If the sleevenotes by Dr Gunni are possibly more interesting than the music, well, that’s okay.
The album opens up with Jenny Darling, by Pelican, which was a smash hit in Iceland in 1974, shifting a not-unimpressive 11,000 copies. It’s a bouncy slice of mid-Seventies bubblegum, with a bit of a rock edge (there’s some rather crude guitar noodling) and “Hey! Hey!” shouts. It could’ve easily been a one-hit wonder outside Iceland, given the breaks. The band are back at the end of the album with the somewhat less catchy My Glasses, which is a song about spectacles that is distinguished by a kazoo solo and the lyrics “how can I thank you dear Mrs Rose / you found them hanging here on my nose”. It possibly sounds better in Icelandic.
Things go downhill with Change’s Lazy London Lady, which sounds like Sweet, if Sweet were bad musicians with rotten songs. In the words of Eric Morecambe, they have all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order, and this is rather grating. Suspicions are confirmed with the band’s second contribution, Yaketty Yak, Smacketty Smack, which is every bit as good as the title suggests.
Paradis have a bit of a Euro rock vibe going on in Superman – you could almost see this being a Golden Earring song, and it bangs along nicely with a solid back beat. Their other contribution, Rabbits – which seems to be a love song for someone who looks after pet rabbits, surely a unique theme in pop history – is more ‘eccentric’, which in this case is a polite way of saying ‘a bit of a mess’. It feels like a novelty record and rapidly outstays its welcome.
Svanfríður provide a decent, pacey pop-rocker with Woman of the Day, which features a decent guitar solo and some bizarre lyrics (bizarre lyrics will be a regular occurrence in this album, possibly losing something in translation). The track grinds to an uncertain halt though. Showing either versatility or a lack of actual commitment to a sound, the band’s second contribution is an acoustic, rather folky ballad What’s Hidden There, which is possibly closer to what we might expect from Icelandic bands these days than anything else on here. It’s a curiously affecting piece.
Jóhann G. Jóhannsson initially comes across like a falsetto Peter Sarstedt. Don’t Try to Fool Me is one of those oddly continental ballads that were popular on the 1970s easy listening scene, and it’s probably as good as any other. But it’s unlikely to speak to anyone today. Showing himself to be musically diverse, he’s back later with I Need a Woman, which is a crude rocker that doubtless had people hooking their thumbs into their belt loops and boogieing across Reykjavik disco dance floors at the time. Even weirder is his track Joe the Mad Rocker, which mixes heavy rock, funky brass and pop with lyrics that, if my ears don’t deceive me, include “motherfucker” – probably not the best way to ensure airplay in the all-important British and US markets.
Celsius, complete with female singer, offer up a slice of pre-disco funk music in the form of Days Pass Me By. This isn’t too awful – with better production, you could see this being an international contender, had the tapes not been lost until 2013. The band also get the final song on the album, Poker (which would provide the name for the band that Celsius would evolve into). Unfortunately, this is a ponderous ballad that sounds like the worst sort of Eurovision no-hoper – and to add insult to injury replaces the female vocals with male caterwauling. Shocking stuff.
Magnus Thor obviously triumphs in the name stakes, but Blue Jean Queen isn’t the thunderous heavy metal track that such a name deserves, instead being a rather ineffectual slice of bubblegum pop. To be fair, you could easily imagine this on a mid-Seventies Top of the Pops, though that’s possibly not a compliment.
Magnus and Johann perform Mary Jane, which may or may not be a subtle drug reference. It probably is, given the wussy hippy balladry of the track, which fails to avoid the sin of tedium and is marked by some of the worst harmonising I’ve ever heard.
The Pal Brothers’ Candy Girl is pure bubblegum pop, so sugary that it should come with a health warning. If you have a soft spot for pure, unashamed pop music from the 1970s – and I’ll confess I have – then this will be an album highlight. If you don’t, I imagine this will be excruciating.
Poker were, at least for the purposes of this compilation, the last Icelandic hope of the mid Seventies, a veritable supergroup of members from Celsius and Paradis. They failed to make it big, and I suspect lyrics like “what did you do with your eyebrows baby, don’t go” on Dancing in the City did them no favours internationally. God knows, they are trying, with a track that has guitar riffs, sax breaks and harmony vocals but it somehow doesn’t really work. Get On to a Sure Thing goes for a funky soul vibe that is equally unsuccessful, but the band’s final track Take Me to the Sun is rather better – it almost has a prog vibe, albeit it one with a pop aesthetic, and is only let down by weak vocals.
This is certainly not a CD for everyone. But lovers of the obscure, the unusual and the kitsch might find this to be the sort of novelty item they enjoy, while anyone who actually does love early Seventies pop will definitely want to snap this up. While parts are awful, there’s enough here to be of interest, and curios like this definitely need supporting!