Dr. Gunni (real name: Gunnar Lárus Hjálmarsson) is our guide through popular music in Iceland. It’s some sort of journey, with twists, turns and some dead-ends. It’s a good job that Dr. Gunni is a worthy guide, with enough knowledge, images and personality to forge a path through this weighty tome. The title Blue Eyed Pop is taken from a Sugarcubes song of the same name.
The story starts with ‘Dancing out of the Darkness,’ a chapter devoted to the 1930s and 40s and the beginnings of music in Iceland. My particular favorite, and there are many great images throughout Blue Eyed Pop, is with accordian “kings” Herman Gellin and Ernst Borgström on tour in Iceland in 1930.
The next few chapters rattle by, explaining in detail the songwriters of the early50s, the rock ‘n’ roll imported to the U.S. airbase at Keflavík, and Iceland’s very own Beatles, Hljómar. The 70s are best brushed over, it appears; Icelandic Folk Prog, anyone? and the 80s center around the film, Rokk í Reykjavík, which included a young Björk, then performing with Tappi Tíkarrass (Cork Bitch-Ass. No, really!).
The 80s section also includes some truly awful hair and suits, although this isn’t unique to Iceland.
Things really pick up though towards the end of the 80s, with the Sugarcubes providing plenty of entertainment, even up to their demise. Who knew that they supported U2, The Cure and The B-52’s?
The author also hits his stride here, with the text becoming sharper and more energized. By the time he is describing the ‘Sveitaballs’ of the early 90s, the smell of sweaty teenagers supping illicit alcohol can almost be smelled coming off the page.
Dr. Gunni continues to gather speed as he reaches closer to the present day. After Björk and the notorious swan dress, he is on to GusGus, and then it’s Sigur Rós. Look out for the delightful photograph of Jónsi on a bicycle.
No stone is left unturned here either, and pretty much every Icelandic musician I can think of gets a mention and some amazing fact or other. Did you know that Mugison’s father is a harbormaster in the West Fjords? Or that Nanna from Of Monsters and Men once performed in a garage band called Pointless?
You could argue that Dr. Gunni is too inclusive, and that his tendency for detail may exclude all but the most dedicated follower of Icelandic music, but that’s being pedantic. I think it’s best consumed by dipping in here and there, anyway, rather than in a whole sitting.
In conclusion, this is an intriguing, detailed history of Icelandic pop that deserves to be on the bookshelf of every fan of Icelandic music. It explains, with words and photography, where the music you are listening to has come from, and crucially, where it might go next.
Originally published on Iceland Review online.