The secret history of Björk

Andy Davis reaches for his icelandic pronunciation guide to reveal the lengthy and varied career of the ex-sugarcubes vocalist.

Geographically and culturally isolated, Iceland has produced relatively few internationally famous individuals in its thousand-year history. While scholars may remember some of the contry's historical heros, name-dropping a character or two from its legendary Sagas, most people would probarbly struggle to pluck more than Magnus "I've started so I'll finish" Magnusson's name from the geothermally-heated ether.

Until recently, that is. With the accolades heaped upon her album, "Debut", ex-Sugarcubes vocalist Björk (pronounced Byerk) looks set to ovbertake the 'Mastermind' host as the world's most famous Icelander, and has probarbly done more to put her home country on the map in the last six months than any Nordic tour operator has managed in a decade.

Western infulences has obviously permeated Iceland's cultural defences since NATO established a base there in the 1950's, and although the island's rich heritage exerts a strong influence over any creative artist born there, too much can be read into the power the nation wields over a performer like Björk. Just because they come from Iceland, the Sugarcubes once quipped, didn't mean they had to sing about volcanoes and the aurora borealis.


Similarly, Björk is unique. Her exotic looks are more reminiscent of the peoples of Central Asia, or even neighbouring Greenland, than they are of the average Icelandic native. And her extraordinary vocal style is no hark back to a traditional form of folk singing either: it is her own distinctive creation. At the same time, it is British artists like Kate Bush (one of Björk's teenage heroines) who seems to have influenced that remarkable voice we know today, although where that leaves her other childhood favourite, Genesis is anyone's guess!

With Björk set to become Best International Newcomer and Best International Female Artist at the 1994 Brit Awards, and with a new single, "Violently Happy", a live video and that long-awaited remix album, due later this year, interest in the ex-Sugarcubes looks, if anything, set to increase. What better time, then, for your trusty 'Record Collector' to dig a little deeper than the average mag to reveal the secret history of the 'newcomer' who has sung on more records, and has been in more bands, than Iceland has proverbial geysers. Worthy as it is, "Debut" is not quite what it purports to be: Björk's real debut, as we shall see, happened a long, long time ago.

The First Debut -- 1977

Björk Guðmundsdóttir (literally 'Gudmund's daughter') was born on 21st October 1966, in Iceland's capital city, Reykjavik. From the age of six until she was 14, she attended a local music school, where she studied the classics, and learned to play the flute and the piano. The family home was a hippy commune, with a steam of artists and musicians among the constant human traffic. Björk's stepfather, Saevar Arnason, was himself a guitarist, and played in a band called Pops, recreating Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and "all that hippy music". This bohemian atomsphere laid down a firm musical grounding for Björk's future vocation, and provided a stepping stone to the first, and most remarkable, aspect of her recording career: an eponymously titled solo album, released in Iceland in 1977.

Documentation about this record is scant. Although Björk often alludes to it, precise details are hard to come by. And with the singer on a promotionaly tour of Japan and Australia at the time of writing, I turned to one of the few people with first-hand knowledge of this early release: Hildur Hauksdóttir -- Björk's mum.

"The record came about when Björk was at school," revealed Hildur, on the phone from Reykjavik. "They used to have an open house every week where the kids had to entertain, read aloud and things like that. Björk sang a song called 'I Love To Love'. She was born musical. She started to sing very early. She started singing melodies around seven months old." Björk's teachers were sufficiently impressed with her redition of Tina Charles' U.K. No.1 from February 1976, to take the budding starlet along to Iceland's Radio 1, then the contry's only national broadcasting organisation, who in turn seemed only too pleased to play the song on air.

"After that she was offered a record deal by a label called Fálkkin," continues Hildur. "I knew two musicians here, Palmi Gunnarsson, a bass player and singer, and Sigurdur Karlsson a drummer, and they had already recorded some songs with Björk. We worked on the recordat the Hljdrijinn Studios in Reykjavik. Palmi and Siggi brought in some of the best players in Iceland. After that first record with all thouse grown-ups, she only ever worked with oeioke her own age." Among the other musicians on "Björk" was stepfather Sævar Arnason, and Björgvin Gíslason, one of Iceland's most acclaimed guitarists. Björk would return the favour several years later when she sang on the track "Afi" on Gíslason's 1983 LP, "Örugglega".

The "Björk" album was released in time for Christmas 1977, with a cover designed by Hildur, and photographed at a local Reykjavik studio. In contrast to precocious recordings by singing kids like Lena Zavaroni, the tone of "Björk" mercifully falls short of the little-madam-wearing-mummy's-make-up image(although who knows what she's singing about!). Producers Gunnarsson and Karlsson constructed a perfect listenable, mid-70s pop album (albeit one sung by an 11-year old), which mixed a handful of standard Icelandic pop tunes, and a Björk orginal - the instrumental "Jóhannes Kjaval" (a tribute to a celebrated Icelandic painter) -- with covers of Melanie's "Christopher Robin" (with a decent approximation of Mel's vocal growl), Stevie Wonder's "Your Kiss Is Sweet", Edgar Winter's "Alta Mira" and the Beatles' "Fool On The Hill" ( translated as "Álfur Út Úr Hól"!). Despite her tender age, Björk managed to press her personality into the grooves, and this, her real debut, is as much her own record as it is her producer's.

Perhaps succumbing toa little of the mythmaking which is an inevitable side- effect of stardom, Björk has recently maintained that the album went platinum in Iceland, indicating that she became an instant celebrity. Her mum is not so sure. "I have no idea!" replied Hildur, when asked how many copies "Björk" sold. "It's sold out today, I know that. And they are playing it on the radio now in Iceland! But at the time, she was not exactly what you'd call famous. In Iceland it's different from elsewhere. It's such a small place, everybody knows each other already. But the record didn't separate her from school or anything." And what became of the Fálkinn label? "They have stopped making their own records. They only sell others' records now, and bicycles".

Exodus 1979-1980

Punk, and its musical aftermath, new wave, didn't hit Iceland until the late 1970s and early 80s. But when it did, the teenage Björk was one of the first to get involved. Around 1979, while still at school, she formed her first band, Exodus. Remembered as a naïve blend of new wave and pop, Exodus' legacy apparently survives as a "garage recording" on a cassette, although few Icelanders claim to have ever heard it. The band did manage one appearance on local TV, however, which provided Björk with another feather in her local- celebrity cap. And outfit called Jam 80 was Björk's next musical project, but its fleeting tenure on the emerging new wave scene extended to one gig, before expiring. It's not known whether Paul Weller was an influence here!

Tappi Tikarras 1981-1983

In 1981, Björk, then aged 14, formed the band Tappi Tíkarrass - which translates as something like 'Cork The Bitch's Arse'! -- and which featured at least one other member from Exodus, bassist Jakob Magnusson. Tappi was Björk's most professional band so far, and went on to record two albums. On the evidence of the second, "Miranda", issued in 1983, the band relied upon a repertoire of fairly standard new wave, spiced up by the occasional bout of Rezillos/X-Ray Spex-inspired thrash. Prior to "Miranda", Tappi released a six- track mini-album, "Bitid Fast I Vitid" (something like "Bite Hard In Your Mind"), on the Spor label in 1981, which sold well, earning the band a solid repurtation. Björk's vocal delivery at this point -- save for the odd throaty punk bray -- displayed few of the dive-andsoar gymnastics which would characterise both the Sugarcubes and her later solo work. She was more your average indie Icelander, while her guitarist probarbly owned every record the Cure ever made.

With Tappi Tíkarrass, Björk worked the same venues as future Sugarcube members Einar Örn (pronounced Ay-nar Urn), then with Purrkurr Pillnikk, and Sigtryggur Baldursson, drummer with the first Icelandic band known outside of its home territory. Peyr (pronounced Theyr) was first brought to Britain's attention courtesy of errant Killing Joke vocalist Jaz Coleman, who abandoned his doom'n'gloomy mates in 1982 amidst much media interest, absconding north to work with these punky Icelanders.

Tappi Tíkarrass, Purrkurr Pillnikk and Peyr all appeared in the controversial 1982 documentary film, 'Rokk Í Reykjavík' ('Rock In Reykjavik'), which for the first time in Iceland, addressed 'youth' issues (no Killing Joke pun intended) like gluesniffing and drug-taking. The Sugarcubes' label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste) recently reissued the 'Rokk Í Reykjavík' double sound-track album, containing Tappi's "Hrollur" and "Dúkklísur", sporting a new cover design and a free poster of the band's young lead vocalist, Björk Guðmundsdóttir, rocking out in a fetching yellow dress. By the time the final Tappi Tíkarrass recordings, live renditions of "Speglar" and "Seiðiur", appeared on the compilation album, "Satt 3", in 1983, the band had called it a day.

Kukl 1984-1986

After Tappi's demise, Björk joined forces with Purrkurr Pillnikk's Einar Örn and Peyr's Siggi to form Kukl (imagine the word 'cook', with an additional 'l' stuck on the end, pronounced in a broad Scouse accent!). The name translated as 'Sorcery', and the band's ethos questioned Iceland's establishment, and the way it appropirated elements of the country's pagan paaast to shore up its own belief systems. The criticism worked both ways, of cource, and it can't have been a suprice when, following a TV appearance where the now anti-establishment Björk appeared with her hand bandaged after a minor accident, mailcious gossip- mongers spread the word she was concealing the scars of drug addiction.

Built upon the noisier elements of the three core members' previous bands, Kukl plied a domineering allout punk-goth racket, indebted, stylistically at least, to the Fall, Killing Joke and Siouxsie and the Banshees (although there are will be those in Iceland who'll dispute any Killing Joke influence!).

With each new enterprise came a new level of success, and with Kukl, Björk and her future Sugarcube partners Einar and Siggi achieved a degree of international recognition. This resulted in two albums, "The Eye" and "Holidays In Europe (The Naughty Naughty)", being issued, via the anarchist Crass label, in the U.K.

While "The Eye" barely acknowledges that Kukl's lead singer and the Björk of "Debut" fame are on in the same person, some of those delightful yelps of glee and characteristic touches of vocal magic make and early appearance on "Holiday In Europe". Both LPs were re-pressed at various intervals throughout the 1980s, after the international success of the Sugarcubes.

Kukl lasted until 1986, when after three years of anarcho-punk sincerity, Björk, Einar and Siggi split the band (leaving half-a-dozen tracks unreleased) to form a new group whose concept would turn Kukl;s political activism -- and eventually the U.K. indie scene -- on its head. Their new trademark would be nothing more radical than "mischievous fun", and their new name was Sykurmolnarnir, or the Sugarcubes.

Sugarcubes 1986-1992

In the mid-80s, the Sugarcubes went from being independent Icelandic oddballs to, some said, the best band since the Smiths. And with their debut single, "Ein Mol Á Mann" ("One Cube Per Head"), which contained "Ammæli" ("Birthday") and "Köttur"("Cat"), Björk suddenly came of age: That Voice had arrived. With precocious little shrieks, and knowing, earthy growls, her exquisite, other- wordly tones wailed with wild abandon, seemingly fit to burst with impish delight. Underpinned by the menacing, beckoning rumble of Einar, Siggi and the crew, with "Birthday" the Sugarcubes created one of the few genuinely orginal sounds of the decade.

Unwittingly paraphrasing the Kinks' Ray Davies, Björk annonced "We're not like everyone else", and proved it too, wih the Cubes' critically acclaimed debut album, "Life's Too Good". Now elevated to the status of Indie Press Darlings 1987, the majors began vainly offering the band huge sums of money (£750,000 for instance) to sign up and sell out. Naturally, they refused.

The Sugarcubes second album "Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week!" didn't fare as well, and almost impaled the band on its own exaggerated motto of 'World Domination Or Death'. The third, "Stick Around For Joy", was considered a return to form, although poppier and less experimental than previous efforts. And then there was Einar's continued role as the band's rapping court jester --the (im)perfect foil to Björk's vocal majesty -- which attracted an unfair degree of critical backlash, where reviewers, pulling no punches, branded him superfluous irritant, even urging the band to sack him.

After six years of varying fortunes, the band which had been founded as a joke, had become very much a serious concern. "I realised that it was now or never", said Björk recently. "Either I record all those songs which had been floating in my head for years, otherwise I'd never do it." In 1992 she left the Sugarcubes to go solo.

Solo 1990 & 1993

Tales of the Sugarcubes' disintegration are probarbly inaccurate, but what is certain is that the group's various members returned to more or less a 'normal' life in Iceland, with Björk, for her part, reportedly working either on a market stall, or if you will, in an antique shop, to help pay off some of the band's debts amassed throughout the late 80s.

But this period was also musically productive, and yielded Björk's second solo album. In 1990, consolidating what had been an established, if occasional, relationship with the veteran be-bop ensemble the Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar, Björk recorded an album of jazz standards, "Gling Gló". The band's leader was the late pianist Guðmundar Ingólfsson (he died shortly after the album was completed) -- Iceland's only professional jazz musician -- and accompanied simply by a bassist and a drummer, his trio provided Björk with a platform for an accomplished set of jazz and popular standards. Björk's jazz delivery was very much in the classic Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan mould -- although she tackled the songs in an orginal (and Björk's unique!) way. Don't be put off if you're not into jazz. If you like Björk, you'll love this.

And there was more jazz to come on the streamlined and sophisticated "Debut", Björk's rebirth as a mainstream artist, issued around the world in July 1993. In fact there was more of everything on "Debut": house rhythms, a 20-piece Indian classical orchestra and Arabic influences -- a multi-cultural work of music, no less, through which Björk appears as wide-eyed and exuberant as she was on her first solo album back in 1977. With the pace of her new success obliging a permanent move to London, it appears as if the first 17 years were only just the beginning for Björk. "I've come a long way," she said recently. "Much of it has been in Iceland, but here it's just the same. Only a hundred times bigger."

Collaborations 1982-1993

In addition to Tappi Tíkarrass, Kukl and the Sugarcubes, which form the bulk of Björk's discography, in between and sometimes running concurrently with those bands were numerous other musical projects involving Björk. Some of these produced vinyl evidence, others survive only as memories.

In 1982, Björk fell in with Stifgrim, a freeform rock-jazz (as oposed to jazz- rock) duo, comprimising guitarist Steinn Skaptason and vocalist/stand-up comedian Kristinn Jón Gudmundsson. Her sole gig with the band was a part of Iceland's bid to get into the 'Guinness Book Of Records' for the longest ever continuous live performance. Nearly one hundred bands took part in the event, which lasted several weeks, each playing for anything up to twelve hours. Björk's effort was recorded for posterity, and a choice 90-minute 'Best Of' recording of Stifgrim's world-record bid apparently survives on cassette. A week after this occasion, Björk was involved in one other Stifgrim-related event, where she accompanied Kristinn Jón Gudmundsson on guitar as he crooned his way through "Love Me Tender".

Between 1982 and 193, Björk earned a crust playing a Jupiter synthesiser in Cactus, a bar-room cover version group, which survived two summer seasons playing 70s hits to Iceland's heavy weekend drinkers in the south of the country. No known recordings exist.

In 1984, she signed up with Rokha Rokha Drum as a backing vocalist and drummer. Rokha's lead vocalist was one Sjón, alias poet Johnny Triumph, who went on to collaborate with the Sugarcubes in 1987 on "Luftgitar" (reportedly their best-selling record in Iceland). Alternating on guitar and bass in Rokha Rokha Drum was Thór Eldon (later in the Sugarcubes, Björk's future husband, and father of her son Sindri), and future Kukl and Sugarcubes keyboardist Einar Melax (not to be confused with the rapping Einar Örn). Rokha Rokha Drum survived long enough to play their "arty-farty" music at four or five gigs between 1984-85 in "galleries and snobby cafes", and also to record an eight-song demo tape, apparently lost forever in 1986.

The Elgar Sisters were active around 1985, and featured Thór Eldon, Sigtryggur Baldursson (the Sugarcubes' Siggi) and the modestly-named God Krist (ex-Kukl) on guitar. Björk was their vocalist. Although the band never performed live, the Elgar Sisters wrote and recorded 11 songs, all of which remained unreleased until 1993, when Björk resurrected three reflective numbers for her solo B-sides: "Sídast Ég" and the instrumental "Glóra" on "Big Time Sensuality", and "Stigdu Míg" on "Venus As A Boy".

In the late 80s, Björk appeared as backing vocalist with veteran singer- songwriter Megas (Magnus Thór Jonsson) -- the Icelandic Bob Dylan and "grandfather of punk" -- on three of his albums, "Loftmynd", "Höfudlausnir" and "Hættuleg Hljómsveit Og Glæpakendid Stella" (the latter having something to do with "The Criminal Woman Stella"). Also appearing on Megas' melodic "Loftmynd" is ex-Strawberry Switchblade Rose McDowell, and Björk's sister, Ingar Guðmudsdóttir. (Ingar, incidentally, also played in the noisy new wave band Blatt Afram, whose only recorded legacy is two songs on the 1897 live cassette "Snarl 2", otherwise notable for its two Sugarcubes songs "Mykjan" and "Skalli").

The traditional Icelandic carol, "Jólakötturinn" ("The Christmas Cat"), is Björk's contribution to the difficult-to-pronounce "Hvitt Er Í Borg Og Bæ" Christmas compilation, issued on the equally challenging Hljóðaklettur label in 1988.

While the Sugarcubes were taking a sabbatical between 1989-90, bassist Bragi and keyboard player Magga formed a cabaret duo Caviar. This later developed into a lighthearted big-band, Hljómsveit Kondráds B, which played Icelandic versions of popular British and American standards ("Wonderful World" was one). Various Sugarcubes and members of Reptile and HAM (two groups signed to the 'Cubes' Bad Taste organisation), swelled the ranks to nearly a dozen, with each musician alternating on each other's instruments. Björk played clarinet.

'Cubes drummer Siggi later took to the microphone as his alter-ego, Bogomil Font, to record an album of Latin standards. Although Björk wasn't involved, the poject wasn't a million miles away from the singer's own "Gling-Glo" album.

Bless, a band featuring Bad Taste's Gunni Hjálmarsson, issued its "Gums" mini-LP of "hard-hitting rock and wimpy ballads, recorded under the influence of the Pixies" in 1990. The album features Björk on backing vocals on two tracks.

Björk, Einar Örn, Thór, Siggi and/or Bogomil Font, in addition to 'Cube cohorts like God Krist and Johnny Triumph, all feature on "Island", a collaborative album between David Tibet's post-industrial outfit Current 93 and Icelandic musician HÖH (Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson). Björk signs backing vocals on the album's lead track, "Falling". (HÖH, incidentally, is now working with Einar's new band, Frostbite.)

In 1992, Oskar Jonasson, director of some of Sugarcubes' videos (and Björk's boyfriend at the time), made his feature film, 'Sódóma Reykjavík', (re-titled 'Remote Control' outside Iceland). For the soundtrack to this comedy about the Icelandic underworld, Björk guests with rockabilly outfit KK Band on a cover of the local 50s standard, "Ó Borg Mín Borg"; and with DJ Pórhallyr on the techno track, "Takk". The CD is still available.

Here in Britain, Björk scored her biggest hit single to date (No. 12) as a collaborative effort with David Arnold. "Play Dead", a song taken from the film, 'Young Americans', is now available as a bonus track on cassette and CD copies of "Debut". Prior to that, Björk's first venture into dance music was also a joint effort. "Ooops", a 1991 signle by Mancunian dance masters, 808 State, featured Björk's distinctive vocal tones, and is also featured on their album, "EX:EL".

Finnaly, and perhaps inspired by Sugarcubes drummer Siggi and his "Nordic death metal group" the Human Seeds, in several interviews in 1990, Björk talked excitedly about forming -- of all things -- a speed metal band to be called Scud. Her co-conspirators in this venture were members of Bad Taste outfit HAM, whose forte Björk revealed to be "Gothic heavy metal with a comic twist"! Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Scud never progressed beyond the realms of Icelandic fantasy!

Many thanks to those Icelandic ínförmátíonmeísters Alsie (Asmunder Jonsson) and Gunni Hjálmarsson at Bad Taste; and special thanks to Björk's mother Hildur Hauksdóttir. Thanks also to Dave Wilson for his help and for supplying the bulk of the illustrations, and to Phil Deere, Derek Birkett and One Little Indian Records.

Many of Björk's Icelandic recordings are still available (including "Gling-Glo" and Tappi Tíkarrass' "Miranda" LP -- although not her 1977 solo debut!). For more details, write to Bad Taste Mail Order, P.O. Box 1263, 121 Reykjavík, Iceland.
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