To celebrate this week’s release of Björk’s Homogenic, we’re pleased to bring you the second installment of Björk Week by author Emily Mackay!
Bjork’s musical past lives.
Björk presented herself as fresh-faced ingenue on 1993’s Debut – for its 2015 reissue, she chose the words ‘beginner’, ‘shy’, ‘humility’ and ‘virgin’ to describe its character. In reality, although she was a new face to much of the global audience that album captured, the 27-year-old had been queen of the Icelandic scene for many years. Most music fans, especially we of advancing age, know that before becoming a solo musical megastar, Björk was in The Sugarcubes. A decent handful even know that before that, she was in dark-souled post-punkers Kukl. But that’s only the start of it, my friends…
At the age of 11, Björk released this 1977 eponymous album on Falkinn records, having been offered a deal on the strength of a radio performance of Tina Charles’s ‘I Love to Love (But My Baby Loves to Dance)’. Björk (whose childhood nickname was Bapsi, a name later used for her publishing company), later said: “I felt funny about having an album out that said ‘Björk’ on it and it wasn’t my work. Because I’d been collaborating and wrote just one song. I promised to myself that I would never do that again unless I felt that it was my album, not just something I fronted.” Despite her ambivalence, the album makes for a charming listen for fans. The exotic disco-pop of Arabadrengurinn (“Arab Boy”) written by her stepfather Sævar Árnason, who plays guitar on the album, chimes with Björk’s enduring love of Boney M, and the squelchy, wibbling effects on Búkolla, her cover of Syreeta/Stevie Wonder’s ‘Your Kiss Is Sweet’, are great fun. Her covers of ‘Alta Mira’ by Edgar Winter and The Beatles’ ‘The Fool on the Hill’, too, are solid, peppy and well, adorable – on the latter, that big voice starts to break out towards the end. The one Björk original is the simple, slightly eldritch Jóhannes Kjarval (posted above), a flute instrumental devoted to the Icelandic landscape painter who has remained a strong visual influence on her.
Spit and Snot
Yeah, you read that right. Escaping reluctant child stardom into punk, Björk formed this all-female outfit aged 12, taking on the role of drummer. “We actually had songs!” Björk has said. “We were very tired of the negative feminists who were always feeling sorry for themselves and saying ‘Poor us.’ Were like, Hey, we can do it! It was about girls having fun, and fuck that sitting-around-and-looking-cute.”
Tragically, none of Spit and Snot’s work is available to hear, nor have images made it onto the internet.“I could never think of them as punks,” Björk’s mother Hildur told biographer Martin Aston. “They were all educated and very deep-thinking young people, so it was more like an art piece, or a “happening”… they had a lot of things to say, being against politicians and ordinary life. You could say they saw the tasteless things in life.”
After Spit and Snot went the way of all bodily excretions, Björk began to follow the jazzy tendencies she’d inherited from her grandparents, touring local venues with the fusion outfit Exodus: guitarists Ásgeir Sæmundsson and Þorvaldur Þorvaldsson, bassist Skúli Sverrisson and drummer Oddur F Sigurbjörnsson. During this time, Björk wanted to learn saxophone, but couldn’t afford to buy one. Later on, she’d add the long-desired instrument to Debut, played by Oliver Lake of the World Saxophone quartet. Exodus, meanwhile, made it on to Icelandic TV, but only left one cassette of recordings behind.
Björk’s next band stole her from Exodus, guitarist Eyþór Arnalds told Martin Aston, “by persuading her that we were much more fun”. Beginning under the none-more-punk name Jam 80 (they were only supposed to play one gig, in 1980) Tappi were a fun, musically toothsome post-punk crew with arty ideas. In their performance for 1982 scene documentary Rokk í Reykjavík, Björk takes to the stage in childlike frock, rosy cheeks and giant drum in tribute to Gunter Grass’s surreal political novel The Tin Drum. Tappi’s name translates roughly to ‘Cork the bitch’s ass’, a play on an Icelandic phrase for something that fits really well, just like their playful, rhythmically interesting post-punk, which made use of novel automatic writing techniques include translating David Coverdale lyrics into Icelandic. With some digging, you can find one EP, Bitið Fast í Vitið, on the Spor label, and one album, Miranda, on Icelandic indie institution Gramm records, the label founded by Ásmundur Jónsson and Einar Örn Benediktsson, then of the band Purkurr Pillnikk, in 1981.
Rokka Rokka Drum
One of the sorest losses to Björk nerds is this group that she formed with Þór Eldon, her first love and later first husband and father of her son Sindri, and Einar Melax, his bandmate in Fan Houtens Kókó on guitar and bass. Sigurjon “Sjón” Sigurðsson, who along with Eldon was a member of the surrealist literary collective Medúsa, took on vocals. Björk herself returned to the drumkit, and backing vocals. Sjón would prove to be a lifelong friend and collaborator of Björk’s: along with his own brilliant novels, plays, poetry and librettos, he has written or co-written several lyrics for her, including ‘Isobel’, ‘Bachelorette’, ‘Oceania’ and ‘Solstice’.
Eyþór Arnalds, yearning for pastures new, disbanded Tappi in 1983. Björk too was ready to move on. Initially, she joined the bar covers band Cactus, then, briefly, the free-jazz duo Stigrim, who were part of a world record attempt at the longest continuous gig. Later that year, Ási Jónsson of Gramm was putting together the final episode of Áfangar, the groundbreaking new music show he’d been hosting on Icelandic state radio. For it, he assembled a one-off scene supergroup: Björk, Einar Melax, Einar Örn Benediktsson, Gudlaugur “Gulli” Óttarsson and Sigtryggur Baldursson from Þeyr, and Birgir Mogensen from Spilafífl and Killing Joke. After the show, the band, who’d named themselves Kukl – witchcraft – kept going. Björk had been craving a new challenge, and Kukl were certainly challenging: anarchistic, surreal, intense, philosophical, with loping, uncertain song structures, and tendencies to outbreaks of screaming. Björk described them as “hardcore existential punk jazz” and more simply, “energy music”. Championing a pagan mindset and the purity of instinct over Christian repression, they toured with the UK with Crass and Flux Of Pink Indians, even joining a miners’ benefit tour. Later, Björk would say “I was totally fascinated by Crass’s vision, but with all respect to them, they were a bit puritanical for my taste. It starts off really beautiful and positive but ends up sitting in the corner, going like, ‘I don’t want to partake of anything because it’s all polluted.’ It’s not such a healthy attitude to life.” Björk’s attitude to life was a full embrace: in the clip above, she performed with Kukl on Icelandic TV while seven months pregnant. “One woman had a heart attack while she was watching and sued me,” she recalled fondly later. In 1986, with Einar Örn literally phoning in live performances while studying at London Central Polytechnic, and Óttarsson drinking heavily, the band split suddenly, leaving Björk “crying for days – much more upset than I’ve been over any boyfriend”.
The Elgar Sisters
After the split, the former Kukl members craved a little colour and light in their lives. Þór and Einar Örn came up with the idea of forming a new organisation, Smekkleysa (“Bad Taste”), dedicated to seriously silly subversion in a Dadaist style across all media – an outlet for their friends writings, recordings and art. “We were reacting against all this punk dressing down and being socially correct,” said Björk. “We wore pink and formed this organisation… Einar drove a huge, impractical convertible and everyone hated us still. It was a magical time.” Björk spent some time working in the Smekkleysa shop, during which she and Gulli Óttarsson recorded 11 gothically grooving tracks for an album as The Elgar Sisters. Óttarsson and Björk split songwriting duties, with Björk on vocals, Óttarsson on guitar and other ex-Kuklers filling out the rest of the instrumental duties. The songs known as The Elgar Sessions were never released, though ‘Síðasta Ég and Glóra’ would later pop up as B-sides to Big Time Sensuality, and ‘Stígðu Mig’ on Venus as a Boy.
Dating their founding to 8 June 1986, the day that Björk and Þór’s son, Sindri, was born, The Sugarcubes were the manifestation of the Smekkleysa spirit: neon, absurd, wild, beautiful. It would take a book to recount the story of their three albums, their accidental global fame and their gradual disillusion, so I will refer you to Martin Aston’s excellent Bjorkography and Mark Pytlik’s wonderful Björk: Wow and Flutter for that purpose. For ours, it’s enough to say that you can’t really understand Björk without understanding the Sugarcubes too. From the moment the band broke through with the soaring Birthday, crowned Melody Maker single of the week in 1987, some listeners focused solely on Björk and her voice, and on exotic ideas of a feral and beautiful Icelandic wildness, missing the sharp punk-intellectual intent behind the band’s sharply witty aesthetic. The subtext was: why can’t Einar (whose faux-naive spoken word complements Björk’s purrs and wails on almost every other song) just shut up and let Björk be lovely? Björk, however, had no intention of being just lovely: she was fully invested in the subversive pop ethos, and in the group mentality, and her Smekkleysa origins still colour her work today. Deliciously, the same indie types who wanted to single her out where horrified when she eventually went solo only to embrace – horrified gasp – dance music.
When The Sugarcubes were going through a tough time after their difficult second album, 1989’s Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! (named after a line from The Wind in the Willows, fact fans) Björk let off steam by indulging her jazz side. Pairing up with the Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar, she recorded ‘Gling-Gló’ (“Ding Dong”), an energetic, adorable album of Icelandic and English takes on jazz standards, in just two days in 1990. “It was the opposite of the Sugarcubes’ second album,” she said. “We’d fallen into the trap of spending two months on each song, whereas I have always been an obsessive fan of spontaneous music and behaviour.” Guðmundar Ingólfsson himself, a player so revered in Iceland that he was known as Pappa Jazz, admired Björk’s free spirit, saying “there is no pollution there, just pure Björk”.
Even before the Sugarcubes called it a day in 1992, the dancefloor was calling to Björk. Always drawn to the beat since her days in Spit and Snot, she found the eruption of new sounds that followed the acid house boom irresistible. She found herself particularly captivated by Manchester’s 808 State (“there was this core of rhythm that I could identify with very deeply,” she said). Increasingly determined to do something with a store of songs she’d been building up since her earliest days, she called 808 State’s Graham Massey up and asked if she could send him some music, describing herself just as “a singer from Iceland”. (There not being many singers from Iceland around on the scene at the time, Massey had his suspicions.) They met on the set of UK youth culture show The Word, where Björk presented Massey with a tape of her demos, recorded over a brass quartet. Massey, convinced he had to act on this opportunity before Björk went home to Iceland, persuaded her to miss her flight home and come up to Manchester straight away. The tracks they recorded, ‘Ooops’ and ‘Q-Mart’ which both appeared on the 1991 808 State album Ex:El, were her first steps into a new world of musical possibilities.