Thursday, February 19, 2015

Björk​ Marathon: Life's Too Good

Before I start digging deep into The Sugarcubes, there's more about Smekkleysa (Bad Taste) that I always found so fascinating. Here are some fun facts that I discovered from an AMAZING indie Icelandic magazine, The Reykjavik Grapevine:

- Smekkleysa's motto was: “Bad taste and extravagance."

They didn't call themselves "Bad Taste" or "tastelessness" for nothing!

- Though a business, they didn't want to take themselves too seriously. There was originally talk that a restaurant called Mudpit and a radio station called Radio Devil would open in its name (this never happened). The company also would hand out "Bad Taste awards" to people who "excelled in extravagance and bad taste." I'm not sure if this happened either, but what did happen was The Sugarcubes. Admittedly, the group was formed solely for money, and just like their business's mission, they also did it with the intention of not taking themselves too seriously and just having fun.

Hey, they had to kick off their business somehow in some big way, what a better way to do it than to start a band for the music publishing aspect? As for the book publishing aspect, Björk released a book of her Icelandic fairy tales and poetry, Um Úrnat frá Björk (About Úrnat from Björk).

This 16-page book was handwritten and illustrated by Björk with crayons and water colors.​ Only 100 copies exist (I DO NOT OWN ONE OF THEM!), and are worth a whole lot of money these days.

 As for The Sugarcubes, they made their first appearance on July 18th, 1986. At their first gig, they were advertised as Kukl but called themselves Þukl (“Frisk”) a week later at their second gig. When they were an opening act for pop band Stuðmenn (Einar was their manager, thanks to how much he impressed the band for bringing a gigantic plastic lobster from London to one of their concerts), they called themselves Sykurmolarnir (The Sugarcubes). As that set-in-stone stage name, they recorded 12 pop songs. Two of them, "Ammæli" ("Birthday") and "Köttur" ("Cat") would be released on Björk's 21st birthday, and would later appear on their first album. To finance the release of those two songs, they had to rely on the publishing aspect of Smekkleysa again, this time by publishing a postcard (drawn by Friðrik) of Reagan and Gorbachev meeting in Iceland in October 1986 for a peace talk. The postcard did so well, and made enough money for The Sugarcubes to print Einn mol’á mann (“One cube each”). This was pressed only in Iceland. Unfortunately, only 300 copies were sold, and the editions were defective upon arrival (which might explain why I can't find or listen to this version anywhere!). All we have is the cover art:

Notice the One Little Indian logo? There's a history behind that too!

Einar spent a winter in London, where he met his old pal from the Crass record label days, Derek Birkett, formerly a bassist of the band, Flux of Pink Indians. They were working in the studio to process the songs that The Sugarcubes recorded at Grettisgata recording studios (a studio owned by Stuðmenn). As luck and fate would have it, Derek just formed a record label (that still exists today and still releases all of Björk​'s albums), One Little Indian. He decided that he'll release The Sugarcubes songs in English. Meanwhile, The Sugarcubes performed without Einar, even providing some instrumental music to film director Friðrik Þór's movie, Skytturnar (White Whales), which was hardly used in the film. When Einar returned to Iceland from England, One Little Indian released Birthday as a 12" single on August 17th, 1987 to help promote the forthcoming LP.

And then...a week later, "Birthday" was picked "Single of the Week" on NME and Melody Maker. And that was HUGE, and instantly put the Sugarcubes and Icelandic music on the world map! And then, before they knew it, The Sugarcubes also signed a distribution deal with Elektra Records in the United States after turning down a number of record labels that wanted to sign them. With One Little Indian/Elektra Records, The Sugarcubes recorded and released their critically acclaimed first album that would make them internationally famous, Life's Too Good. And of course, I have this treasure!

Released in April 1988 (three months after I was born!), this album now still sounds so 80's Europop, and yet at the same time it's far from dated, and it's still so fun, quirky, entertaining, and charming. It's not only my favorite Sugarcubes album of all time, but also one of my favorite albums of all time.

The album starts with a bang with "Traitor," one of my favorite tracks, and a pretty epic album opener.

I just love how in the beginning, you hear Einar mumbling something (you have to listen very closely to even hear what he's saying) with a harmonica playing in the background, soft and yet it drowns out Einar's voice, and then, out of nowhere, bam! The song begins with Einar saying almost menacingly "my punctuality is well known, when the revolution takes place, I'll be late, and I'll be shot as a traitor," and then, at last, there's that now familiar, famous, trademarked howling, fierce, and girlish voice of Björk​ singing "when the sun rises..."

And there's an Icelandic version of this song played near the end of the album:

I won't go through every song, because basically, I love them all, but here are the rest of the highlights for me:

- "Motorcrash" takes a serious subject matter and makes a joke out of it. Basically this song tells a story, a pretty grim and depressing one, but then it feels like a story right out of a cartoon as to what happens from the cuts and injuries and the spectacle of it all. It's pretty silly, but oh so catchy! And surprisingly, though no other single of theirs would top "Birthday," this song became a top 10 Modern Rock hit in the USA!

 - Well, there's "Birthday" of course. How can this one not be a fan favorite? Björk​ recently (as of February 19, 2015 on Rolling Stone) said about this song that "Birthday is about being in that magic world with a newborn." And considering that she had a newborn around that time, this makes that song a deeply personal one.

- "Delicious Demon" is just one big ball of fun of a song. Plus, I love the way Björk​ squeals "So delicious!" at the end.

- I adore "Deus". In that same Rolling Stone interview, Björk​ described this song like all the Sugarcubes songs as a "word joke" and that it "was sugary pop about God, which was ridiculous."

That's exactly what this song was, and that's why I adore it.  Plus, it really was funny and silly, and I like how even the line "Deus does not exist" is sung in such a lighthearted and childlike way.

 I like this song, even though I can't understand a word of it, but how nice of somebody to translate it into English on this YouTube clip.

"Take Some Petrol Darling"

"Cowboy" is very Einar heavy, vocally. Einar's vocals are always erratic, obnoxious, random, and crazy - that's basically one of the things he's famous for. This song is just all that and more.

And there are two more Icelandic songs that I really like.

There's "Dragon":

And lastly, "Cat" or "Köttur":

Life's Too Good is one of those very few debut albums that basically didn't take itself too seriously. I mean, c'mon, everything about the lyrics and the music is one big joke, and so damn entertaining. In a nutshell, Life's Too Good is one big party between these five talented writers/authors, poets, and painters who got together to share with the world just how much they can shake things up, and have fun doing it. Not to mention, this really was a declaration of how life is good. For these Icelanders, life was good, and they had this album and so much international acclaim to show for it. What was meant to be a joke became far bigger than they probably didn't even anticipate. Even today, the album still stands the test of time, and it was even picked as one of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. And this record is a prime example of how Icelandic music did have crossover power, and it started basically with "Birthday" and Life's Too Good. And that's so bloody awesome!

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