The Icelandic Punk Museum
Icelanders in the local music scene are arguably as proud of their punk rock heritage as they are of their Viking roots. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise when a group of local musicians took it upon themselves to create a monument to this period in Iceland’s music history - in a public toilet that was first opened in the 1930’s. GetLocal went to investigate.
It may have taken a couple of years for Icelanders to start their own punk bands, but by 1978-9 bands like Útangarðsmenn and Fræbbblarnir were starting to take shape. The punk scene was documented extensively in the documentary “Rokk í Reykjavík” and today you can live a small part of that world by visiting the punk museum at the bottom of Bankastræti.
The toilet that is now home to the punk museum was called “The Zero” and is quite literally underground. It was so named for its street address, the only number 0 in the whole city.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir plays a starring role in the exhibit. First with her solo album from 1977 and with her bands, Exodus, Tappi Tíkkarass, Kukl, and finally the Sugarcubes, whose eventual demise closes the time period of the exhibit.
Walking through this claustrophobic display of history and punk rock, I learned about the history of popular music (mostly punk, but also art rock and post-punk rock) that was typical of the years from when the first punk bands started up until the disbanding of the Sugarcubes. I also overheard some tourists talking to the proprietor, Svarti Alfur (“Black Elf”), a man who is well-known in the local music scene for his old-school punk attire.
He had moved here from Belgium many years ago and lived for a few years on the streets in Reykjavik, which is no easy feat considering the harsh Icelandic winters. He told the tourists about the music scene here - which foreign bands played and which didn’t.
He offered the tourists to try on his many jackets and take a picture inside the exhibit. Meanwhile, in the old repurposed bathroom stalls, graffiti on a toilet bowl encouraged you to stick your head in and listen to the ocean.
So many questions
There were so many questions that came up when visiting this odd place. To answer a few of them, we talked to Dr. Gunni, who participated in the original punk scene with his band Bless and who was among the musicians who collected the memorabilia for the museum. Gunni wrote a history of Icelandic music (called “Blue Eyed Pop”, highly recommended) and is pretty much the most knowledgeable person in Iceland on the subject.
The location of a public toilet is a little odd to say the least and I read in the Reykjavik Grapevine that it was bought by some local musicians for the purpose. Who had the idea to turn a toilet into a museum of punk memorabilia?
DG: Guðfinnur Karlsson, Finni the mogul, (of the band Dr. Spock) wanted to do something with the toilets so he and Snorri Baron came up with the idea. I think he has [the toilet] on rent from the city.
I can imagine that the city has changed quite a bit since then. Do you think the punks from that time would recognise the city as it is today?
DG: No. It was so totally different back then. I guess it has turned out okay though. In 1980 Reykjavik was less of a "big" city. Way fewer people on the streets, way fewer clubs to play, fewer people that were interested in this kind of music, fewer opportunities to get this music heard, no festivals, etc. Reykjavik has grown up a bit.
There is bass guitar hanging from the ceiling. Are any of the instruments in the museum from famous recordings of that era in Icelandic music?
DG: Some, like the broken up bass from Bjarni from Sjálfsfróun, but mostly it is just some old crap.