Could it really be that long ago? 27 years, since The Sugarcubes that quirky band from Iceland first came to renown? I can still remember the first time I heard Birthday off of Life’s Too Good and then saw the video on MTV. In era of excuse my French, WTF bands, they were the most WTF of all. The band was presented as fresh faced Icelandic tricksters when they were anything but. In actuality they were veterans of the Icelandic punk scene. As time would reveal hidden behind their rather avant-garde façade lay not only an innovative band but one member who would carve out a legendary musical career that still roundhouse kicks life into the musical world whenever she decides to release new material.
The members of The Sugarcubes came from various Icelandic bands with Bjork, prior to the band’s formation, maintaining the largest commercial career out of all the members. The band was formed on June 8, 1986 on the same day Bjork gave birth to her son with her then husband and member of the band Per Eldon. The group was part of an art collective named Smekkleysa or (Bad Taste in Icelandic) which would serve as the name for their record label. They were an analogous group of musicians and artists who solidified into The Sugarcubes.
The entire band represented the distillation of the Icelandic punk scene of the day in which the band members were veterans. Bjork had been the queen of Reykjavik since the tender age of 11 and recent member of Tappi Tikarass, Drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson had been a member of Peyr, guitarist Einar Orn Bendictsson and bassist Braggi Olafsson had been in Purrker Pillnikk. The Icelandic super band Kukl had boasted Bjork, Orn, Siggi and Einer Melax as members and had two albums on the UK label Grass to their credit. The members of Sugarcubes thought of the band’s formation as a joke with little lasting power when they formed it after the demise of Kukl. They jokingly named themselves for the form of nutrition they relied on to survive while touring.
The Sugarcubes were signed in 1987 to One Little Indians in the UK and Elektra in the US. The band at the time of Life’s Too Good comprised Bjork on vocals and keyboards, Einar Bendiktsson on vocals and guitar, Sigtryggur Baldursson on Drums, Per Eldon on guitar, Bragi Olafsson on bass, Magga Ornolfdottir and Einar Melax on keyboards. The album was produced by Ray Shulman and Derek Birkett, engineered by Kjartan Kjartansson, Gerald Johnson, Gail Lanbourne, Mel Jefferson, Brian Pugsley and Ken Thomas. The title of the album came from a jokey optimistic complaint made by an impoverished artistic friend of the band on being given a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It became an ersatz manifesto of a kind for the group.
The release of Birthday catapulted The Sugarcubes onto the world stage. John Peel gave the single significant backing. The week of its release it was named “Single of the Week” by Melody Maker, and the album would go on to sell a million copies worldwide. “Birthday’s” release was followed by the singles; Cold Sweat, Deus, and Motorcrash establishing them as indie darlings. It was a colorful and breathless debut, displayed literally in the colors of the rainbow contradicting the dour self conscious post grunge genre that was usually depicted in monochrome colors.
The band has been characterized as psychedelic post punk with antecedents such as The Cramps, B-52’s and Talking Heads used for comparison. The Sugarcubes were personified by their quirky, whimsical heartfelt lyrics and intriguing vocals by Bjork, with her girlish singing and Einar’s pinball erratic rambling vocals, that ping ponged off each other to great effect. The band used a “daft as a brush” outlook as a guidepost and a statement for their art. At all times unique and erratic, they would champion the need to be impertinent and act silly, all the while calling into question the idea of good taste. They intentionally turned their backs on the idea of “Art House” ethos and attempting to live out Picasso’s dictum,” Good taste and frugality are the enemies of creativity.” In following that dictum the band indulged in every eccentricity.
The album was an examination of life in all its ludicrous, daft, surreal display. Off kilter swirling guitars ala The Cure and loping bass informed the musical accompaniment. But when ever the release seemed to be getting serious there was always a vocal or musical practical joke like an Ate apple waiting to lighten the tone. The first selection, Traitor unspools as a man faces death at dawn for treachery in the Spanish Civil War, the serious subject is all but undermined by Einar’s trickster rap about teaching angels how to play harmonica running in juxtaposition to Bjork’s solemn narrative. The song is in parts dramatic, erratic and disturbing.
The jaw dropper of the release was Motorbike. This is a song that became one of the cornerstones in establishing the mythic persona of Bjork. That of the wild child pixie that she has never been able to shake no matter how shapeshifting her future solo works would become. In the song Bjork is taking on a character that definitely has a Van Munchausen by Proxy issue. As the character happens upon a serious car accident she takes the mother and hides her away helping her to recover and returns her to her family eventually. Einar’s aside sets the stage for real insight into the girl’s intent with the lyric, “Believe you and me, I know what innocent looks like, she showed great interest after she got off that bicycle.” This aside leads the listener to believe she may be a bit obsessed with the results of motor accidents more than wanting to help the victims. The B-52 surfy sound, and off kilter horns belies the off kilter story.
Birthday is of course the most recognizable track on the album, an odd angled pop dream. It seems to be a story about a five year old that starts as an inner monologue and monkey wrenches into something much more disturbing as it moves along. Everything in the song could be a stream of consciousness dialog about a little girl’s birthday until you are brought up short by the lyric, “he’s got a chain of flowers and sows a bird in her knickers.” Yikes, there is something unwholesome going on. Is it a song about the wobbly world of a toddler or something Freud would have had a field day analyzing? The Sugarcubes let the listener be the judge. The song musically has excellent trippy horns and distorted percussion that make the whole track seem quite hallucinogenic. In spite of it being a fairly disturbing song, it really is genius as it is delivered with innocent relish and is resplendent in all its creepy glee.
Delicious Demon is tinged with the mysteries of Icelandic enigma. This straight forward punk song is everything you would get mixing the Pixies and B-52’s. A great club song you could dance to while chanting the chorus. The song Mama again was a quirky ditty about maternal enwombing security. Noteworthy for its surreal accompaniment, with trippy spiraling guitars and percussion projecting a catchy afro beat whilst discussing large “true to life” mothers and all their assets.
Cold Sweat is song that caught a lot of love from the indie public. The song has popiness in attitude as it revealed base powerful instincts and a threatening sexuality. The heavy guitar rift and insistent drums sonically built to a climax, fully echoed by the lyric, “I will not finish till I’m fully satisfied.” Bjork and Co. never shied away from the sexual and debauched looking it straight in the eye and shrugging dismissively.
Blue Eyed Pop was a droll and satirical song with a great synth overlay and great bass line. It is a mission statement of intent for the band contrasting the 50’s US view with the wilder northern European view of the world. It was mocking the New Wave fad that was everywhere at the time. In this song you find Bjork channeling her inner Kate Pierson to perfection.
Deus is the high point of the disc; a theological examination in a pop song. It gets the major questions out of the way with the first phrase,”Deus does not exist.” Then goes on to portray what Bjork thinks God would be like if he did. It is a stab at “whistling past the grave yard” with the meditation on how you can keep reassuring yourself God doesn’t exist, but the idea is there nevertheless. The proof that he is there is found in the strangest of places and manifests itself in the strangest human forms. Bjork throughout repeats her beginning statement in an almost desperate plea for it to be true. This is also as close to a ballad as the Sugarcubes present on this disc. Einar’s asides really bring the song home lyrically. The song is quirky like the others but has the most straightforward accompaniment. It is not surprising that this song faired well with the public.
Sick for Toys or Veik Leikfang, weak toy is a condemnation of materialism and our throw way society. Materialism is put on trial, “She’s got a big house full of old toys what can she do? …She needs a new toy… sick for toys.” Here again is that fragile dance of Bjork’s weaving vocals with Einar’s sotto voce. The song is an excellent dose of krautrock with flashes of B-52’s irony, another noteworthy song.
Fucking Rhythm and Sorrow sets the listener up to be shocked, when you start out with that title you have been forewarned. But as per their “you never know what to expect design” the song is not a raunchy debauched sexual affront but something completely different. Instead it is about a lady finding a naked man in her front room writhing in existential angst. The woman is unimpressed and proceeds to attempt to literally talk the guy off the roof he has climbed onto; first with a slice of strawberry cake and then with words of wisdom and encouragement. “Don’t act like there is no tomorrow! You should use pain and sorrow to fill you up with power, life is both bitter and sweet.” The song at first comes off as silly veneer then proceeds with an excellent wise sentiment that lays underneath. It silliness is lodged in the marriage of cheery rockabilly accompaniment and the lyric’s wild matter of fact sentiment, The song reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Balloon Man” and Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers monologue songs.
The final track is a hidden song, Take Some Petrol Darling. The funky driving song is apocalyptic and brief, with the sentiment that if you’re going to get it in the neck at least earn your damnation.
Life’s Too Good had a popiness in attitude that brought the 1980’s listener in and then presented them with the band’s post punk heritage, Goth vibes and darkness. There are some critics who have always felt the album would have been better without sans Einar’s vocals, and that he was the proverbial fly in the ointment. What many of them would have loved, was if he had been ditched to enable Bjork to be entirely front and center. However that was never the intent of the band. The tension of Einar’s asides and vocals presents something that would be missing from songs like Motorbike and Deus if he was not there. He is the surreal musical Dali reeking havoc with the songs that would have been almost too perfect until his ridiculous interruptions and sometimes unsettling rap. He singlehandedly made sure the listener understood The Sugarcubes wanted more than mainstream acceptance.
The band would put out Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week in 1989, it would not perform as well commercially as Life’s Too Good. They released a third album, Stick Around For Joy, in 1992 which would fare better. In 1991 Bjork had decided to leave the band to start her solo career but was contracted with The Sugarcubes to do one more record and unlike many artists honored her contractually obligations. The Sugarcubes would open for U2 on their Zoo TV Tour in Oct and Nov 1992, and then disbanded. Bjork would continue onto her stellar solo career with the release of her aptly titled Debut; which would launch her reputation and a solo career that has now stretched for over twenty years.
A band that was meant as a joke ended up becoming indie legends. Ever insightful about their unconventionality, they left it to the critics and listeners to answer the question of what good taste and art were and whether or not the band’s output could be classified as either. If you are serious about understanding the development of Indie Music you need to give this album your consideration.