Extreme Sorcerer: The anarcho-punk beginnings of Björk
For all her cultivated experiments, Björk Guðmundsdóttir is an international pop personality. Her career has been distinguished by a prevailing desire to defy musical categorisation, and yet it has also propelled her to the world stage.
Björk’s “restlessly experimental force” has been heavily scrutinised over the years, from work in her 1986 breakthrough avant-pop act The Sugarcubes, to the emotionally-intense orchestral arrangements of Vulnicura. Yet the early phase of Björk’s lifework, pre-dating 1986, is often omitted from the timeline. Her creative lineage traces back as far as the late 1970s, and it includes her significant involvement with Icelandic anarcho-punk.
Before forming The Sugarcubes alongside Einar Örn Benediktsson, Sigtryggur Baldursson and Þór Eldon (the latter of which would be the father to Björk’s first born, Sindri, in 1985), the singer had already been rewarded with moderate success as a child solo artist and as the frontwoman of interconnected punk projects. Björk released her self-titled, first official record at the age of eleven in 1977 after gaining popularity by singing Tina Charles’ I Love To Love on Icelandic radio the previous year. The album was a mixture of covers and songs written for her by stepfather Sævar. But despite being offered to produce a follow-up, Björk refused.
The unfurling of UK and US post-punk overseas was already making its mark in Iceland. With the emergence of discotheques murdering off the live music scene, the country was suffering from a static growth. Björk counteracted this by forming the short-lived all-girl punk group Spit & Snot (or Saliva & Phlegm). She was 13 at the time, and the group lasted a matter of months before involving herself in a jazz-fusion band known as Exodus. Flirtations with other collectives under the aliases Jam 80, Stifgrim, Rokka Rokka Drum and a failed death metal outfit called Scud were temporarily conceived and subsequently dissolved. Hardly any material has been documented for any of these groups.
By the age of 16, Björk had already worked with Eldon and keyboardist Einar Melax who would later go on to form The Sugarcubes. By now, it was 1982 and the singer was working in Tappi Tíkarrays (roughly translates as “Cork The Bitch’s Ass”), an experimental post-punk outfit with sonic references to The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Tappi Tíkarrays was regarded as the first serious band Björk was involved with. They released two records; an EP in 1982 and an album called Miranda in 1983. Following their disbandment, Björk acquainted herself with Purkurr Pillnik vocalist Einer Ørn and alongside five other rock avant-gardists formed KUKL (translated to “Sorcery” or “Witchcraft”).
With KUKL, Björk was able to engulf herself in the ethos of communal anarchist creativity. Having studied media in London, Einer Ørn had already come into contact with groups such as Flux of Pink Indians and Crass. And after weeks of writing and rehearsals, KUKL made their live debut supporting Crass at the We Demand The Future showcase in Reykjavík in 1983. The show ultimately led to the 1984 release of KUKL’s debut album, The Eye, on Crass Records. The title, stemming from Björk’s favourite book, Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille (1928) details the violent psychosexual perversions of two teenage lovers – motifs Björk would explore further in her later works. KUKL remained together for three years. Nearing the end of their career, the band appeared on Icelandic television. It was 1986 and Björk was heavily pregnant with her firstborn. KUKL’s performance sparked outcry from Icelandic audiences, believing the singer to be a pregnant child. The broadcast cemented KUKL’s legacy forever.
By the end of 1986 and the release of their final record Holidays In Europe (The Naughty Nought), members began to pursue disparate artistic avenues. Gull Óttarsson (KUKL guitarist) and Björk briefly formed The Elgar Sisters and recorded eleven songs before disbanding. Other transitory projects emerged including a covers act known as Cactus and backing vocal work with singer Megas alongside other KUKL members under the name Hættuleg Hljómsveit (A Dangerous Band). Björk had also seen success as a self-published poet and illustrator. As part of the Smekkleysa (translated to Bad Taste) collective (co-founded by ex-KUKL’s Ørn and ex-Gramm Records’ Ásmundur Jónsson) Björk’s Um Úrnat is a 16-page handwritten fairytale made with crayons and watercolours. Today, the 1984 publication is a collector’s item. Street theatre work in the centre of Reykjavík was also organised through the collective, which Björk assisted in.
This teeming catalogue of work was all a founding precursor to The Sugarcubes. It’s the punk infrastructure intrinsically built in an artist predominantly recognised for her pop deconstructionism. In a single decade, Björk laid the anarchic foundations for her imminent transformation into global superstar, and from her ominously innocent 1977 debut to releasing on Crass Records, it was a foundation smeared in spit, snot and quintessentially Icelandic sorcery.
For more on Björk head to Björk: In Focus, an exploration and celebration of our September cover star