The Sugarcubes

I have written several times before about the time I first heard The Sugarcubes in 1998.  I remember well walking into Our Price in Leamington Spa on the day ‘Life’s Too good’ was released and hearing it play in the store. I asked the guy behind the counter what it was and bought it right away, never looked back and still love that album today, and Bjork. This is true, and is one of the reasons I find Debut to be such an extraordinary album, the transition to solo artist was seamless and brilliant. The track I heard playing was Motorcrash and by the time I’d finished buying the album Birthday was playing.

In case you didn’t know The Sugarcubes (Icelandic: Sykurmolarnir) were an Icelandic alternative rock band from Reykjavík formed in 1986 which lasted until 1992. They released 3 proper albums and a couple or three compilations during their lifespan.

The band was, mostly:

Björk (vocals, keyboards)
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Einar Örn Benediktsson (vocals, trumpet)
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Þór Eldon (guitar)
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Bragi Ólafsson (bass)
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Margrét “Magga” Örnólfsdóttir (keyboards)
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Sigtryggur Baldursson (drums).
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The entire band were made up of members of various bands from the Icelandic punk scene of the time, with all the members having been performing for quite some time. Bjork had been well known in  Reykjavik since she was only 11 and was a member of the band Tappi Tikarass:

Drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson had been a member of Peyr (Contains Nazi stuff, presumably ironic):

Guitarist Einar Orn Bendictsson and bassist Braggi Olafsson had been in Purrker Pillnikk:

There was also a sort of Icelandic super group called Kukl, that I’d never really heard of but I gave them a listen today and it is really pretty good, I like them. Bjork and a couple of other future Sugarcubes members were part of the band and they had two album releases to their credit.

After Kukl, the members of newly formed Sugarcubes thought the band a bit of a joke and that it wouldn’t really last very long, even jokingly naming themselves after the nutrition they relied on to survive while out on tour.

Following a string of singles, including Birthday which was championed by John Peel, and signing to label One Little Indian in the UK, their debut studio album, Life’s Too Good, was released in April 1988 to, I think it is fair to say, unexpected international success. As debut albums go it was an absolute stunner. Like nothing that had really gone before it and I believe it to have been hugely influential on indie music at the time, particularly in Iceland.

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Listening to it again this evening, and using the language of the young ‘uns of today, it is full of bangers. Odd songs with strange lyrics and a shouty man jumping in all over the place, it was different and interesting. The lyrics of the very first track playing in the record shop (which is a now defunct chain) really gripped me, it was such unusual subject matter with a similarly unusual delivery:

Motorcrash

 [Verse 1: Björk]
Riding on my bicycle I saw a motorcrash
A proper motorcrash and lots of spectators
I rushed to the centre saw the injured parents
Cuts on the children an awful motorcrash

[Chorus: Björk]
Dangerous motorcrash terribly bloody motorcrash
Destructive motorcrash Oh oh oh

[Verse 2: Björk]
Took the mother sneaked with her secretly
All the way to my home and nursed her gently
Put on her bandages, gave her milk and biscuits
She sighed pleasantly after this awful motorcrash

[Chorus: Björk]
It’s a dangerous dangerous motorcrash
Terribly bloody motorcrash
Destructive motorcrash Oh oh oh

[Interlude: Einar]
That girl on that bicycle showed great interest in all the motorcrashes
In the neighbourhood, she looked quite innocent

[Bridge: Björk]
Then we disguised ourselves took a taxi to her home
When her husband answered the door
She introduced herself, he said
“Where have you been all this time?”
Oh, oh, oh

[Outro: Einar]
But believe you me I know what innocence looks like
And it wasn’t there After she got that bicycle

It starts off all bit quirky and, with Einar’s commentary, becomes all a bit creepy really, in a Stephen King’s Misery sort of way (as a point of interest the book was released in 1987 and the song was probably written a little while before that, so it is doubtful they are in any way connected, but you never know)

Birthday on the other hand is a rather beautiful and odd poem put to music, reading the lyrics without listening to the song, it is undoubtedly peculiar, having done that and then listened to the actual song, it is doubly so:

She lives in this house over there, has her world outside it.
Grapples with the earth with her fingers and her mouth, she’s five years old.
Thread worms on a string, keeps spiders in her pocket, collects fly-wings in
A jar scrubs horse flies and pinches them on a line. she’s got one friend
He lives next door, they listen to the weather, he knows how many freckles
she’s got, She scratches his beard. she’s painting huge books, glues them together,
They saw a big raven; it glided down the sky, she touched it.
Today’s a birthday, they’re smoking cigars, he got a chain of flowers,
Sows a bird in her knickers, they’re smoking cigars, lie in the bathtub, chain of flowers.

I made a playlist below of most of the tracks and they genuinely fill me with joy, particularly the live versions included, it’s quite extraordinary:

Album Tracklist

1 Traitor 3:10
2 Motorcrash 2:23
3 Birthday 3:59
4 Delicious Demon 2:42
5 Mama 2:56
6 Coldsweat 3:17
7 Blue Eyed Pop 2:37
8 Deus 4:08
9 Sick For Toys 3:14
10 F***ing In Rhythm & Sorrow 3:22
11 Untitled 1:29

Non Album Tracks (B-Sides and extra tracks)

Birthday (Icelandic)
Cat (Icelandic)
Dragon
Traitor (Icelandic)
Coldsweat (Remix)
Birthday (Original Demo Version)
Dragon (Icelandic)
Luftgitar (12″ Version)
Organic Prankster
Deus (Remix)
Cowboy
Luftgitar
F***ing In Rhythm & Sorrow (Live)
Cowboy (Live)
Coldsweat (Live)
Birthday – Christmas EveRemix – The Jesus And Mary Chain
Birthday – Christmas DayRemix – The Jesus And Mary Chain
Birthday – Christmas PresentRemix – The Jesus And Mary Chain
Petrol (Live)
Coldsweat (Meat Mix)
Coldsweat (Instrumental)
Motorcrash (Live)
Polo
Blue Eyed Pop (2nd Mix)

There may be more but these are the ones I have from the 12-11 12″ Single box set.

The second album, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! I originally bought on cassette, back when I still used a Walkman, or a cheaper version of one at least. This resulted in an interesting listening dynamic as it was not particularly feasible to carry loads of cassette tapes around so I would put one in to the player in the morning for the walk to work and that was it, I’d listen at lunch and again on the way home, sometimes the same cassette would be in there for weeks. This is how I heard this album, almost immersing myself in it and shutting out the rest of the world for the duration.

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After the Cassette I did pick up a CD version and it was only last year I finally bought a vinyl version, which is 3 tracks short.

The album was released in 1989 and it featured a much larger share of the vocals for Einar Örn, which received rather a lot of criticism at the time. I don’t believe the criticism was warranted, although I do understand it, I probably would have wanted more Bjork and less Einar at the time and there a couple of tracks where I think Einar’s vocal was somewhat superfluous, however, The Sugarcubes weren’t Bjork, they were a band and that’s how they were set up. I guess the test would be to listen to the songs, which were written for two vocals, without Einar, they probably wouldn’t make sense and would have seemingly unnecessary instrumental bits. Without Einar, who knows, maybe Bjork would not have been able to rise to where she is today, we should all probably be thanking him.

Lyrically there’s a deilightfull quirkiness which may have evolved from many of the songs having been written in Icelandic and translated into English, such as from the opening track Tidal Wave:

There’s danger, danger!
A tide with an undertow, the sea is swelling
Impatience makes me foam
A wave inside me forces out big words
They splash and sprinkle
An angry torrent breaking loose, a flush or rushing joy
And again in Shoot Him:
There were four of us
One of us was the landlord
There were, we were on a drinking spree
I had eaten my take-away
I washed my landlord, he was covered in gravy
The others were amazed how dirty he was
How I was, but I said,
He never took a bath,
He never takes a bath,
So why, why don’t we just shoot him?
Interestingly these were Einar’s vocal with Bjork joining in on the last line, although I could easily imagine her singing those words.

As before, below are most of the songs from the album, many live, some in Icelandic. Is the album underrated? Yes, I’d say it was by many, all ratings at the end of the post.

LP Tracklist

Tidal Wave – 2:56
Regina – 4:05
Speed Is The Key – 3:18
Dream TV – 3:12
Nail – 3:18
Pump – 4:25
Eat The Menu – 3:44
Bee – 2:26
Dear Plastic – 3:23
Shoot Him – 2:10
Water – 3:01
A Day Called Zero – 2:38
Planet – 3:23

Bonus tracks on the cassette

Hey  – 3:22
Dark Disco 1  – 3:01
Hot Meat  – 3:16 (Re-working of Coldsweat)

Then came Stick Around For Joy, which is their third and final proper album, released in 1992, just a year before Bjork’s first solo album, Debut, was released.

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9th January 1992, The Sugarcubes perform Hit on Top Of The Pops (The date is wrong on the video below) . I was 25 by this time and just sat and gawped at the screen, it was just perfect. I remember watching, and watching and then, yes, they aren’t lip syncing, this is a live vocal. By the time it was over I really did think what the hell are TOTP going to do now having opened with that.

My memory fails me but I looked up that episode (chart positions in brackets):

(27) The Sugarcubes – Hit
(17) Isotonik – Different Strokes
(5) Kym Sims – Too Blind To See It (video)
(14) Carter – The Unstoppable Sex Machine – Rubbish
(26) Blue Pearl – (Can You) Feel The Passion
(18) Senseless Things – Easy To Smile
(1) Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (video)

Well it was all downhill from The Sugarcubes in my opinion. Just in case anybody is thinking about that Queen number 1? Well it was just after Freddy Mercury died, so it is understandable, but the song was 17 years old at this point and I really would rather listen to Hit.

There were 4 singles released from the album, Hit being the only one to chart, peaking at number 17, the others being Walkabout, which has the following delightful lyric:

Delicious boy,
With animal eyes,
Beautiful buttocks,
Haunting movements.
But the thing that makes me love you
Is the unforgettable smell of your skin.

Vitamin & Leash Called Love were the other two singles and they all, in my opinion deserved to do better than they did.

LP Tracklist

A1 Gold
A2 Hit
A3 Leash Called Love
A4 Lucky Night
A5 Happy Nurse
B6 I’m Hungry
B7 Walkabout
B8 Hetero Scum
B9 Vitamin
B10 Chihuahua

Stick Around For Joy was probably as far as the band could go with then Bjork/Einar combination. The album is filled with really good songs, as were all three, but it was time for change after this one. There were a couple of other albums, It’s-It released in 1992 which was a remix album and it is pretty good, and The Great Crossover Potential which was a greatest hits/best of that was released in 1998. There is also 12:11, a box set released in 1998 of 11 12″ singles which is well worth picking up.

The Sugarcubes were great while they lasted, and I would have loved to have caught them live (maybe one day there will be another re-union, there was one gig in 2006, in Reykjavík but the chances of getting to that were 0) but I do think stopping at 3 albums was a wise decision although while Bjork continued here rise it would have been nice to see the rest of the band continuing as it isn’t all about Bjork, the whole package was brilliant.

Ratings:

Life’s too good – 9.7

Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! – 9.2

Stick around for joy – 9.0

That’s right, all 9.0 or above, damn right!

 

The Sugarcubes (Videos)

And following on from the top 38 Bjork songs in the last post, here is the best of The Sugarcubes. I remember well walking into Our Price in Leamington Spa on the day ‘Life’s Too good’ was released and hearing it play in the store. I asked the guy behind the counter what it was and bought it right away, never looked back and still love that album today and Bjork.

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Leamington Record Fair

I went to the Leamington Record and CD Fair on Saturday, and was a little underwhelmed. I’ve been several times before but I wold, more often than not, go every six months or so, I’ve been to the last three and the frequency is quite possibly the issue. There was less for me to get excited over and a lot for me to get a bit miffed over. I don’t buy records to own something that has a different coloured label or a fantastically rare catalogue number, I genuinely don’t care. I go there to find records that I can play that are less than the £20 needed for a re-issue on 180g vinyl.

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I did find a few things but I came way from there with most of my money still in my pocket, and I made the mistake of buying something (for £3.50) that I already had, not for the first time, which suggests that since I bought the first one I haven’t listened to it and begs the further question, do I need either of them?

So what did I buy? Well, I bought these (album titles are links to Spotify):

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‘Mind Bomb’ by ‘The The’ – £5

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The Seer’ & ‘Steel Town’ by Big Country – £2.50 each

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Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell – £1

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Jose Feliciano by Jose Feliciano – £2.50

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My Life in the Bush Of Ghosts by David Byrne & Brian Eno – £5

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Coldsweat 12” by t The Sugarcubes – £4

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Street Legal by Bob Dylan – £3.50 (and the one I already had)

If you were counting that’s 7 vinyl LP’s and a 12” single for £28.50, which is lovely, although really it’s 6 with the duplicate, but I should be more positive about it, I did get some things I wanted, so that’s good. Where I get frustrated is with some of the stall holders who have albums that, to my mind, are massively overpriced. Now this may well be because I don’t want to play £150 for a record that I can buy re-pressed at 180g for £20, but also because some of these albums are there month after month after month and never sell, and probably never will at the level they are asking.

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An example is The Beatles and The White Album. I can buy a perfect copy for £25. It’s not 40 years old, it doesn’t have pops and crackles, the cover isn’t worn nor are the corners dinged. A perfectly playable copy in perfect condition. I picked up a copy for £8 and thought, well I’ll have that, even though it looked a little tired. I had misread the label, it was £80 and had no indication anywhere on it as to why. I didn’t buy it, obviously.

I know there are collectors out there who want rare items, but I just can’t quite grasp why. If I have an album that I bought for £5 from a second hand bin and somebody else has exactly the same album but with different colour label that is supposedly worth £200, so what, if you put it on a turntable it will play exactly the same songs, and that’s really all I care about. And why is it worth £200? Surely this is theoretical as the prices should be driven by supply and demand. It’s only £200 if somebody is willing to pay that much for it and judging by the number of high priced records I see over and over again, the vast majority of people are not prepared to pay.

I do understand that there are some items that do command higher values, such as Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from 1963 that featured 4 tracks deleted from subsequent releases is purported to be worth $35,000. If those 4 tracks are not available anywhere else then I get that, but if they have been released elsewhere, why that much money?

Ringo Starr’s own copy of The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album in fact) from 1968 sold for $790,000, presumably because it was numbered – No.0000001. If you want to listen to it on vinyl then spend £25 on a new one. It’s madness!

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I get nostalgia, and have paid a little bit more for something simply because I once owned it, or wanted to own it, sometime back in the past and now have the opportunity and resources to get myself a copy, but that has its limits from a price perspective. As an example, in 1979 I was rather taken by the song ‘Bang Bang’ by B.A.Robertson and had the 7” single. I really wanted the album (I was 12 years old, don’t judge me!) in the way that somebody that you does, I obsessed over it, but never actually bought it. I saw a copy of the album at the record fair and it was £6.50 but I wouldn’t pay it, because it simply isn’t worth that much to me, it was at one point, but not now, it would have to be £2.50 maximum for me to buy it, and I realised some time ago that B.A.Robertson was crap, which was a big influencer on my decision. Now, if I knew that the album was worth £60 I would have bought it and immediately stuck it on Ebay, but I would never be the one paying £60 for it.

There are a number of albums that I know are rare, such as a lot of the Krautrock stuff that came out in the early 70’s which is not currently available elsewhere, if you want to listen to it you might have to pay £100 for the privilege, I understand that, but if it was re-released then the re-release would do, or even the ability to stream it on Spotify as it could quite easily be crap. This happened with Tago Mago by Can, which is an album I adore. An original copy sells, on average, for about $110 (£70), I could have paid that for it but, instead, paid £19 ($27.50) for a re-release and am extremely happy with it, why wouldn’t  be? It’s brand new!

At the record fair one of the stallholders was telling me that his colleague once had original copies of the first 15 Elvis Presley singles, which he sold for a couple of hundred pounds several years ago, when now they would be worth thousands. It was entirely meaningless to me. I had an original copy of ‘Return to Sender’ by Elvis when I was a kid and I played the damn thing until it was almost worn out, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. Had I kept this 1962 release in pristine condition it would now be worth somewhere in the region of £1.50. I had a lot more value out of it than that and didn’t have the hassle of keeping it perfect all these years.

I do sound like I’m moaning a bit, but I genuinely can’t get my head around paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a vinyl record, even though I love them, I could buy a couple of very nice houses for that. Perhaps somebody could explain it to me.

I’ll leave you with what might appear to be an odd choice for me, but I do really have rather eclectic tastes: