How The Stranglers Kickstarted Icelandic Punk





On the 45th anniversary of the release of The Stranglers’ groundbreaking album, Black and White, we look back at the impact of their press tour and concert in Iceland in May of 1978.

Some events cause such a major shift in the prevailing culture that there is simply no going back to the way things were — there was before, and then there is after. Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking performances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, and the moral panic it caused is one such example. Eight years later The Beatles appeared on that same show, and their performance inspired countless youngsters to take up instruments and start their own bands.

The most well-known of these sorts of events already own plenty of real estate in the public consciousness, their every jot and tittle exhaustively documented and breathlessly praised and examined by sages and soothsayers alike. But some events of similar portent, albeit of lesser magnitude, are as yet largely unexamined. The Stranglers’ concert at the Laugardalshöll center in Reykjavik, Iceland on May 3rd, 1978, and its impact on the beginnings of Icelandic punk, is one such event.

Black and White – The Album

In 1978, The Stranglers were on their way up in the world of British music, and already near the apex of the burgeoning Punk and New Wave scenes. They had just released two critically-acclaimed albums barely five months apart in 1977. The first album, Rattus Norvegicus, was ranked among the top 10 albums of the year by New Musical Express (NME), and it peaked at #4 on the U.K. Album charts. The second album, No More Heroes, peaked at #2 on the U.K. Album charts.

The band spent the winter of 1977 writing and recording their third album, Black and White, which was to be released on May 12th, 1978. Black and White is an apt name for an album whose motifs evoke concepts of polar opposition and contrast. These themes emerge at all levels, making Black and White something akin to a concept album.

The album’s songwriting features both lush and sparse compositions. Its production varies from dry and bare to slick and glossy. Even the artwork prominently displays contrasts: the album cover features the four members of the band (Jet Black, Dave Greenfield, Hugh Cornwell, and Jean-Jacques Burnel) dressed in black clothing and set in various poses against an entirely white background.

From The Stranglers’ official biography on the recording and promotion of Black and White:

“With the stark, polarised sound of the album, a plan was hatched for the album’s May press launch to be held in a similarly stark destination–Iceland.”

And so, in early May the band set off on an unusual expedition to the tiny, sparsely populated island of Iceland for a 2-day press junket with a small army of journalists, photographers, and friends in tow.

Black and White – The Culture Shock

We came across the west sea
We didn’t have much idea
Of the kind of climate waiting
We used our hands for guidance
Like the children of a preacher
Like a dry tree seeking water
Or a daughter

– “Nice n’ Sleazy”, Black and White

Iceland is a land of fire and ice, where ancient glaciers and towering volcanoes coexist. It’s a place where the peaceful tranquility of the countryside is juxtaposed with the raw power of its volcanoes and glaciers, and the simplicity of traditional Icelandic life contrasts with the modernity of its cities.

the stranglers in iceland
The Stranglers in Iceland, May 1978. Photo credit: Jill Furmanovsky,

If you’ve never been to Iceland before, it can be a bit of an unsettling experience at first. You’ll quickly notice how few trees there are, and how vast and mountainous the landscape is. It feels almost as if you’ve landed on another planet entirely. You might find yourself wondering what kind of people could possibly live in such a place.

Writing for The Record Mirror, Alf Martin was one of the journalists along for the expedition to Iceland, and his recounting of the tale speaks to the strangeness of tagging along with the first foreign band in three years to play a concert in the tiny island nation:

“DAY ONE: Arrive Reykjavik Airport… Snow on the hills but not on the floor. We’d landed on the moon. This volcanic island was covered in stone cold lava that had been hanging around for a few thousand or even millions of years. No trees, no flowers, no grass. They’ve brought us to a secret landing base on the moon.”

Ignorance of Icelandic culture abounds amongst the crew tagging along with The Stranglers. On the bus ride from the airport in Reykjavik, Martin writes:

“On the coach to the hotel a rumour goes around there are three women to every man on the island. This gets exaggerated to five, then six, then seven. The men are frothing at the mouths. Truth is, one and three quarters to one.”

Martin notes a few more cultural differences along the way:

“We get some other details about the Icelanders, TV only three hours a day, none on Thursdays. One radio station. No beer.”

The Stranglers Meet the Icelandic Press

You are quite safe with me
I got my very own philosophy
All that you can say is
If your existence
Is not threatened in any way

– Threatened, Black and White

To say that this was a big moment for the Icelandic press would be a massive understatement. However, they somehow fail to ask The Stranglers even a single question during a scheduled presser. Alf Martin, who attended the event writes:

“The Icelandic press are nervous and don’t want to ask questions in front of the British press. It’s over in five minutes, not one question asked.”

But that didn’t stop them from writing dozens of articles about The Stranglers both before and after their appearance at the Laugardalshöll center — an unheard of amount of press attention for a single concert. In the Record Mirror, Alf Martin notes that, “Since the band arrived they had pictures in all five national newspapers. Not only that, front pages every time.”

Photographer Jill Furmanovsky was also along for the ride, and her iconic photographs of The Stranglers during their press tour of Iceland are remarkable. Prints are available for sale, and many of her photos from the press tour in Iceland can also be enjoyed in her excellent book, “There Goes the Charabang“.

Black and White – The Concert

What’s gonna happen when the sky goes black?
What will you do when the sea comes back?
What if there’s no way of moving back?
What when your face falls apart?

Have you got enough time?
Have you got enough time?
Have you got enough time?

– Enough Time, Black and White

After the press stops and photoshoots around Iceland, it’s time for the main event. But not before some last-minute shenanigans, of course. Just before the show, Hugh Cornwell decides to strip down and paint half of his body black to commemorate the occasion of the trip. From The Stranglers’ official recounting of events:

“After food and more drinks, they then returned to their hotel where Hugh, in the privacy of his own room, had decided to mark the release of the album by stripping off and getting painted half black half white using black make up [sic] and talc. Graphic, full-frontal photos were taken and the image even made the cover of Record Mirror, albeit in the censored version with Hugh’s hands covering his tackle.”

hugh cornwell of the stranglers, record mirror magazine cover may 1978
Hugh Cornwell looking very BLACK AND WHITE on the cover of the Record Mirror in May 1978. Photo credit: The Record Mirror

After arriving just in time for the gig, J.J. Burnel convinces the venue staff to let in the rest of the kids outside who weren’t able to get tickets. The concert hall then swells to capacity (and possibly over) with the anxiously excited youth of Iceland ready to see their first proper punk band perform live.

Alf Martin recalls the chaotic scene:

“Kamikaze kids run about. Into anything in front of them. If you’re in the way, too bad. Half seating and half standing in this stadium called the Sportshall. They’re out of their bonces. There’s no beer so they buy bottles of whisky or vodka or whatever will get them smashed in the quickest time possible. Empty bottles fly all over the place, broken glass covers the floor.”

the stranglers live in iceland may 1978
The Stranglers live at Laugardalshöll center in Iceland, May 3rd 1978. Photo credit: Jill Furmanovsky,

As expected of a band of such high caliber, The Stranglers’ performance was one for the ages:

“The Stranglers stuck to their first two albums and the beginning and ending of each song was greeted with a huge cheer… Hugh shouts that it’s the first time in 1,000 years it’s been hot in Iceland.”

Toward the end of the set:

“The band disappear offstage and the doors open, they start to go but the chanting and clapping starts for the encore… The band came back and do [sic] ‘Five Minutes’. It’s an ideal number to finish with but they carry on and do ‘Peaches’ and Hugh has trouble with his guitar. They stop, start again and by this time the stage is covered with people. The music’s still going but you can’t see any of the band.”

And finally, once the dust begins to settle:

“The lights come on and there’s a mad rush to see who can blag their way backstage… Chaos at the entrance, the kids who are already there don’t want to leave. They’re kicking the guts out of one another to see who can get back in.”

One has to wonder, how many of those kids would go on to form their own punk bands?

Black and White Becomes… Ground Zero for Punk Rock in Iceland

At the time, Iceland was truly an isolated country that hadn’t experienced much intrusion by foreign rock bands. The Icelandic music industry in the late 1970’s wasn’t experiencing the explosion of punk and new wave that the U.S. and U.K. were.

Dr. Gunni, an expert on Icelandic rock music history, and one of the central figures of its underground music scene writes that in the late 1970’s:

“… all Icelandic records were still either disco, foamy pop or Meat Loaf-imitations. Some punkerly types were lurking around, though, young kids buying their music by mail order from London, falling flat for The Clash, Sex Pistols and all those exciting new sounds. The Stranglers came to Iceland in 1978, promoting their 3rd album for the English press, which accompanied the band on an arctic bender, playing a sold out show for about [5,000] Icelanders. This gig was an eye-opener for many.” 

In 1978, the population of Iceland was around 220,000 people. Given that over 4,000 Icelanders attended The Stranglers concert on May 3rd, 1978, it’s conceivable that as much as 2% of the nation’s population saw this momentous event in person.

It’s not that there were no punks in Iceland prior to The Stranglers visit in 1978. It’s that none of the Icelandic punks had managed to form actual gigging bands or play more than a single gig before breaking up. This tiny island nation just needed someone to come along and show them how to D.I.Y., and kickstart the whole thing. That someone ended up being The Stranglers.

The first successful Icelandic punk band, Fræbbblarnir would form later in 1978, and would continue in various incarnations until 2021. They helped nurture the growing Icelandic punk scene by renting the Kópavogur cinema to put on gigs, which gave the young scene a venue around which to coalesce.

Not far behind, Utangarðsmenn would form in 1979, and eventually become one of the most popular Icelandic bands of the 1980s.

Clearly, there was an appetite in Iceland for punk and new wave music. But why wasn’t the youthful music culture flourishing before The Stranglers arrived if it had ample fuel already?

According to the documentary film, Rokk í Reykjavík, aside from just needing to see how it was done, perhaps one explanation is the social restrictions put in place by school headmasters that didn’t allow rock bands to play at school dances because it was thought that the kids would drink more alcohol if they did (dialogue starts at the 00:47 mark):

Writing for The Guardian in 2015, Dave Simpson dug deep into the roots of punk and post-punk in Iceland, and connects The Stranglers with its inception, along with the help of Einar Örn, a future Icelandic pop star and founding member (alongside Björk) of The Sugarcubes:

Everyone I speak to insists that the first punk in Iceland was a 14-year-old Einar Örn. He says he had read about Johnny Rotten vomiting on an aeroplane, then realised that if he parked his mother’s Sunbeam car in the right place, “on a clear night, I could listen to John Peel, playing the Ramones”. Because his father worked in London, the teenage Örn was able to spend the summer of 1977 making connections, which meant Reykjavik’s arts festival could book the Stranglers in 1978 and the Clash in 1980; later, as a student in London, he invited the Fall and anarcho-punks Crass to play in Iceland’s capital.

Aside from these excavations, perhaps the best place to learn about the history of Icelandic punk rock would be in person at the Icelandic Punk Rock museum. Fittingly, it’s located in a public men’s bathroom in downtown Reykjavík. Just as fittingly, its exhibits of Iceland’s punk rock history contain references to the role that The Stranglers played in kick-starting the whole thing. I was fortunate enough to visit there myself in May of 2017, and what I learned there about The Stranglers’ role in helping punk and post-punk take root in Iceland served as the inspiration for this story.

Black and White – Parallel Lines

Looking back, it’s clear that when The Stranglers played their historic concert at the Laugardalshöll center in May 1978, they set off a chain of events that would culminate in the birth of punk rock in Iceland. As alluded to at the beginning of this article, there are precedents for these kinds of cultural milestones: Elvis or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan are just two popular examples. But there’s another example that happened not long before The Stranglers embarked on their wild adventures in Iceland, and which they had front-row seats to.

In April of 1976, The Ramones released their debut, self-titled album to glowing reviews. Their record label, Sire, distributed the album in both the U.S. and U.K., which meant that the British youth would have time to hear The Ramones before ever seeing them perform live.

According to The Clash’s Joe Strummer:

“If that Ramones record hadn’t existed, I don’t know that we could have built a scene here because it filled a vital gap between the death of the old pub rocking scene and the advent of punk.”

On July 4th, 1976 The Ramones played their debut London concert to about 3,000 fans at The Roundhouse in London. The very next night they played to a smaller crowd at Dingwall’s in Camden. Between those two shows, The Ramones performed in front of dozens of future British punk musicians — members of The Sex Pistols and The Clash, The Damned, The Adverts, and many others (including Chrissie Hynde) were in attendance for one or both of the shows. 

The Roundhouse appearance is often credited with kicking off punk rock in the U.K. While punk had been simmering there for awhile, it took the appearance of an established punk rock act to truly ignite things.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like the circumstances leading up to The Stranglers concert at the Laugardalshöll center in Iceland? While some Icelanders were already familiar with punk rock by then, and some were even making their first attempts at forming bands, it took the arrival of an established punk/new wave band to show them how it was done before the whole punk counterculture could really take off.

Knowing that The Stranglers were an opening band for The Ramones debut at The Roundhouse, one has to wonder if they learned something about how to kickstart a music scene (or a revolution) from having front-row seats to such an important cultural event.

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