Monday, December 29, 2008

California Dreaming

They sold us a dream of California.

Hat-tip to self-proclaimed "Icelandic music slut" Wim Van Hooste, who writes the terrific (and highly recommended) I ♥ Icelandic Music blog and mentioned that Rúnar Júlíusson from the band Hjálmar died earlier this month from a heart attack.

Today, thousands of miles from Iceland, Los Angeles had what locals call a "Chamber of Commerce" day. The air is clear and clean, it's not too cold, and you can see snow on the local mountains (courtesy of the storm that blew through here a few days ago). Add a couple palm trees and a blonde in a bikini and you've got what everyone thinks about when they imagine California.

Where do these images come from? Movies and TV, sure. But mostly from songs. The mythology of sun, sand, and surf is woven into the modern DNA of rock 'n' roll. Hell, Brian Wilson built his entire career on the sandcastle of the California mythos.

The Mamas and the Papas (formed when the Mugwumps and the New Journeymen imploded at the end of New York's folk boom) heard the siren call of California and quickly abandoned New York, high-tailing it out of the snow and cold to sunny California. And for over 40 years (flute solo notwithstanding), people have listened to the harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas and conjured their own dreams about Los Angeles. (Youtube link for email subscribers):

All of which brings me back to Rúnar Júlíusson (known in Iceland as "Mr. Rokk"), who played bass and sang for many years in Hjálmar, Iceland's most popular rock group. Hjálmar started in Keflavik (an hour outside of Reykjavik and home to the international airport and long the sight of a U.S. Air Force base) in the early 1960s when one of the members traveled to England, saw the Beatles five nights in a row, and returned to Iceland with a copy of a brand-new Beatles album.

Keep in mind that Iceland at the time was considered a real backwater. There was no television there and few local rock bands. Hjálmar (thanks to a quick mastery of songs popular in England and America) soon became a sensation, playing Icelandic versions of rock songs and writing original numbers that mixed Merseybeat, garage, and psychedelic rock. The band recorded in Icelandic for the local market and traveled to England to record a few records in English (now highly prized by collectors) using the name "Thor's Hammer." In 2001, Big Beat records released a collection of their English-language output (including their only U.S. single) supplemented with some Icelandic numbers on an album called From Keflavik with Love.

But what amazed me more than anything was the idea that Rúnar Júlíusson and Hjálmar, sitting on a snowy island thousands of miles away from Los Angeles were also dreaming of California (even if a little of the mythology gets lost in translation). The proof is here, in I ♥ Icelandic Music's 92nd song of the week (Youtube link for email subscribers):

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