The Trip: Iceland’s Best Record Stores
For this issue’s record-buying adventure, Mark Elliott visits the land of ice and fire for a dig in the crates among the craters…
Reykjavík’s small but perfectly formed vinyl scene was an absolute revelation on my recent four-day break. For its population of 330,000, this Trip yielded surprisingly rich pickings. Far from being overpriced – although most things in the land of fire and ice are eye-wateringly expensive – I found stacks of records in the five shops here, which earned their place in my return luggage for a reasonable exchange of Icelandic Króna.
There was a period back in the early 1980s when a left-wing government slapped prohibitive import taxes of 80 per cent on goods coming into the country. This led to the creation of a small domestic record-manufacturing boom and, therefore, a decent range of releases from that period bearing a unique imprint.
While less surprising are the locally produced LPs by commercial juggernauts such as The Beatles, Kiss and AC/DC, how on earth did Mental As Anything’s 1981 LP, Cats & Dogs, secure a pressing? No offence to the one-time Australian chart regulars, but this album came out almost half a decade earlier than their one significant worldwide hit, Live It Up, and this issue doesn’t even follow the abridged UK and Europe pressing that followed its Down Under debut.
Icelandic chart statistics from that time are near impossible to source, so I can only assume that one of the singles out across that year must have cut through. It’s an oddity for sure, but it predictably makes my record bag anyway, alongside another (less surprising) Icelandic issue of photogenic threesome Tight Fit’s one and only widely released LP from the following year.
Iceland’s scene is truly much more than an outpost of questionable second-hand vinyl. Nothing today is pressed locally, but the collective national excitement at Ásgeir’s Afterglow is evident everywhere. This 11-track 2017 release has made waves internationally and is easy to source on vinyl across the city, which is home to two thirds of the country’s entire population. I found even the bookshops were stocking it.
This is a nation that prides itself on its cultivated manners and cultural appreciation, so the obvious musical giants of Björk and Of Monsters And Men are celebrated everywhere. After the banking crisis, there’s an air of quiet confidence returning to the country again, and if you can tear yourself away from trekking across the stunning scenery, there’s an equally worthy climb up a mountain of vinyl to attend to…
One store that is juggling business as a place to buy records with the running of an independent label is 12 Tónar. Icelandic CDs and records take centre-stage here and, if you take your life in your hands to venture down the spiral staircase into the basement, the selection there largely focuses on new releases from domestic acts.
There is a lot of indie rock and classical for sale here, and I pick up a copy of the soundtrack to my recent TV addiction, Broadchurch. Ólafur Arnalds’ sweeping atmospheric score was a particular highlight of the series for me and, now I have sampled the stark physicality of this country, can see why Chris Chibnall, the show’s creator, chose to collaborate with him.
The used vinyl at 12 Tónar is limited, but there are an interesting couple of boxes where I pick up a mint copy of Freddie And The Dreamers’ The Best Of, which was issued on EMI in 1977.
The two-storey store hosts a number of showcases across the year and,
if you visit in the summer, the gardens are opened up out the back. Inside, you can grab a coffee and there is a nice range of wider memorabilia and a decent stock of rock books. The label has put out more than 70 releases across the past 15 years and is doing well.
As I find at all of Reykjavík’s stores, the welcome here is incredibly friendly and I’m struck by just how civilised this shopping experience is. I arrived in Iceland with modest expectations for this Trip, but it’s already shaping up to be one of my most exciting record-buying adventures yet…
Reynir Berg Thorvaldsson has run this store for nearly three years after leaving a job at Lucky Records, which is undoubtedly Iceland’s best-known vinyl retailer and on my itinerary for later. Across a nicely ordered range in this small shop, I find a good selection across the genres, including a very healthy amount of world and soul.
“I’m shifting slightly less classic material like Pink Floyd and have seen a big increase in the amount of interest in soul, recently.” – Reynir Berg Thorvaldsson, Reykjavik Record Shop
There’s evidence that Record Store Day has made its presence felt, too, but he dismisses the idea that the initiative has contributed much to sales overall. Instead, it’s the drip-feed of largely domestic buyers who keep coming back that is keeping his business going.
Reynir doesn’t import used records, but says it’s those locals who continue to unearth and offload their collections that are keeping stock levels steady. Nicely bagged in pristine sleeves, there’s an interesting range of cheaper vinyl that throws up some cool 1980s movie soundtracks and the aforementioned
The Lion Sleeps Tonight hit-makers.
The ubiquitous Ásgeir heads up racks of new vinyl to complement the old, but prices are inevitably slightly higher than you’d pay in the UK or USA. No matter: the real treat here is that the vintage discs are in excellent shape.
Tim Pope’s I Want To Be A Tree became famous for its innovative single-edit video and, in this store, the director’s failed 12″ bid for pop glory in 1984 is picked up for a very reasonable price among less interesting Rick Springfield and Berlin dance treatments. The disc was pressed in the UK; Reynir estimates just over half his second-hand stock originated in Europe, with the balance from the USA, in almost perfect symmetry with the geographical and political distance between the two.
A range of newly created cassettes captures my eye and Reynir says this format has enjoyed a mini boost in recent times, adopted by acts such as Icelandic hip-hopper Lord Pusswhip.
3. BAD TASTE (SMEKKLEYSA)
Less a simple record shop and more a shrine to the birthplace of a cultural movement, Bad Taste was formed from the energy of Iceland’s boisterous punk scene in the early 1980s. Nowadays, this store, the base for the label, acts as a magnet to meet the like-minded, get hold of gig tickets and buy music on a range of formats.
There’s no second-hand vinyl at this store, but a very strong selection of new LPs imported from around the world. In truth, there’s little here you won’t find elsewhere, but the range is great and there’s a particularly strong Icelandic section including, of course, The Sugarcubes, who started gaining serious international traction when Birthday made John Peel’s Festive 50 in 1987, and Björk, who broke away from them to secure solo stardom the following decade.
Members of The Sugarcubes were behind the launch of the Bad Taste label, and so this feels like something of a pilgrimage. Buying a local act’s release always feels to me a bit like picking up a postcard to send to the folks back home anyway, and so Debut finally makes its entrance in my collection a mere 24 years after its own first issue.
“What strikes me as interesting about this shop, and the others in Iceland, is the number of short-run boxsets and Record Store Day releases that you can pick up a few weeks after the event. It’s a long way from the situation you’d find in London at this stage.” – Mark Elliott, Long Live Vinyl
Alongside a clearly booming alternative scene, the simple mathematics of the modestly sized population makes me marvel at the skill of securing limited stock (surely a challenge) and maintaining a decent margin on a business that simply can’t operate on a scale basis. Everyone agrees record sales are up here, but so too are rents, and the cost of living is scary.
CDs and DVDs are still promoted heavily here, too, but I find no fault in broadband speeds. Like the Japanese and Germans, the Icelanders obviously still like to keep things physical, and we can all relate to that.
A stone’s throw from Bad Taste is another small store that instantly transports you back to something you’re familiar with back home – shelves groaning with unloved CDs, obsolete DVDs and outdated computer games. The crate digging doesn’t look promising – a couple of dusty piles of battered records by the door – but I’m soon ushered through the cramped store to the back couple of rooms, where there’s enough stock to keep you occupied for a couple of hours.
As its reputation for hard rock and metal will no doubt suggest, there’s a palpable lack of attention to the aesthetics of this store, but the money no doubt saved on the dusting and styling bill appears to be funding some decent discounts.
Prices are really good here and the range is wider than a first glance would suggest. My prize find here is the final missing piece in my A-ha picture-disc mission. Manhattan Skyline wasn’t one of their best, but this 1987 12″ single is mine for a fraction of what I’d seen it for in Soho just a few months back.
There’s a decent set of releases from The Cure and I further add to that with the 12″s of Why Can’t I Be You? and Just Like Heaven. The Cure are, to be fair, the sort of band who fit the cliché of morose English boys struggling with too much sun in the summer and barely any at all in the winter, but I find a bit of everything here and across the other stores I visit.
To prove that point, I spot the perky pop of Teach-In – one-time Dutch Eurovision winners – who weren’t deemed worthy of release back in the UK in 1979, just four years after they topped the annual music competition. Clearly, their attempts to jump on the disco bandwagon found more favour in these chillier climes (although this disc was pressed in Germany) and this eponymous LP, which I’ve never seen for sale back home, is soon in my bag.
The Robot, which was a single lifted from the set, is the sort of madcap Eurodisco nonsense that will serve as a lively aperitif for one of our raucous dinner parties in due course. It’s certainly not the sort of thing I’d expected to source from a store with a reputation for speed metal…
5. LUCKY RECORDS
From humble beginnings as a stall in a flea market, Lucky Records has built an international reputation and, within moments of entering, I can see why. First off, the stock is vast and nicely catalogued so, although there is loads of it, you can find things super-fast. Second, this is a really friendly place.
Free Wi-Fi and coffee tell just half the story: I spend hours in here across two visits and could happily spend longer just soaking up the atmosphere and sampling my finds on the decks. Gestur Baldursson has been a passionate record collector since his youth and now works here.
He says that, since this store opened in 2009, the vinyl boom has really gathered pace. “We’ve always stood by vinyl,” he tells me, “although we do obviously carry a lot of other formats like CDs and DVDs.
“Back in 1993, it was amazing how much stock we were being offered. We established ourselves then as decent, fair-minded buyers and will generally take people’s whole collections. That has stood us in a good position as demand has risen, because sellers know we’ll give them a fair price.”
He recognises the interest in the locally produced Icelandic releases from acts such as Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. “Overseas collectors are always after those,” he says. “We get copies for sale quite often, but the runs were limited, so they can be quite rare. The Fálkinn label, for example, is one that had some interesting stuff from acts like Bowie and Queen.” Fálkinn started producing records in the 1920s and, over the next 60-odd years, became the country’s biggest record maker before shutting up shop in 1985.
There is plenty of new vinyl here and a decent section devoted to the domestic acts, which Lucky promotes at the venue on its in-store stage and across platforms such as their Mixcloud streams. Gestur tells me the twentysomethings are the people buying up all the good-condition copies of records such as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but the eclectic nature of what people want still surprises him.
“Tourists are always wanting to know about Icelandic music and we do our best to match them with something they will like. Our singer-songwriters are great and it’s one of the nice things with the job, in that we are able to promote them.” – Gestur Baldursson, Lucky Records
Across my two visits, I pick out some choice finds. The best buy of my entire trip is a vinyl copy of Pet Shop Boys protégé Cicero and his 1992 LP Future Boy, which has not long had a CD reissue. I pick up this rare vinyl for roughly half its current price on Discogs and it’s in perfect condition. The boxes of European singles offer some choice treasures and I spend too long (and too much) looking at the compilation albums, my eyes drawn to a particularly garishly illustrated set of Icelandic rivals to the Now That’s What I Call Music series.
Who knew Chris Norman (from Smokie) appeared to have rather a large success here with his version of the Pat Benatar smash Love Is A Battlefield? Another revelation is the inclusion of a Madonna album track on a German hits compilation from 1986. Madge’s co-operation with projects such as this was a rarity then as now, so this odd choice of White Heat (from True Blue) is another curiosity and worthy of a place in my suitcase back home. Alongside those are discs from 1970s singer-songwriter Peter Allen, the soundtrack to the Mel Brooks comedy To Be Or Not To Be, 10cc and The Primitives.
Return visits to record shops are a rare luxury for me on a brief visit, but I make an exception for this one, foregoing a trek across the country to see a particularly spectacular waterfall to spend more time here the following day. If ever I compile a list of the Best Record Shops In The World, this one is
a shoe-in for inclusion.
You can fly to Iceland from most major airports in Europe and the eastern cities of the USA. Like everything else in Iceland, hiring a taxi is an eye-watering expense, as the airport is about 40 miles from the city, so you might be better taking the bus. There are no trains in Iceland. Getting around the city is easy, as it’s so small, but hiring a car is perhaps your best bet if you plan to do any serious sightseeing out of town. All the shops listed here are within about 15 minutes’ walk of each other.
1. DEAR PLASTIC
Make sure you ask for a tax-rebate form if you’re buying more than ISK 6,000 worth of vinyl in a single transaction. You can claim the rebate at the airport before you fly home and you can be issued cash in US dollars or Sterling there and then. Alternatively, you can get the money refunded onto your credit card, but it might take a few weeks to come through.
2. IT’S OH SO QUIET
Record Store Day has yet to reach wider levels of awareness in Iceland, although the stores appear to have secured a decent amount of stock. Two retailers told me they had only modest queues in 2017, so it’s worth considering timing your Trip here for next year’s event.
3. I’VE SEEN IT ALL
You’ll need a decent day to do justice to the five shops listed here. I spent five hours in total at Lucky going through stock and still didn’t cover it all, but my broad tastes aren’t everyone’s, of course. Specific genre collectors might get through the shops much quicker.
4. THE KINDNESS KIND
English is widely spoken here and everyone is super-friendly. Eating out and accommodation is on the pricey side, but it’s a charming city with a punk museum and plenty of other culture to keep you occupied for a few days.
5. HERE TODAY, TOMORROW, NEXT WEEK!
Iceland’s tourism economy is booming and it’s easy to see why, as the spectacular scenery everywhere you look is truly out of this world. Make sure you take time to visit one of the thermal spas – The Blue Lagoon is the most popular with visitors and highly recommended.