Dhe singer Ásgeir sits with his guitar on a worn armchair in the Geimssteinn studio. Guitars and a concert poster for Iceland’s biggest star, Rúnar Júlíusson, hang on the walls, and record cabinets grow to the ceiling in the office next door.
Nothing can be heard from the nearby Keflavik Airport, instead the melodic sounds of Ásgeir’s guitar and voice warm the cold, damp morning. The singer-songwriter, born in 1992, sings a song whose lyrics were written by his father, the poet Einar Georg Einarsson. Every tenth Icelander has bought the album it appeared on.
In the country with 350,000 inhabitants, all distances are short, one is often acquainted with one another, often related or by marriage. Kristinn Jónsson, guitarist for the band Hjálmar, is also in the studio that morning. He often met Rúnar, the man on the poster, in front of the studio in the mornings when the rock legend was out for a walk and Kristinn had just taken his children to school.
People chatted, drank some of the seven cups of coffee Icelanders consume on average each day, played chess and talked about music, especially tropical ones. Kristinn’s band plays reggae, as if to prove that music and climate are not necessarily mutually dependent. The weather here is even rougher than in the rest of the country.
Holidaymakers often only see the Blue Lagoon on Reykjanes
Every vacationer ends up on the Reykjanes peninsula, but hardly anyone sees more of it than Keflavik Airport and the Blue Lagoon, a decorative thermal bathing lake between lava fields. The southwestern tip of the largest volcanic island in the world has at least as impressive geological phenomena as the rest of the country.
The bridge between the continents makes the position of the peninsula on the rupture zone between the Eurasian and American continental plates tangible. It spans a 15-meter-wide lava canyon that was created when the two plates drifted apart. They are two centimeters apart each year.
Nearby is the Gunnuhver volcano, whose bubbling mud springs lead along footbridges at a respectful distance. The wind sometimes blows so hard that pedestrians have to take their steps carefully to stay away from the cliffs.
Lava flows overgrown with velvety green moss and lichen, the furious roar of the Atlantic and several active volcanoes bear witness to further difficulties that humans had to deal with here until they came up with the idea of creating geothermal power plants. And as if all of this weren’t attractive enough, Reykjanes also distills the recent history of the small nation, accompanied by a lot of music.
Pop and rock music originated on the peninsula
“Keflavik was the Liverpool Islands in the sixties,” explains Baldur Guðmunsson. He is the son of Icelandic superstar Rúnar Júlíusson, who died on stage in 2008 at the age of 63. Rúnar, who himself came from Keflavik, not only became one of the most successful musicians in Iceland, he also played for the national soccer team at times and was in a relationship with Miss Iceland – you can hardly be much cooler in the creative island nation.
In the Icelandic Museum of Rock’n’Roll in Reykjanesbær, the largest town on the peninsula, Baldur looks at a showcase with memorabilia from his famous father and his mother, who is also a successful musician.
Next to it you can see pictures of Icelandic pop stars with mushroom heads: the band Hljómar, which in the 1960s, led by Rúnar, became as popular here as the Beatles in the rest of the world. It is no coincidence that the museum opened in Reykjanes in 2014. Icelandic pop and rock music has its roots here, where a US military base was located for more than 60 years. Kristinn Jonsson, who already has a place in the museum, also comes from the peninsula, as does the young superstar Ásgeir, who gives concerts all over the world, and the band Monsters of Men.
“The new music came to Keflavik, and here you could make a living from making music,” says Baldur Guðmunsson. Hljómar, his father’s band, performed at the Airbase at an early age. On the peninsula, people listened with interest to the American radio station, which was no longer available in Reykjavik. Musicians listened particularly carefully, replayed what they heard and, interpreted in Icelandic, brought it to the capital.
Iceland was an ideal base for the USA
In 1941, the Americans established a base in Keflavik. Although the US did not yet intervene in the World War, Iceland was the ideal place for the stopover on supply flights to the beleaguered UK, which was necessary before the era of the long-haul jet.
120,000 people lived in Iceland at that time, the country was one of the poorest in Europe. “The industrial revolution reached us 150 years late; apart from fish, we had nothing to export, ”explains Friðþór Eydal, historian and former military base spokesman.
But that changed all of a sudden. The US lent Britain money to buy Icelandic fish – ten times the pre-war price. Iceland was able to supply itself in the USA with previously unknown consumer goods.
Ironically, a tiny fishing village in a particularly barren part of Iceland, where hardly anyone wanted to live for centuries, became a boomtown, the base for ships and bombers in the Atlantic as a catalyst for Iceland’s development. There were jobs here, not to mention alcohol, cigarettes, sweets and turkeys. There was a lively swing on the GI radio.
In 1943 almost 45,000 soldiers were stationed here, more than there were Icelandic men. That should occasionally cause discord. For this reason, too, when Iceland joined NATO in 1949, the offer of a location on its territory made the condition that no troops would be stationed in peacetime. After the beginning of the Korean War, the stationing of 5,000 soldiers was approved. However, the Icelanders insisted on an evening curfew for the Americans.
The name reveals the children of soldiers
However, a large number of liaisons were unable to prevent the ban. Soldiers who did not recognize children conceived here left a dubious legacy: surnames that, as is customary in Iceland, tell the most recent family history.
Except that with them the ending -son or -dóttir, son or daughter, was not appended to a proud Icelandic father’s first name, but to a simple, nonetheless stigmatizing “Hermann”. The name identifies the child as a soldier’s son or daughter. One consolation is that Icelanders always use their first names.
In the fall of 2006, the US armed forces withdrew. For Reykjanes it not only meant the loss of 600 jobs. It also raised the question of what to do with the military compound that had become a ghost town overnight.
Today, a private school, technical college, aviation academy and around a hundred companies are based here, as well as dormitories and apartments for students and young families. Besides music, the peninsula has remained a soft spot for hot dogs and tacos. And the best basketball teams in Iceland are still at home in the southwest.
Tips and information
Corona rules: Iceland will from the Foreign Office not classified as a risk area, there is no travel warning, but travel is not recommended due to the quarantine obligation. A Covid-19 test is mandatory upon entry, followed by five to six days of quarantine at home, then you complete a second Covid-19 test – if it turns out negative, you can travel freely.
Accommodation: In the wooden “Lighthouse Inn” next to the Garður lighthouse, a double room with breakfast costs from 120 euros (lighthouseinn.is), in the “Hotel Berg” with heated roof pool near the port of Reykjanesbær a double room costs from 155 euros, hotelberg.is.
Museum: The “Icelandic Museum of Rock’n’Roll” in Reykjanesbær is open daily, admission 12 euros, rokksafn.is.
Information desk: inspiredbyiceland.com
Participation in the trip was supported by Promote Iceland. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.de/unabhaengigkeit.