SEASON 2, EPISODE 1
Before Debut, before The Sugarcubes… Björk was actually a punk rocker.
Here I’ll look back at Björk's punk roots. We’ll learn about the bands she played with, what those years taught her, and how that punk ethos still resonates — specifically in Medulla.
That’s right. I finally found a way into that record. Listen to the end to hear my full review.
Before Debut, before The Sugarcubes… Bjork was actually a punk rocker.
[clip from Kukl - “The Spire”]
Maybe that surprises you. After all, you don’t hear a single guitar on any of her solo records.
Or maybe it makes perfect sense. If you remember, one of the things Bjork is best known for — besides the swan dress — is when she attacked a reporter who pestered her at the airport.
What’s more punk than attacking a reporter?
If you look closely at the rest of her career, you realize her punk origins are still with her. Bjork makes music on her own terms; at one point she even started her own record label. She has a DIY attitude when it comes to music production, crafting beats on her laptop from home recorded sounds. She’s the ultimate non-conformist when it comes to her fashion and music. And, she’s a musical and technological pioneer; she was experimenting with app-building and VR before it was cool.
So in this episode, we’re going to look back at Bjork’s punk roots. We’ll learn about the bands she played with, what those years taught her, and how that punk ethos still resonates — specifically in Medulla.
That’s right. I finally found a way into that record. Listen to the end to hear my full review.
Before we can dive into Bjork’s history with punk, let’s get clear about what punk is exactly. Because the term encapsulates a few different things.
There’s punk music. Think: The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and Black Flag.
There’s punk fashion. Think ratty t-shirts safety-pinned together, leather jackets, plaid pants, and Doc Martens. Punk had a ton of subcultures so I’m really simplifying here, but you get the idea.
And then there’s the punk ethos.
Punks were big on non-conformity, anti-authoritarianism, and anti-corporatism. The “do it yourself” mentality comes from the punk subculture, as does the fear of “selling out.”
But I think Henry Rollins from Black Flag summarized it best when he said: “Questioning anything and everything, to me, is punk rock.”
Punks not only questioned mainstream culture, but they also challenged contemporary counter-culture. Punk arose in response to the hippie era of the late 60s and early 70s. They scoffed at “peace love and rock n roll” idealism in favor of gritty realism.
Bjork grew up with the movement. By the early 80s, punk music was splitting off into a bunch of subgenres like post-punk, hardcore, and new wave. I’d argue the bands Bjork was in fell into the new wave category, but really Iceland had its own take on punk.
Here’s an example from when she was in the band Kukl. It combines folk music with punk to create something completely different.
[clip from “Anna” 1:40-1:55]
Icelandic punk also targeted a different authority figure. While punks in the UK raged against Margaret Thatcher, Icelandic punks raged against Denmark — since Iceland used to be a Danish colony.
Bjork joined the punk scene when she was 13. She played in a girl group called Spit & Snot. I’m sorry to say that this band didn’t last long, nor did her next handful of groups. So we don’t have any recordings from that period.
The first recordings we do have come from her time in a post-punk group called Tappi Tikarrass. She joined the band when she was 16.
In 1982, Tappi Tikarrass was featured in the documentary Rokk i Reykjavik about the burgeoning rock scene in Iceland. On the film’s promotional poster, you see Bjork dancing on stage in a yellow babydoll dress with red rouge on her cheeks.
The poster was colorized to look that way. In the actual performance she’s dressed in all white. A white bow in her hair accentuates her baby bangs. But don’t be deceived by her girlish appearance; when she opens her mouth, you hear that same powerful belt.
[“Hrollur” by Tappi Tikarrass clip 4:15]
These clips show how Bjork’s voice is perfect for rock. Of course, she can adapt her voice to any genre: we’ve heard jazz on Gling Glo, growls on Homogenic, and whispers on Vespertine. But she’s so good in this setting, too.
If you haven’t seen this clip from the documentary, you need to pause what you’re doing and click the link in the show notes. Bjork is only 16, yet she commands the audience’s attention — hopping around the stage and belting into the microphone. Like in The Sugarcubes, she sings with another male vocalist. But let’s be real: she totally steals the show.
A year later, Bjork went on her first foreign tour with Tappi Tikarrass to the UK. According to an interview with The Observer, Bjork didn’t speak English at the time but learned “F*** Margaret Thatcher” from another band, Flux of Pink Indians, who used that phrase in the chorus of one of their songs.
Bjork looks back on that time fondly. “It was like I went to the moon! Like: ‘My God, things are so exotic here!’”
The Tappi Tikarrass period slightly overlaps with her next punk band: Kukl. It’s Icelandic for “black magic” or “sorcery.” This is when Bjork joined forces with Einar Örn, who later became her singing partner in The Sugarcubes.
In an interview with Oor in 1995, Bjork said that Kukl was actually more important to her than the Sugarcubes. She said, “The Kukl period taught me a lot of valuable lessons in a quick and violent way. That band really changed me.”
Although she didn’t elaborate on how Kukl changed her, I found a clue in the Medulla documentary. She mentioned that during her time with Kukl she focused a lot on voices and found her identity as a singer.
Kukl was also more musically complex. They flirted with avant-garde and non-rock influences like jazz. Here’s a clip from one of their most memorable performances on an Icelandic TV station.
[Kukl clip 14:51]
Funny story about this performance. Bjork was pregnant with Sindri at the time, and she wore a black crop top that exposed her belly. Plus, she had recently shaved off her eyebrows. Apparently, an elderly lady watching the program had a heart attack and blamed it on Bjork’s indecent appearance. She actually sued Bjork for this. But, she lost.
Focusing on the music itself, you can hear the beginnings of Bjork’s signature vocalization style — with all its snarls and shrieks and sheer power. And she said that her time in punk helped her to create that calling card.
“I come from this kind of punk headspace where it’s not about the gear, it’s about if you want something you should make it with your voice… The first ten years of my singing was done in dodgy punk clubs, and the first two or three years I sang through a bass amp. The bass amp had two plugs and the bass player went through one and I went through the other one, because we couldn’t afford a PA. That’s probably where my shrieks come from, because I was just trying to be heard in the punk club.” (Red Bull Music Academy, 2017)
Another feature from her punk days that remains? Her penchant for unusual melodies.
[Kukl clip - Blackeye]
Kukl guitarist Guðlaugur Óttarsson said, “There were a lot of strange harmonics. Kukl was the vehicle to really develop this strange music and I think it’s very obvious. Nobody else was able to play… a Kukl song… we wanted to demonstrate for people that you don’t always have to play two chords with always the same melody.” (Pytlik 22)
Two chords with the same melody… that was a hallmark of early punk bands. Maybe you’ve seen that graphic from an early punk zine that shows three guitar chords and then says “now form a band”? It’s pretty accurate.
[Ramones - “Judy is a Punk”]
It makes sense that the punk music Bjork was drawn to was more complicated. After all, she was a child prodigy who studied classical piano and flute.
But more than the music itself, Bjork said punk’s ethos made a lasting impact on her. I see that in two clear ways.
One: punk showed her how to do things on her own terms instead of pleasing other people. That idea has been a guiding principle from the beginning, even on Debut.
She said, “I made [Debut] from a completely egoistic point of view : I was only pleasing myself and making a record I would buy. Because if I’d concentrated on other people’s tastes and on the question whether other people would appreciate what I did, a sort of compromise-album would have emerged. And you can hear something like that right away: an album like that just radiates insecurity and doubt.” (Oor, 1995)
And the second way? Punk fueled her avant-garde spirit. That’s what she told Dazed Digital in an interview. “Maybe it comes from my punk background, this feeling that you are entering a new frontier... I always have to have at least one foot going into some territory that hasn’t been mapped out.”
However, one aspect of punk that Bjork shied away from was politics.
If you listen from Debut through Vespertine you won’t hear overt political messages. Instead, Bjork wrote songs about relationships, nature, philosophy, and technology.
In an interview with The Scotsman, she explained, “I would prefer that music was abstract rather than standing on a podium pointing a finger at what’s wrong with the world.”
She maintained that position for nearly twenty years — until 9/11. Bjork was living in Manhattan at the time and said of the tragedy: “I was as deeply affected as everyone else in the city, but I was then equally shocked by the American reaction which felt like Nazi Germany or something.”
Although she didn’t elaborate on this comparison, I assume she’s referring to the PATRIOT Act — which expanded the U.S. government’s authority to surveil its own citizens — and the increase in hate crimes against Muslim Americans.
She continued: “I’m an example of someone who always said they would never get involved in politics. But then situations can become too much so that even someone like me has to stand up and say ‘wait a minute.’ It reached a moment when I’d had enough.”
So Bjork finally raised her political voice in 2004, with Medulla.
[Desired Constellation 1:00 - 1:20]
In an interview with The Observer, she said that the record was her response to “stupid American racism and patriotism” after 9/11. Through this album she asks, “What about the human soul? What happened before we got involved in problematic things like civilisation and religion and nationhood?”
You hear this longing for the primitive in Medulla’s stripped down sound. Remember, this was her follow-up to Vespertine — a record known for its lush layers of microbeats, celeste, harp, and voice. Now, it was layers of pure voice with the occasional bass, synth, or piano mixed in.
[Oll Birtan 0:30 - 0:40]
She told W Magazine, “I wanted the record to be like muscle, blood, flesh. We could be in a cave somewhere and one person would start singing, and another person would sing a beat and then the next person sing a melody, and you could just kind of be really happy in your cave. It's quite rootsy.”
What’s impressive here is that this concept — a vocal album inspired by the primitive days before instruments — could have so easily become a gimmick.
Even Bjork admitted, “Everybody was going, 'Oh she's making a vocal album, it'll be a horrible Yoko Ono experience.’ But I wanted to show that a vocal album doesn't have to be for the chosen few. It was just about working with the instrument I know best, my voice."
[Show Me Forgiveness 0:00 - 0:18]
Now, if you’ve been listening to this podcast from the beginning, you’ll know that I wasn’t a Medulla fan. There were a few songs that turned me off to the record, like the heavy breathing in the opening track.
[Pleasure is all mine 0:00 - 0:15]
And the Inuit throat singing in “Ancestors.”
But after listening to the entire album, I realized that the only parts I didn’t like were from her collaborators. What made this record finally click for me was noticing how pleasurable Bjork’s voice is. Even when she veers into shrieking territory. Her performance is so dynamic yet perfectly controlled. Because she was focusing on the instrument she knows best.
And the more I listened, the more I wondered if Medulla is Bjork’s most punk record. I mean Volta might be the more obvious choice with songs like “Declare Independence.”
[“Declare Independence” clip]
And you might say Medulla is too musically complex to be punk. Like, you know that choir line in “Oceania”?
[Oceania choir burst]
Bjork originally wrote that line for piano, but it turned out to be physically impossible to play, so she had to enlist a choir instead.
And that’s a huge departure from the punk conviction that “musical ineptitude means musical freedom.”
Bjork explained why she disagrees with that principle in an interview with Oor. She said, “If you don’t have any technique, if you don’t know what you’re doing with your instrument, then you don’t have a lot of freedom... The more knowledge and technique, the more space and freedom.”
In fact, Bjork said that she originally had the idea to do a vocal album when she was a punk teenager. But she didn’t know how to at that point.
[Bjork documentary quote 13:39 - 14:09]
Well, it takes a long time to be mature enough, you know? I mean, I could never do medulla 15 years ago, 10 years ago. I didn't have the maturity, both professionally, like in the studio as an, as a producer or an arranger. And also just emotionally I don't, and also how to deal with other people. I think for every person, it takes a long time to fully become what you are.
Complexity aside, there’s also an edginess and dissonance in Medulla that recalls her Kukl days. Like in “Where Is the Line.”
[Where is the line clip 1:46 - 2:00]
For a comparison, here’s “Assassin” by Kukl.
[Kukl clip 1:50 - 2:00]
What’s more: the cover of Medulla reflects the grittiness of punk fashion.
On it Bjork wears a mask made of woven strands of hair and a necklace made of black “bones” that spells out “Medulla”. She chose the name “Medulla,” which is Latin for marrow, because it not only denotes the essence of something, but it also evokes the human core of this album.
If you think of hair and bones as “everyday objects,” then you can see a loose tie between this ensemble and the safety pins and razor blades punks put on their clothes.
Above all, though, Medulla was Bjork’s most anti-establishment record to date. On it she rejects nationalism and calls for a return to our primitive roots — when we were all just one people. That certainly appeals to the anarchy side of punk.
[“Submarine” clip 1:00 - 1:10]
It’s worth noting Bjork’s punk origins because it not only explains her musical choices but also her career choices. Medulla was the first time she commented on politics. It’s hard to know if she would have gotten involved if she grew up in a different music scene. But in an interview with Icelandic Magazine Bjork said that her sense of responsibility is rooted in the punk ethos.
"This is the soil that I grew from and it was all about not relying on other people... To do things yourself. To take responsibility... As I get older this feeling of responsibility, which actually grows from the philosophy of punk, only gets stronger. I understand better that you are responsible to bring out in society those things you want to be part of. If you can‘t do that, nobody can.” (Icelandic Magazine, 2016)
And that sense of responsibility didn’t end with Medulla. It has reappeared through each of her projects. Like when she saw Denmark’s mistreatment of Greenland and the Faroe Islands and wrote “Declare Independence.” When she attracted controversy for dedicating a live performance of that song to Kosovo.
When she organized Icelanders to protect their highlands from foreign development. And when she created the world’s first app album and some of the first VR music videos.
She constantly takes us to new territory.
So, even if her days playing punk are long gone, Bjork is punk at heart.
Although she mostly played punk, Bjork listened to a wide variety of music growing up — everything from Stockhausen to Jimi Hendrix. But one of the artists that impacted her the most was British singer-songwriter-producer Kate Bush. In the next episode, I’ll trace the influence of Kate Bush on Bjork’s music and career.
You’ve been listening to “Bjork: Unravelled,” a series that demystifies Bjork’s music — one piece at a time. “Bjork: Unravelled” is produced independently by me, Savannah Wright.
If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend and submit a review on whatever podcast app you’re using.
Ok, so I promised I would give my full review of Medulla. I’m still not a fan of “The Pleasure is All Mine” or “Ancestors.” I respect the vocal techniques there, but they just grate on my ears. I like almost every other song though. Hearing Bjork sing completely a capella on “Show Me Forgiveness” slays me. “Vokuro” is hauntingly beautiful. “Who Is It” is probably in my top five Bjork songs now, especially once I learned the song is dedicated to her daughter. And my other favorite is “Oceania.” The more I listen to that one, the more enchanted I am.
Let me know your top Medulla songs. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram at Bjork Unravelled. If you have an idea for a future episode, you can tell me about that too.
I’m Savannah Wright. Thanks for listening.