Who could say no to a “Steamboat Willie” character and the Icelandic approximation of Right Said Fred?
Since the inaugural entry in the Bargain Bin Babylon feature, I have asked a new question every time I visit a record store: Got any weird shit? The quest for albums that are odd, unintentionally (or intentionally) humorous or just plain curios is a must for any vinyl collector, especially those participating in this feature. And asking for weird shit has turned out far better than I ever could have imagined.
The first time I made this query I was pointed toward a 7” single by Icelandic musician Ágúst Stefánsson entitled “Gústi.” It’s weird for a number of reasons: it’s Icelandic, and it’s a one-off single from 1983 that really has no business being in a bargain bin alongside the likes of Three Dog Night; and the cover art looks like something out of the 1928 Disney short “Steamboat Willie.” A lovable scamp (maybe Gústi is a character, a persona for Stefánsson?) floats down the river in his over-sized guitar-boat, a rocky island looming in the background. It may be just an island, or maybe it’s meant to represent the whole of Iceland. But there’s no need to read that closely into the artwork; the music speaks for itself.
Side A features the track “Nú Meikarðu Það Gústi,” which seems to be Stefánsson’s one and only hit. Opening with a wailing astral synth line, it starts things off perfectly if you’re interested in revisiting the worst ’80s music tropes. Since I have no idea what the lyrics mean nor what the general tone of the song is, the easiest way to describe it is as an example of an Icelandic, less pop-minded Right Said Fred. Once the synth line fades, a generic dance beat takes center stage accompanied by a disturbingly low baritone that talk-sings with the occasional input of female backing vocalists. It’s the polar opposite of the hokey, kid-centric music the cover art leads you to expect. And it’s even creepier when Stefánsson adds this unintentionally terrifying “a-ha-ha” laugh at the end of each line as the song ends.
Side B is no less of a doozy. “Krúttið” has much more of the kid’s party feel to its pop. Country guitar and downright normal vocals from Stefánsson make for a song that’s lighthearted, though no less curious. While the guitar riffs might as well have tumbleweeds blowing through them, there’s a creeping polka influence in the rhythm and percussion. Likely, vaguely country and polka sounds were intended to help with the single’s general appeal. That’s not to say that “Gústi” apes music styles. It’s not insidious enough to have such concrete intent behind its arrangements. Rather, it’s simply light fare that is nothing short of strange now but was undoubtedly entertaining enough at the time.
I’m not quite sure what Stefánsson did after his apparently short-lived musical career. Google still has a lot of work to do when it comes to Icelandic-English translation. An obituary in an Icelandic newspaper confirms that he died in 2011 after struggling with MS and includes several accounts from personal friends (who mostly refer to him as Gústi) that would seem to speak to his loyalty and the importance of music in his life. (Though I’m not completely confident in the translation.) Another article seems to show Bjartmar Guðlaugsson, who wrote and produced “ Gústi,” calling out people for being far too harsh on Stefánsson over the years, with the use of the word “bully” a clear mistranslation. But of what? Still not exactly sure. Stefánsson may have written two books, possibly books of poetry. And was possibly planning to release new music after his 50th birthday.
All those maybe’s and possibly’s, thanks to the Googlable world’s continued disinterest in Iceland and parsing its language, amount to one 7” single with virtually zero context. But, even so, it’s a heck of a Bargain Bin purchase. Who could say no to a “Steamboat Willie” character and the Icelandic approximation of Right Said Fred?