March 1989 marks the end of prohibition in Iceland. The ban had originally prohibited all alcohol, but from 1935 onward only applied to “strong” beer (with an alcohol content of 2.25% or more).
We asked Valgarður Guðjónsson, the frontman of the punk band Fræbblarnir, to explain the history behind the band’s famous song “Bjór“ (Beer).
We released our song, Beer, in 1981.
From a complete alcohol ban in early 1900’s, to allowing wines to be able to trade with Spain and strong alcohol to do other trading… Iceland kept a ban on beer. Sailors and air pilots could purchase beer though. No one knows why.
The result was that young people tending to get heavily drunk on spirits and alcohol was treated like a prized possession. Well most of the older ones as well. And getting drunk was the goal. Social drinking was almost non-existing and having a drink without getting drunk was only for nerds or those raised abroad. Well, of course this is a bit of an exaggeration, but still, not far from the reality.
The song was written early in 1981, Arnór our guitar player came up with a ground, guitar lines, chords and riffs. It took forever to find the right melody to sing, always trying something that followed the chords. Finally when I tried to go “against” the chords I found a line that worked.
The song was without lyrics until the eleventh hour, literally. We were finishing our EP and studio time allowance was running out. So we met at 11:00pm at our drummer’s home and tossed a few ideas around. We wanted to make a statement against the government making decisions for you, to needlessly limit a basic freedom. One idea was to write about free radio. At the time there was only one radio station, government run and played only a few hours of music all day, most of it disco and pop. There was no place for anything alternative. But we decided that beer was more obvious and more important. And easier to write about. So gathering ideas I wrote the lyrics in less than an hour and at midnight we went to the studio to record.
Singles and EP’s don’t sell in Iceland and have never done. This got some attention though and as far as we know it did sell more than any other that year.. or most other years. Without any radio play. And when the 20th century was summed up by Dr. Gunni, it was one of thirteen best singles / EP’s of the century (unordered list).
We still believe it had some effect on the way people think of beer and how ridiculous the beer ban was. Our generation didn’t have much to say in parliament or political parties at the time, but we like to think that as they got more influence they managed to convince their representatives to lift the ban almost a decade later.
But although the song attacks the beer ban, it is also a general statement against government making choices for people that they can very well handle themselves. We have been criticized or complemented for advocating “liberalism”. Perhaps it does. We were not thinking on political or ideological lines, just that people should be free to make their own decisions to the extent that it does not limit other people’s freedom. Some would even label our attitude as “anarchy”, but we would not!
And… I still don’t understand why we don’t get free beer at every (or any, for that matter) pub in Iceland.