SOPHIE DEBOICK on a city where the extreme landscape has inspired its music. And which produced perhaps the most unlucky Eurovision contestant ever.
Coming from a city on the edge of a continent 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle makes you tough. It also makes you think differently. The largest Arctic city outside of Russia, Tromsø was a Viking settlement, fortress town, centre for hunting and trade, and then a major fishing port, its hundred of years old wooden houses and the jagged aluminium and concrete of the otherworldly Ishavskatedralen (Arctic Cathedral), mimicking the mountains beyond, speaking of a long history.
But Tromsø has combined northern Norway’s reputation for toughness, as well as a sense of humour essential to survival in a hostile landscape, with a certain cerebral character.
The teachers’ college established in the city in the 1850s made Tromsø one of Norway’s intellectual centres, and the establishment of a university in the 1970s – the northernmost on the globe –attracted the country’s greatest minds. Its centre for Arctic research, the Norwegian Polar Institute, makes Tromsø a place of vital importance to all our futures.
Tromsø’s musicians too have displayed both a steely will and an ability to think outside of established boundaries, and this city of snow-bound winters, midnight sun, eternal nights and northern lights has exerted an alchemic power on the imaginations of its electronic music innovators.
Kirsti Sparboe is one of the music industry’s survivors. A three-time Eurovision entrant, she built a career around the contest despite being repeatedly hamstrung by unfortunate circumstances. She may be the unluckiest Eurovision participant ever.
Sparboe was born in Tromsø just after the war, when the city had been the last refuge of the free Norwegian government before the establishment of the Quisling puppet regime, to a father who was a whaler.
Sparboe’s dreams were of a glamour that was in short supply in Tromsø. She took singing lessons and was spotted performing with local band The Caravan, resulting in a contract with Norwegian pop mogul Arne Bendiksen. She was just 17 when her first single, the folky ballad Ballerina (1964), had success in both Norway and Sweden.
The following year, Sparboe represented Norway at Eurovision, but it was an effort doomed to failure. Karusell was a yé-yé-inspired childlike song, but it was completely overshadowed by the real thing, as 17-year-old yé-yé princess France Gall’s Serge Gainsbourg-penned Poupée de cire, poupée de son won for Luxembourg with 32 points. Her vocal performance was far inferior to Sparboe’s, but she summed up the pop zeitgeist. Sparboe earned only one point.
Sparboe was, however, undeterred, and was back at Eurovision in 1967 with a song about a puppetman (Dukkemann). Unfortunately, Sandie Shaw was representing the United Kingdom with a song on a rather closely-related theme and a not dissimilar act as a young ingénue. Puppet on a String won by one of the largest margins ever while Sparboe limped behind with just two points.
The judges of the Melodi Grand Prix competition that chose the Norwegian Eurovision entry again put their faith in Sparboe in 1969, when she went to Madrid with Arne Bendiksen’s Oj Oj Oj Så Glad Jeg Skal Bli (Oh, Oh, Oh, How Happy I Will Be). The song came last, again scoring only one point, as the mildly nonsense lyrics hardly stood a chance against Lulu’s Boom Bang-A-Bang and the historic fiasco of a four-way tie.
Back in Norway, Oj Oj Oj Så Glad Jeg Skal Bli became Sparboe’s first and only No.1, spending a full month at the top of the Norwegian charts despite – or maybe because of – becoming the focus of a minor national scandal.
Lecturer in linguistics at the University of Oslo, Erling Nielsen, had angrily attacked the inane lyrics on a
live TV discussion show the same night as the Melodi Grand Prix competition in front of a mortified Sparboe and an amused Bendiksen, who threw his hands in the air and said he didn’t claim to be Ibsen.
Sparboe was still not done with Eurovision, vying unsuccessfully to represent Germany when Norway boycotted the 1970 contest in protest of the debacle of the previous year, and covering the 1971 winning song, Un banc, un arbre, une rue (she had already done a version of Cliff Richard’s Congratulations). Sparboe’s career later diversified into TV and serious acting, and she has the status of a Norwegian legend.
But it is Sparboe’s revival of crooner Jens Book-Jenssen’s song Nordlandsnetter (Northern Nights) in 1965, and again in new versions in 1984 and 2007, that seals her connection to the place of her birth. Singing of an “army of stars”, a “sky flaming in the fire of the northern lights” and “white-clad mountains in moonlight costume”, the song has immortalised the “enchanting splendour” of the northern landscape Tromsø enjoys.
Two decades after Sparboe’s breakthrough, that same landscape exerted its influence not only over the words but the entire atmosphere of music from Tromsø.
Per Martinsen, born in the city in 1966 and, as Mental Overdrive, one of the godfathers of Norwegian techno, has dubbed the city’s electronic music “Arctic music”, and it’s not hard to see why. A shared experience of life in the extreme north resulted in a mind-bending ambient techno with an ice-cold atmosphere of swirling snow.
Bel Canto, formed in Tromsø in 1985, were the forerunners of this scene, and their debut album White-Out Conditions (1987) sounded like the electronica-meets-world-music soundtrack to the dramas of Norse mythology.
Bel Canto’s Brussels-based label Crammed Discs put out records by a triptych of Tromsø artists in 1988 – Bel Canto founder member Geir Jenssen, Per Martinsen, and 17-year-old producer Bjørn Torske – which were foundational for Tromsø techno.
While Martinsen would go on to found the Tromsø-based label Love OD Communications, and Torske would become known as the reclusive innovator who bought the sounds of Chicago house to Norway, paving the way for the ‘cosmic disco’ of superstar DJs like Lindstrøm and Todd Terje, Jenssen would be the most influential for techno and ambient music.
Under the name Bleep, Jenssen’s debut LP The North Pole by Submarine (1990) claimed to have been “recorded under the combined influences of the subpolar landscape and the intensive listening to shortwave radio at night”, mixing brutal beats and disorientating vocal samples. But Jenssen’s first release under the name Biosphere, 1991’s Microgravity, was the moment that a distinctly Nordic techno arrived. The album opened with ominous Arctic winds sampled from polar horror film The Thing (1982) and a sense of the atavistic drawn from Jenssen’s study of Stone Age archaeology.
When Jenssen’s Novelty Waves was used in Michel Gondry’s 1995 ‘Drugstore’ Levi’s advert it brought the sound of Tromsø to the world. His purely ambient album Substrata of 1997 went in the direction of stark desolation and pure atmospherics, and the soundtrack for Tromsø native Erik Skjoldbjærg’s acclaimed film noir Insomnia of the same year, set in the city, brought together that unique landscape and the sounds it had inspired.
But waiting in the wings were an even bigger Tromsø export. Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland were profoundly influenced by Jenssen’s work and involved in ambient techno project Aedena Cycle and proto-cosmic disco act Those Norwegians before they formed Röyksopp in 1998.
Berge and Brundtland were friends from the age of 10, but it was only when they had left Tromsø and met again in Bergen that they formed the project. Singles like 1999’s So Easy and 2001’s Eple were the advert-friendly chillout music heard ad nauseum on BBC documentaries. With music videos as bold as the music, it was commercial gold, and debut album Melody A.M. (2001) went platinum across Europe.
More recently, Röyksopp’s work with Swedish pop icon Robyn has been nominated for several Grammys, and although they are more identified with the gentler music of the ‘Bergen wave’ than dark Tromsø techno, the gothic atmospherics of tracks like Melody A.M.’s closer 40 Years Back/ Come suggest they have not been immune to the atmosphere of their home city.
Today a new generation of artists like Boska and Charlotte Bendiks, along with the annual Insomnia Festival, mean Tromsø is still a centre for electronic music, despite having considerable pop success too, as Lene Marlin, whose Sitting Down Here was a one-hit wonder in 1999, and producer and songwriter Espen Lind, co-writer of Beyonce’s Irreplaceable and judge on Norway’s The Voice, have picked up the pop baton from Kirsti Sparboe. But Tromsø’s Arctic landscape has weighed most heavily on the imagination of its electronic pioneers, who have created sounds that do nothing less than speak to the universal human subconscious.