A GUEST POSTING BY ALEX G
From We Will Have Salad blog
Here’s one for those who like their pop literate, quirky, sometimes a bit mysterious, with a gung-ho approach to genre. Sounds like a pretty easy sell round these parts, but for some reason Amsterdam art-rockers Nits have never quite broken into any of the major English-speaking markets. In theory, they should fit right in: they are typically compared to British acts, especially XTC and Elvis Costello, with whom they share a similar career trajectory of early new wave-ism swiftly diversifying into artier, genre-blind territory; they’ve always performed in English, and Henk Hofstede’s lyricism suggests there’s some truth in the old joke that the Dutch speak English better than the Brits do.
But you have to wonder whether CBS were really trying during the 20 years or so they had Nits on their books. The group’s UK discography is not extensive: one LP, three singles and a sampler CD for an album that never saw a full British release. That leaves a lot of imports and downloads to explore.
By the official count, Nits have 19 full-length albums to their name, but various mini-LPs, live albums and collaborations nudge the total closer to thirty. They’re not all consistently great; I think there’s an argument to be made that Nits belong in the “Had It, Lost It” series, though there’s still some good stuff on the later albums – just a lot of filler too. They also took a while to “get it” in the first place – their first few albums suffer from an excess of experiments that wind up being indulgent-weird rather than interesting-weird. If you want a recommendation, well… I could easily have filled one side of this ICA with songs from 1987’s “In The Dutch Mountains” and the other with songs from 1990’s “Giant Normal Dwarf”, both wonderful, imaginative and evocative albums I return to a lot. I managed to avoid that temptation, but for this imaginary compilation, I have stuck to songs from what would generally be considered Nits’ golden age, which co-incides with keyboard player Robert-Jan Stips’ original tenure with the group, 1983-96. (He returned in 2003 and is still with them today.) Other members have come and gone, but the recognised core trio comprises Stips, singer/guitarist Henk Hofstede, and drummer Rob Kloet.
The Panorama Man (In The Dutch Mountains, 1987)
I imagined this song as being about a travelling showman, sometime around the 1900s, with a projector and a collection of film reels. Which is just the sort of thing The Nits (as they were at the time) would write a song about… but they didn’t.
As it turns out, it’s actually about a man delivering a magazine called Panorama to the young Henk Hofstede’s house. If I’d realised that the first two lines refer to postwar comic strips, I’d have worked that out sooner. Oh well, it’s all good.
The fact that this song – and the whole album it comes from – is a live-in-the-studio recording, taped directly to two-track without edits or overdubs, is simultaneously impressive and strangely irrelevant. The quartet responsible (Hofstede, Kloet, Stips and bassist Joke Geraets) represents arguably the greatest of Nits’ many line-ups, and they were such a skilled live band that they could do this sort of thing on demand, yet never sound over-drilled.
There From Here (Giant Normal Dwarf, 1990)
Simply a beautiful song about waking up from a nice dream. This song never makes the cut for their compilations, so in a small way I get to redress the balance by including it here!
Bike In Head (Henk, 1986)
It stands to reason that a bunch of Amsterdamers would come up with one of the greatest songs ever written about cycling. Mark Ronson can keep his “I’m gonna ride my bike until I get home”; I’ll take the cinematic magnificence of “On a shadow lane between big trees / Bike chain spins and frame freezes”. To head off potential mondegreens, that line in the middle eight is a reference to the Amsterdam zoo, ARTIS – not “I just bought an elephant today”, which I’ve seen some people quote it as. It’s not quite that surreal.
In The Dutch Mountains (In The Dutch Mountains, 1987)
This is probably (The) Nits’ best known song, and in its simultaneous mocking and celebration of Dutch stereotypes it essentially does for the Netherlands what Men At Work‘s “Down Under” did for Australia. It was one of the three singles that got a UK release (the others were the new wave blast of “Tutti Ragazzi” in 1979 and the dramatic “Nescio” in 1983) but as you will have guessed, it did nothing here. It did do reasonably good business across the continent, though (it reached number 3 in Austria) and has a tendency to turn up on European “hits of the 80s” compilations.
Sleep (What Happens To Your Eyes) (Henk, 1986)
“Henk” reminds me a lot of OMD‘s “Crush” from the previous year. Two underrated synth-based albums which followed up enjoyable but one-note predecessors (“Adieu Sweet Bahnhof” and “Junk Culture” respectively) with slightly bonkers collections mixing up lots of different styles, often within the same song. For example, this: it builds up mysteriously with synth bloops and then turns into… Schubert’s “Erlkönig”. Alright then! What I’d really like is a 12″ extended version of this that carries on building for a few more minutes, but sadly this is all there is.
A Touch Of Henry Moore (Omsk, 1983)
Not many bands showcase percussion to the extent that Nits do. That’s mainly because other bands have drummers; Nits have Rob Kloet, who is basically the Evelyn Glennie of art-rock. And speaking of art and rock, on this track Kloet and Stips (the latter making his debut as a full member, though he’d already been the unofficial “fifth Nit” for a few years) bring on a mixture of live and sampled percussion to evoke the sounds of stone sculpture, not as a novelty, but as a suitable sound-world in which to pay sincere tribute to somebody whose work they admire.
This is the oldest item on the ICA, and the only one for which co-founding guitarist Michiel Peters was still in the line-up, though I’m not sure he’s actually on the track. There’s a chiming riff in there which could be a guitar, or guitar doubled with something else, but I think it’s just keyboards.
By the way, it occurs to me that although Nits have a reputation for travelling a lot and writing about the places they visit, this ICA is very much based in the Netherlands. Even this tribute to a British artist is inspired by pieces in the grounds of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Giant Normal Dwarf (Giant Normal Dwarf, 1990)
I think of this sweet and witty song as being in the same ballpark as The Magnetic Fields‘ “Book Of Love”, and I fear that someday it’s going to suffer the same fate of being picked up and covered by a succession of awfully serious people who crush the humour out of it.
Cars & Cars (Ting, 1992)
“Cars & Cars” is the only Nits song I have ever heard in any context where it wasn’t me who chose to put it on, that context being the quintessential interesting-if-there’s-nothing-else-on documentary series “Coast”. About halfway through the very first episode from 2005, there’s an aerial shot following a train along the coast (natch) somewhere in the south-east of England, and the accompanying music is the orchestral version of “Cars & Cars” from Nits’ 1992 collaboration with the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, “Hjuvi”. A particularly surprisingly choice given that Nits have quite a few songs referring to trains, including one actually called “The Train”. I recall Cars & Cars popping up again a few epsiodes later, backing a piece about a lighthouse in… Gwynedd, I think(?). And then never again. Anyway, this isn’t the orchestral arrangement, just the basic trio version.
Typist Of Candy (version) (Quest, 1995 – recorded 1986)
No idea what this one’s about… if it’s actually about anything at all! This version is a lot busier and (synth-)brassier than the album version on “Henk”, and eventually came out on “Quest”, the bonus CD of B-sides and demos issued with early copies of their first proper “best of” collection, “Nest”.
Dapper Street (live) (Urk, 1989)
While Nits are frequently compared to XTC, one obvious difference is that Nits tour. A lot. And they don’t just play the songs as they appear on the records, but surprise their audience with new arrangements – sometimes to accommodate the skills and preferences of whoever’s in the line-up at the time, but often just because they can.
The well-regarded live album “Urk” features the “In The Dutch Mountains” line-up and in the absence of a Greatest Hits album at that time, its 29 tracks provided a more-than-decent overview of the group’s work up to that point. This particular song originally appeared on the 1983 mini-album “Kilo” but I prefer this version, shorn of its more harshly synthetic elements. Apparently, “Dapper Straat” by JC Bloem is one of the most loved poems in the Dutch language, and this English adaptation is not a direct translation, but an attempt to capture the sense and mood of the original. I can’t speak for the poem, but the song is lovely.
Belated update from JC : Anyone who, understandably, would like to obtain much superior quality downloads of the songs featured in this ICA should go here, where Alex G has made a zip file available.