Recently in an article, I wrote about some of the great concerts I’ve been lucky enough to see over the years. After I’d published the article, I realized there was one that I’d forgotten about, Van Morrison who I saw live at the esplanade to Edinburgh Castle. I don’t know how I managed to forget that night, because without doubt, it was one of the finest concerts I’ve ever witnessed. This set me thinking about Van Morrison’s music, which I’ve been a fan of, for over thirty years. He has produced so many memorable albums since his debut solo album Astral Weeks in 1968. Previously I’ve written about his 1999 album Back On Top, one of his best albums from the later period in his career. Today however, I’m going back to the early seventies, a time when Van was producing one great album after another to review Hard Nose The Highway released in August 1973. 

When Van entered the Caledonia Studios in Fairfax, California between August and October 1972, to record material for his new album, he ended up with almost thirty completed songs. This lead Van to think about releasing a double album. At a meeting with executives from Warner Bros his record company, he asked about releasing a double album. They weren’t keen on the idea, and instead, suggested he release just a single album. Some of the songs that weren’t used for Hard Nose The Highway, found there way onto later albums, including Veedon Fleece. 

In the end, eight songs from the recording sessions found their way onto Hard Nose The Highway which was released in August 1973. When the album was released, most critics loved the album. As always, there would be one lone critic who took a contrary view, but they were in the minority. Fans too, liked the album, with the album reaching number twenty-two in the UK album charts and number twenty-seven in the Billboard 200. People reading this article might think that this isn’t a particularly high chart placing. However, back then, you had to sell many more albums than you do now to get an album into the top thirty. There was also much more competition around, with many big artists were releasing memorable albums at this time. So although he’d have preferred a higher chart placing and greater sales, inwardly Van must have pleased, as this was the first album he’d produced himself. The question is, just how good an album is Hard Nose The Highway?

Hard Nose The Highway opens with Snow In San Anselmo a song that features the Oakland Symphony Orchestra singing backing vocals as the song opens. They provide backing vocals throughout the track, their voices beautiful, as they soar high in unison. During the track, Van sings about what it was like when it snowed for the first time in thirty years San Anselmo. A piano accompanies the choir at the start of the track, and when Van sings, guitar and drums accompany him. The arrangement is both understated and dramatic. At times, he’s only accompanied by drums, guitar and at other times, the choir accompany him, or the arrangement fills out, with the tempo quickening and a saxophone accompanying him. Mostly, the tempo is slow, the arrangement meandering along, with Van’s voice veering between soft and thoughtful, to a much stronger and forceful delivery. Towards the end, when the tempo quickens, drums, saxophone and the choir unite brilliantly, with the ethereal vocals and saxophone producing a beautiful sound. I’ve always loved this track, it has really evocative lyrics, and the addition of the choir was a masterstroke, that took the track to another level.

One track from the album that many people will know is Warm Love. It was the first single released from the album in April 1973. Since the album’s release this has been a song that track Van has sung many times in concert. An acoustic guitar accompanies Van as the track begins. His voice is much softer, and a flute, drums and guitar plays behind him. Later his voice strengthens, and his delivery becomes louder and clearer. This track has one of the best arrangements on the album. Although a number of instruments feature, none of them, dominate the sound. Instead, they drop in and out of the track, never overpowering Van’s vocal. Although Warm Love is by now, a very familiar track, it’s one that regardless of how often I hear it, I always enjoy. 

The title track Hard Nose The Highway begins with a piano playing, and when Van sings, his voice sounds slightly different, maybe there’s hint of a mid-Atlantic accent present. It’s still clear and full of character. Regardless of that, a great track is unfolding. Much of this is down to Jef Labes piano playing, drums playing steadily and the horn section. Together they accompany Van brilliantly, playing slowly and with feeling. When Van sings, he sings about the hard times he’s suffered. This he does with passion, as if remembering the times he slogged around in his early days as a singer. Towards the end of the song, the band sing backing vocals for Van, and Van’s voice gets louder and stronger. To me, what makes this such a great track, are the lyrics, Van’s passionate vocal and a great performance from a really tight band.

Wild Children is another track with some really evocative and thoughtful lyrics. Here, the lyrics are about children growing up in the post war era around the world, and the way they were portrayed by almost American anti-heroes. These characters were portrayed by people like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, Tennessee Williams’ plays Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. This track opens with a really subtle arrangement, just piano, guitar, bass and vibes accompanying Van. He reminisces about growing up after the war, things that influenced him, what he read and films he watched. As he sings softly and thoughtfully, the band play behind him. Mostly, the tempo is slow, but midway through the track, it becomes almost like a mini jazz workout, with the guitar taking the lead. However, mostly, the track just wanders beautifully along, Van singing some of the best lyrics on the album. 

It’s piano, guitar and drums that opens The Great Deception, a track that where the drums are used to good effect to create a sense of drama, highlighting parts of the lyrics. The lyrics are about certain people who are involved in rock music, who say one thing and do the complete opposite. Van’s mentions plastic revolutionaries, rock ‘n’ singers “saying power to the people, dance to the music” but having three or four Cadillacs at home, yet they still want patted on the back, and told, well done. Such hypocrisy doesn’t sit well with Van, and during the track makes his feelings clear. You can almost hear the anger and frustration in his voice. Behind him, the arrangement is perfect for the song, guitars, drums and piano playing important rolls in the track. They, and Van combine perfectly, bringing some outstanding and incredibly honest lyrics to life. I wonder what one particular singer thought of the lyrics? Did he dance to this music? 

Who would ever thing that Van Morrison would ever sing a song that was originally in Sesame Street, and made famous by Kermit The Frog in The Muppet Show? Well, here, he covers Bein’ Green written by Joe Rapsoso, and in doing so, gives it a jazzy, big band arrangement. A piano plays dramatically, theatrically, as the song opens. When Van sings, he has to sing the same lyrics as Kermit. However, Van sings them much better, his version swings. Here, the song is slowed way down, strings, play and horns accompany Van. Drum, guitar and piano combine during other parts of the track. During Bein’ Green gives a fantastic jazz vocal, and behind him, his band give an outstanding performance, getting into the jazzy, big band sound. 

Autumn Song is an epic ten and a half minute track where Van sings some highly evocative lyrics that brilliantly describe the scenes and moods of Autumn. The song has a gentle meandering start, as if sympathetic to changes of the season. Guitars, drums and piano play as Van sings, describing perfectly the changing of the season and how best to deal it. It’s a song with a strong narrative, so strong, you can almost close your eyes and picture the scenes unfolding. Instruments drift in and out of the track, like leaves from a tree. Unlike the seasons, there is one constant, and that is Van’s voice. As always, it’s full of character and here, has a warmth present. As the track unfolds, there are some wonderful subtle guitar solos. Likewise, Jeff Labes’ piano playing is excellent. By the end of the track, you realize that not only is this a great song, but one the most poetic descriptions of autumn that you’ll ever hear.

Hard Nose The Highway closes with Purple Heather which is a traditional song Wild Mountain Thyme which was written by Francis McPeake, and is based upon Robert Tannahill’s song The Braes of Balquhidder. The track starts slowly, piano, guitar and drums playing as Van sings. Slowly, the track builds up, and as it does, Van’s voice grows, getting louder and stronger. He sings the song really well, accompanied by a really atmospheric arrangement, complete with strings. Although based upon a folk song, Van manages to make the song work, giving it a lovely contemporary feel. Much of this is down to the piano and strings in the arrangement, as well as an emotive vocal from Van. Overall, it’s a good track to close the album. 

When I started thinking about writing another article on Van Morrison, I was spoiled for choice which of his albums to write about. There are so many good ones to write about. In the end, I decided this time, I’d write about one of my favorite of his albums, Hard Nose The Highway. I’m glad I did, because it’s an album with eight great songs on it, seven of which were written by Van, the exception being Bein’ Green. His lyrics on this album are some of his best. They’re highly evocative, with strong narratives. On Hard Nose The Highway, Van had assembled a really tight band, who played brilliantly throughout the album. This was a time when Van was producing a number of great albums. For me, this was the highpoint of his career, from 1968 until 1976. During this period, he recorded some wonderful music. However, many people will have other ideas, but personally, this is when he recorded some of his critically acclaimed and best selling albums. If you’ve never heard Hard Nose The Highway, it’s a great album, one that’s a good introduction to Van’s music. Astral Weeks, Moondance, and Into the Music are some of my favorite albums between 1968 and 1979. From the 1980s until 1999, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Avalon Sunset, Enlightenment and Back on Top are among his best albums, and some of my own personal favorites. Anyone who buys any of these albums, will hear some of Van Morrison’s best music. Standout Tracks: Snow In San Anselmo, Hard Nose The Highway, The Great Deception and Autumn Song.



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