By Glenn McDonald
May as well start with the accolades.
According to pretty much every metric known to popular music, the Eagles rank among history’s most successful rock ‘n’ roll bands. The group sold more records during the 1970s than any other U.S. artist, and it is in fact (depending on how you crunch the numbers) the highest-selling U.S. band ever.
For many years, the band’s 1976 greatest hits compilation—titled, cleverly, Their Greatest Hits—reigned as the best-selling U.S. album of all time. It still ranks among the top ten best-selling albums worldwide, with around 43 million copies sold. All told, the Eagles have sold upwards of 125 million albums.
Then there are the awards: Over the years, the Eagles have racked up six number-one albums, five number-one singles, 14 top 40 singles, six Grammys and five American Music Awards. Signature LP Hotel California ranked 37th in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
All of which is certainly impressive; even historic. But as a musical phenomenon, the Eagles managed something even more compelling. Their name has become synonymous with a particular slice of Americana. Not Americana in the strict musical sense of the term—although there is some of that—but rather in the larger cultural sense. For an entire generation of music fans, the Eagles represent the peaceful, easy (and occasionally dark) feeling of laid-back 1970s Southern California. Hotels and heartache; tequilas and sunrises.
The band’s roots are planted in the firmament of the Los Angeles recording industry toward the end of the 1960s. Detroit-area musician Glenn Frey had followed a girlfriend to L.A. (isn’t that always the way?), where he met musician and songwriter J.D. Souther. The two became friends, collaborators and roommates. Their downstairs neighbor, as it happened, was another aspiring musician named Jackson Browne.
While working as a session musician around town, Frey met drummer Don Henley, a more recent L.A. transplant. Henley had come from Texas with his band, Shiloh, which had just had a record produced by fellow Texan Kenny Rogers. Frey and Henley signed on as session musicians with Linda Ronstadt, joining her backing band on a summer tour. And that’s how one of rock’s greatest songwriting partnerships was born.
On tour with Ronstadt, Frey and Henley hooked up with the two other founding members of the Eagles, bassist Randy Meisner and multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon, formerly of the Flying Burrito Brothers. After the tour wrapped, the four banded together with a new musical direction in mind. They signed with David Geffen’s nascent Asylum Records label, which had a roster that would grow to include the other usual suspects in the 1970s SoCal country-rock scene—Ronstadt and Browne—plus Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan.
The Art of the Hit Song
The Eagles’ legacy in rock history proceeds from one inescapable fact: The band knew, better than maybe any of their contemporaries, how to deliver a hit song. As their chart and sales records attest, the Eagles found a way to craft and record music that connected with an impossibly large percentage of the record-buying public.
It all began with the band’s eponymous debut album, which was a huge and surprisingly immediate success. Recorded in London with producer Glyn Johns, it spawned three top 40 singles: “Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
First single “Take It Easy” was an achingly good rock ‘n’ roll song that introduced all the classic elements of the Eagles sound. Co-written by Frey and Jackson Browne, “Take It Easy” was melodic and danceable, but also thrummed with rich musicality. The four-part harmonies, yoked to Frey’s assured lead vocals, resonated perfectly with the musical zeitgeist of summertime rock circa 1972: Lighten up while you still can/Don’t even try to understand/Just find a place to make your stand/And take it easy.
One of the song’s couplets refers to “standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” and in fact is the line where Frey and Browne began their collaboration. Browne was stalled with the first part of the verse when Frey made his contribution about “a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford.” If you visit Winslow, Ariz., today, you’ll find a bronze statue and mural commemorating the lyric, complete with the ghostly reflection of a red Ford pickup truck in the faux store window.
The album’s second single, “Witchy Woman,” brandished a slightly darker and harder edge. Written by Henley and Leadon, the chassis of the song was built around an old Flying Burrito Brothers track. But Henley’s raspy vocals and the song’s harder guitars excavated the heavier lyrical content. If “Take It Easy” celebrated the sunny beauty of Arizona girls, “Witchy Woman” was the ballad of the dark seductress—that girl you spot at 3 a.m. in the dark shadows of a Hollywood party gone deep into the Twilight Zone.
In the liner notes for 2003 compilation The Very Best Of, Henley recalls writing the lyrics for the song:
I had a very high fever and became semi-delirious at times—and that’s when I wrote most of the lyrics. Every time the fever subsided, I would continue to read a new book I’d gotten on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, and I think that figured into the mix somehow—along with amorphous images of girls I had met at the Whisky and the Troubadour.
Third single “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was written by California singer-songwriter Jack Tempchin, who would later collaborate with Frey on “Already Gone” and several of Frey’s solo hits. Musically and lyrically, it fit perfectly with the Eagles’ wistful, laid-back California sound.
Cowboys and Soft Rock
Desperado, the band’s sophomore album, took an odd detour into concept album territory. Themed around the idea of Old West outlaws, its cover featured the band with cowboy hats, bandoliers and rifles. It failed to match the success of the debut album, but its two best songs—the title track and “Tequila Sunrise”—confirmed that the Henley/Frey songwriting combination was a potent one.
Of “Tequila Sunrise,” Frey said:
I love the song. I think the goal of any songwriter is to make a song appear seamless, to never show the struggle. Nothing should sound forced. “Tequila Sunrise” was written fairly quickly, and I don’t think there’s a single chord out of place.
Title track and lonesome cowboy ballad “Desperado,” surprisingly, was never released as a single. The song did enjoy a pop culture resurrection in the 1990s, however, when it was featured in a classic Seinfeld bit
If Desperado lacked the cohesion and balance of the first album, it also displays the first cracks in the band’s foundation of four contributing singer-songwriters. Frey and Henley were clearly coming to the fore, and change was afoot.
With 1974’s On the Border, the band moved away from its established country-rock sound and toward a more eclectic range of styles, including a harder-edged rock sound. Producer Bill Szymczyk replaced Johns during the recording sessions, and the band added the first of what would become several new Eagles. Don Felder lent driving guitar to propulsive breakup song “Already Gone,” but the Eagles’ first number-one hit was the record’s easy-listening ballad, “The Best of My Love”—another Frey/Henley track, co-written with old pal Souther. The song introduced the Eagles to a wider audience thanks to round-the-clock airplay on FM radio’s new darling format—soft rock.
It was just a taste of things to come. 1975’s One of the These Nights launched the band into the superstar stratosphere, with three top five singles: “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Take It to the Limit” and the chart-topping title track. A headlining world tour helped the album earn gold status in record time, and it became the first of four consecutive number-one Eagles albums.
Success took its toll, however. By the end of the tour, founding member Leadon had quit, dissatisfied with the band’s musical direction (his instrumental contribution to One of These Nights, “Journey of the Sorcerer,” would later be used as the theme song for BBC TV and radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
Such a Lovely Place
Leadon was replaced with journeyman musician and scenester Joe Walsh, a longtime friend of the band and veteran of the power trip The James Gang. As Walsh settled in, the Eagles released Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), which would go on to duke it out with Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the heavyweight title of best selling U.S. album of all time.
The Eagles returned in December of 1976 with the iconic and enduring, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Hotel California. By this point, the band’s sheer velocity was enormous. The record went platinum within one week, won the Grammy for Record of the Year, amassed a wealth of other Grammy and delivered to an enraptured record-buying an epic title track.
Few songs in rock history have generated as much conjecture and mythology as “Hotel California”; a six-and-a-half minute paean to the dark side of the high life on the edge of the continent. Co-written by Felder, Frey and Henley, the song employs a sweeping, cinematic storytelling approach with episodic verses and strange offhand references to spiritual decay and darkness. Like the best rock songs, it’s open to endless interpretation. The song was even accused during the 1980s of containing satanic content.
Infernal or otherwise, the song pulses with what certainly feels like otherworldly force, as the music and lyrics snake together toward a crescendo of gorgeous rock ‘n’ roll menace.
As Frey recalled:
We wanted to write a song just like it was a movie. This guy is driving across the desert. He’s tired. He’s smokin’. Comes up over a hill, sees some lights, pulls in. First thing he sees is a really strange guy at the front door, welcoming him: “Come on in.” Walks in, and then it becomes Fellini-esque—strange women, effeminate men, shadowy corridors, disembodied voices, debauchery, illusion. Weirdness. So we thought, “Let’s really take some chances. Let’s try to write in a way that we’ve never written before.”
The album also spun off two more hit singles, “New Kid in Town” and “Life in the Fast Lane”; both also Frey/Henley creations (with Souther and Walsh, respectively) and both dealing with the excesses of fame and fortune.
Considering the band’s ultimate arc, it can be said that the Eagles’ creative and commercial ascent peaked with Hotel California. Meisner left the band after yet another massive world tour and was replaced by bassist/vocalist Timothy B. Schmit.
The band took nearly two years to make its next record. Originally conceived as a double album, The Long Run was released in September 1979—the end of the decade with which the Eagles would be forever associated. Despite severely strained personal and creative relationships internally, the band still had enough collective mojo to power through three more hit singles: old-school Frey rocker “Heartache Tonight,” Schmit ballad “I Can’t Tell You Why” and skittering Henley R&B gem “The Long Run.” Walsh’s contribution, “In the City,” was essentially a solo track recycled from the soundtrack of cult thriller The Warriors.
It’s telling that the last four significant Eagles songs from the 1970s were all so different. These were rockets spiraling off into different directions in the band’s final fireworks display. After 1980 concert album Eagles Live, which was a contractual obligation, the group disbanded.
The former members of the Eagles all pursued solo careers from 1980 to 1994. Henley enjoyed the most commercial success, with a string of hits including “Dirty Laundry” “The Boys of Summer” “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” “The End of the Innocence” and “The Last Worthless Evening.” Frey also found good times in the 1980s, writing songs for film and TV including “The Heat is On” for Beverly Hills Cop, and “You Belong to the City” and “Smuggler’s Blues” for Miami Vice.
After years of ignoring much public conjecture and many increasingly lucrative offers, the Eagles officially reunited in 1994 with all five members from The Long Run—Felder, Frey, Henley, Schmit and Walsh. The ensuing Hell Freezes Over tour and live album proved that the band still had massive drawing power. The album went to number one and, incredibly, generated yet another pair of top 40 hits—“Love Will Keep Us Alive” and “Get Over It.”
The Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, with all seven former members on hand to perform at the ceremony. The band continues as a touring entity—Frey, Henley, Walsh and Schmit plus supporting musicians—and released the double-disc Long Road Out of Eden in 2007; their first studio album of all-new material in 28 years.
Twenty-eight years? Surely the commercial power of the band had finally waned. Surely the Eagles had at last been forced to earth. Hardly. Long Road Out of Eden became the best-selling album of the year—the band’s sixth number-one album—and was ultimately certified seven-times platinum.
A two-part documentary, History of the Eagles — The Story of an American Band, will make its television debut Feb. 15 on Showtime. More details at www.eaglesband.com.