Eagles - Biography
By Jeff Hunt
It would be relatively easy to demonize The Eagles, given the presumed audience for this website. It is easy to demonize The Eagles. The revisionist, post-indierock examination of their place in music history is relatively clinical and somewhat brutal, and it goes like this: Gram Parsons, with considerable input (and a massive amount of karmic ballast) from Chris Hillman, injects country music into The Byrds. They had flirted with it, sure, thanks to Hillman, who grew up Country, but with Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968. Parsons tipped the scales. Recall: The Byrds were hugely popular; the press dubbed them the California Beatles. In the 1960s, country music, country & western music, was an anthem of The Enemy as far as the counterculture was concerned. Twang was just very uncool in the era of yippies and hippies and Mayor Daley’s shocktroopers and Bull Connor’s dogs and Merle Haggard’s hit “Okie from Muskogee,” which stops just short of inciting violence against anyone with hair longer than Lieutenant William Calley (and it’s a great song, and total BS, and even Merle admits people took it too far, and that he was sort of being a hypocrite when he sang it, because he was stoned, and not in the country sense of the word, i.e., drunk – he was a total, degenerate pothead). Of course, in retrospect the “counterculture” looks like the mainstream.
I mean, take Easy Rider. It’s 1969, and the café scene and the ending tidily summarize the counterculture’s take on c&w folks. The Man is at the window, and there’s a whole room full of seething, blind, hostility blazing towards Captain America and Billy like ants about to burned by sunlight through a magnifying glass, and Our Heroes just want a piece of pie, a piece of the American Pie, but the whole hateful, racist swarm of flyover Americans just won’t relent with the negative vibe. (Oh, and Captain America and Billy are also smuggling cocaine, but it’s cool – the CIA hasn’t invented crack yet; and Billy hasn’t blown himself out of Hollywood by directing The Last Movie and going insane on drugs; and in 1969 cocaine is practically an herbal, medicinal sort of thing; and it’s cool because Phil Spector sold it to them, and surely nothing bad could ever come from combining Phil Spector and coke, right?) And then Billy and the Captain do get burned, permanently, by rednecks that simply want to enjoy watching them die, and if you’re not a hippie you’re one of Them.
Anyway, Parsons and Hillman apply the voltage and create a Nudie-suited Frankenstein’s monster comprised of country and rock (and, in its extremities, freak and soul) and when it lurches up off the table and lumbers off into the countryside (pun barely intended) you’ve got the Flying Burrito Brothers; and they invent country rock; and it’s great and strange and Sneaky Pete is feeding rollicking steel-guitar licks through a distortion pedal; and it’s so good that, as is so often the case, not very many people notice, not enough, at least; and the soul aspect is actually the one consistently overlooked aspect of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Parsons was as influenced by it as he was by country; and then Gram starts hanging out with Keef and The Stones and gets star struck and gets strung out and quits the band; and Bernie Leadon is in the Burritos and he starts a new band, The Eagles (named in tribute to The Byrds, of course); and The Eagles take country rock and they soften it and dilute it and pour it into the mainstream; and The Eagles ruin country rock; and that’s why we vilify The Eagles.
Want the proof? Amoeba also has a record label. What’s their biggest seller? A Flying Burrito Brothers live CD. And I’m writing this entry because none of the other writers would touch it with a ten-foot pole. Still, the original, non-revised, unhip reality is this: The Burritos were woefully obscure and The Eagles have sold a zillion records, two of which, Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975 and Hotel California are on the list of the ten biggest selling records of all time. Along with Crosby Stills & Nash, they shaped the sound of rock for all of the 70s. Sure, they often shaped it by rounding off all the sharp edges, but after ’68 and Chicago and Altamont and the Kennedys, folks needed to mellow out a bit. Besides, they’ve got some rockers here and there. Eventually they just sort of sound like The Eagles. And I just came across this on the intrawebs: “Comedian Steve Martin records in his autobiography, Born Standing Up, that Frey was very particular that the name was Eagles and not The Eagles.” Oh. Hmm. Well, for our purposes, there’s a The.
“Eagles” were formed in 1972. (It’s awkward, isn’t it? It took me ages to get used to “Swans” as opposed to “The Swans.” Did you know The Swans were also named after The Byrds? Hahaha.) They were LA studio musicians assembled to back Linda Ronstadt for her debut LP, Linda Ronstadt (Capitol, 1972). It was Glenn Frey and Bernie Leadon on guitar, and Randy Meisner on bass; Frey brought in Don Henley on drums. They’re on the entire record, and they were her touring band for a few months. The record didn’t do well, but it is a progenitor of country-tinged soft rock. At the end of the tour they decided to start a band of their own, and immediately signed with Asylum, David Geffen’s new label. See? It’s good to be connected in LA.
The debut, Eagles (Asylum, 1972), sets the stage. It’s a balance of mildly rocking, and simply mild; everyone sings, and the soaring harmonies and the evident country tint establish a new signature sound for Southern California. Everybody gets a writing credit. There are three Top 40 hits: "Take It Easy" (written by Frey and Jackson Browne) and "Peaceful Easy Feeling" are laid back strummers that easily state the new laid-back, easy-going SoCal manifesto. Frey sings these. “Witchy Woman” is a bluesy number by Henley with some sort of Native American thing at the beginning. The band is all over FM radio, and there you go: instantaneous success.
Desperado (Asylum, 1973) is a concept album about the Wild West, and it lacks the hits of Eagles; most of the tracks are by Henley. Oddly, the best know track on the record was never a single, just an FM radio favorite: “Desperado” is a slow ballad with strings. Overall the LP is inconsistent. On the Border (Asylum, 1973) the band added Don Felder on guitar and steel guitar, and turned up the rock aspect in places; “Best of My Love” went to #1. One of the Nights (Asylum, 1974) continues to float towards rock, and it convinces Bernie Leadon to leave; the replace him with Joe Walsh, from The James Gang. “One of These Nights” goes to #1; “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Take It to the Limit” are also hits. The Eagles are back on track.
Bernie Leadon probably should have stuck around for one or two more records. Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) (Asylum, 1976) was next. According to the intrawebs, it is “a compilation of singles, released on Asylum Records in 1976. It is the all-time best-selling record album in the history of the United States, and the third best worldwide behind Michael Jackson's Thriller and AC/DC's Back in Black.” It’s worth noting that while everyone got to write material on the LPs, it pretty much Glenn Frey and Don Henley on the singles.
Poor Bernie Leadon. Hotel California (Asylum, 1976) is next. It’s big and sprawling, and it’s about American consumerism and greed and the end of Manifest Destiny, and it’s loaded with death and divorce and deprivation and depravity and drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs. It went to #1 and just sat there; same with the epic title track. Joe Walsh turns “Life in the Fast Lane” into a hard-rocking hit; “New Kid in Town” represents the band harmonizing at their finest. The Long Run (Asylum, 1979) went to #1, but Frey and Henley were no longer speaking to each other, and then it was over. There were reunion tours and much filthy lucre was made.
Really, any discussion of The Eagles should begin and end with the sprawling title track of Hotel California. Some songs deserve to be hits, and “Hotel California” is one of them. Sure, it’s arena-rock bombast, but it’s deft arena-rock bombast at its absolute finest. Come on, who doesn’t find this thing catchy as @#$%? It rouses gently, then just builds layers of tension, as the lyrics vivify a scene: the dark desert highway; the arrival at the mysterious hotel; the strange allure of a beautiful woman; the paranoia; the increasing cold sweat; guest; ghosts; decadence; and the final chilling admonition:
“You can check out any time you like – but you can never leave.”
It’s great stuff, and it deserved to sell a billion copies. You can feel the sand and satin and skin; smell the sea breeze and perfume and flesh; taste the wine and the vast piles of cocaine. I’m a Gram Parsons fan as much as the next guy, and the soft stuff by The Eagles often turns a corner from laid back to comatose, but as far as I’m concerned, “Hotel California” is hip. On January 18, 2016 guitarist, songwriter, and founding member Glenn Frey died of several health issues. He was 67 years old.