The Eagles are an enigma. They’re both a massive cultural joke (“I hate the fucking Eagles, man,” the Dude says, spilling his drink) and one of the bestselling bands in the world to this day. And their reputation as great white temper babies, earned with public fights and a rotating-door lineup, was so vital to the band’s image that they named their 1994 reunion album Hell Freezes Over.
In previous primers, my goal was to highlight the fuller dimensions of bands often boiled down to a handful of “greatest hits” that get soul-deadening amounts of classic rock radio play. With the Eagles, I’m not sure how many people still genuinely enjoy massive hits like “Hotel California.” In interviews from their heyday, the band members sound like the worst moments of self-parody embodied by This Is Spinal Tap, speaking in improbable marketing -isms and pithy short answers. In a 2007 60 Minutes interview, Glenn Frey “explained” the band’s popularity by literally saying the name of every one of their hits.
Asked why he thinks the band is still so popular, Frey tells [Steve] Kroft, “Take It Easy, Witchy Woman, Peaceful Easy Feeling, Desperado, Tequila Sunrise, Already Gone, Best of My Love, One of These Nights, Lying Eyes, Take It to the Limit, Hotel California, Life in the Fast Lane, New Kid in Town, I Can’t Tell You Why, The Long Run, Heartache Tonight.”
Were these even alive and warm-blooded human men? In other words, I don’t want to expand your impression of the Eagles — I want to throw that impression in the garbage and start fresh. And to do that, we have to travel back in time.
Country, Period, Rock, Period
Country emerged from traditions like the honky-tonk bars of Nashville, with piano, pedal steel, fiddle, and the shuffling rhythms we mostly hear now on Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits. Hank Williams’s song “Honky Tonkin’” was released when the top pop songs were by artists like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, songs that were smooth, slow, and fully orchestrated. In contrast, Williams’s jangly country songs had more in common with the singing cowboys of the rural south in the first half of the 20th century. These country musicians sang toe-tapping songs designed to get bar patrons up out of their seats, not crooner ballads and torch songs.
Early rock ’n’ roll “borrowed” liberally from the blues, and rhythm and blues, traditions of black Americans. I’m not an expert nor a musicologist, so I don’t want to get in the weeds about this relationship. I do know that an instrumental blues track called “Honky Tonk,” released in 1956, was covered by the Beach Boys on one of their first albums and sounds very like both country music at the time and the covers-stacked first albums of many major rock bands beginning in 1960.
The tradition and twang of country music hemorrhaged record sales to the burgeoning rock ’n’ roll scene, and Nashville’s haymakers decided to disrupt country music. They made the songs longer, slower, and more sweeping, replacing the solitary twangy cowboy with the smooth vocal stylings of Patsy Cline and her peers. Then they took out pedal steel and fiddle altogether and added orchestras and backup singers. Like a quick outfit change in a spy movie, a few tweaks completely changed the look and feel of the country music scene.
(Not all country music went this way! The Bakersfield sound, named for the city in California’s central agricultural and rural region, kept the twang and foot tapping well into the 1960s and beyond. Buck Owens recorded the charming — better, don’t @ me — original version of the 1965 Beatles hit “Act Naturally” in 1963 and flew to number one on the country charts.)
The Nashville sound endured, building the foundation that eventually became the major pop country sound of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Jimmy Buffett’s early albums of singer-songwriter pop are very influenced by the Nashville sound including lyrics and song titles that reference it. Glenn Campbell’s most famous hit “Rhinestone Cowboy” is about a city guy feeling wistful for the idea of being a glamorous cowboy. Almost 20 years later, ’90s country pop leaned heavily into overproduced twang, but Alan Jackson’s song “Gone Country” is the Hank Williams, Jr. to Campbell’s Hank Williams, Sr.
In the meantime, imagine coming up as a honky-tonk musician and listening to the groundbreaking and genre-exploding singles of Johnny Cash or even Elvis Presley and then finding out most of the country chart-toppers of your era were slickly produced crooner songs full of, I don’t know, cellos. Even the squeaky-clean sound of early Beatles albums is sort of treacly and gross, and that was the most scandalous mainstream music of its time? As the ’60s wore on, rock music got grittier and a lot more, let’s say, adult in content, but the instrumentation stayed heavily in the blues, while pop music added cues from folk and psychedelia as counterculture moved toward hippies and drugs.
A growing minority within country were fed up with the Nashville sound, especially as other mainstream music was getting weirder, not safer. Even Johnny Cash, whose long list of shuffling, “hillbilly” singles with and without June Carter Cash had stayed pretty bright in tone, released the landmarks At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin at the close of the ’60s before reinforcing — remaking? — his image with 1971’s “Man in Black.” The rest of so-called outlaw country sprung up around him, and much of what’s considered “alt country” today is outlaw country. These bands hearken directly back to the honky tonks of Nashville, not its airtight recording booths and studio cellists.
After all that, there were plain old rock musicians who liked country music. They weren’t from the south or interested in folk music or tinged with the gospel. The Rolling Stones released a lot of music as heavily flavored by country as by their emblematic interest in the blues. In Los Angeles, a swirling stew of rock musicians were auditioning for each other’s new projects, formed in the wake of some high-profile breakups. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Poco were two of the first in the brand new country rock genre. The same primordial music soup helped form Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and the same breakup that freed the founder of Poco also enabled Neil Young to go solo.
A few years later, the Eagles emerged from that scene.
Back to Business
Glenn Frey was 21 and Don Henley was 22 when they were signed by the same record label and recruited to back up Linda Ronstadt on tour. No offense to the Ronstadt fans in the crowd, but despite her being the most rich and famous female musician in the country (or even the world?) at some point, I can’t remember ever hearing any of her songs and I don’t recognize any of her singles. I thought I knew one but it was a Pat Benatar song. I’m sorry! On tour, they met Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, the other two founding Eagles. By hiring all four men for her backing band and even suggesting they meet up and maybe form a band, Ronstadt made history.
(Throughout this piece, I’ve linked to Spotify instead of YouTube, because the Eagles are one of the most famously litigious and bunged-up acts in history. I hope the Spotify embeds in this piece are okay, but if not, I’ve put together a full separate Spotify playlist to match the primer.)
Train Leaves Here This Morning (1972)
The Eagles’s 1972 self-titled debut album is the most straight-ahead country album they ever made. Bernie Leadon sang lead on the first track on side 2, a cover of a song he’d cowritten with Byrds founder Gene Clark when they were both in a band called Dillard & Clark.
There were gigantic hits from the debut Eagles record — and some filler, if I’m honest — but this song is smaller, with an intimate sound, tight harmonies, and more of a singing-cowboy vibe that makes sense from Leadon and Clark. It ends with a sublime harmony when the guys emulate a train whistle and shift half a step in perfect unison.
High-harmony superstar Randy Meisner came to the Eagles well into an established career, because the high-note guy can basically write his own check wherever he wants to go. But Meisner was in no mood for in-fighty band dynamics. He’d joined Poco when it formed in the late ’60s, but left the band before their debut came out because of the primadonna behaviors of the two core members. In retaliation, Poco scrubbed him off the album tracks and had him painted over on the album cover.
Meisner has sole songwriting credit for two of the ten songs on 1972’s Eagles, matched only by Glenn Frey. Don Henley only officially cowrote one track, but other Eagles have called him “the lyric police” for his role as the ruthless midwife of songs and lyrics drafted by the band’s more musically talented but perhaps less poetic members. Frey and Henley complained over the years that they didn’t like the sound their first producer Glyn Johns wanted them to have, calling it smooth (“limp-wristed,” actually, to Cameron Crowe in 1975), but “Tryin’” is a country-rock jam buried deep on side 2.
Where 1972’s Eagles was a collection of songs written by individuals or pairs, 1973’s Desperado is a more narrative album with combined credit to Don Henley, Glenn Frey, songwriter J.D. Souther, and Jackson Browne on most tracks.
The lead track, written by those four men, tells the true story of the Doolin-Dalton gang. Henley’s lead vocals stand out, his voice always sounding just a tiny bit smokey in a way suited to these Old West songs. Apparently the band planned a concept album but ran out of steam after a few songs. Instead, Desperado is an outlaw-country gold mine, which is better.
“Doolin-Dalton” is my favorite Eagles song. They reprise it twice on this album, which I guess means they liked it a lot too.
Saturday Night (1973)
The four founding Eagles wrote “Saturday Night.” Henley does a beautiful job with lead vocals, and the verses are pure singer-songwriter gold in a way few Eagles songs really are. The chorus has tight, lush harmonies, but it feels saccharine and tacked on, including Randy Meisner’s unsupported high hook.
I file “Saturday Night” with one of my other favorite songs, Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Ballad of Spider John,” later covered by Jimmy Buffett. Ramsey also writes of an outlaw looking back in a nostalgic way on the best and least chaotic time in his life. But Ramsey’s song feels more personal, more grounded, and more genuine. The Eagles hit an outlaw-country story-song home run with “Doolin-Dalton” and “Desperado” but couldn’t sustain the tone for an entire album. That said, “Saturday Night” is a pretty song that I wouldn’t kick out of bed.
Bitter Creek (1973)
Bernie Leadon had three cowriting credits on 1972’s Eagles, but he had two solo credits on Desperado. “Twenty-One” is the second song on the album and a plain old rock song again themed for the Doolin-Dalton gang. “Bitter Creek” is the final original song on the album, followed by the third version of “Doolin-Dalton.”
Compared with the pretty harmony and lush, cohesive arrangement in “Saturday Night,” Leadon’s writing and arrangement of “Bitter Creek” is darker, more compelling, and honestly more on point for an album of outlaw songs.
Again he drew on direct inspiration: Bitter Creek was the nickname of one of the men in the Doolin-Dalton gang. Leadon paired evocative lyrics with more complex-sounding harmonies and sparse instrumentation, leaving room for his intricate banjo work to shine without overtaking the song or showing off. Imagine if an entire concept album about outlaws was songs like this one — I’d love that a lot.
Midnight Flyer (1974)
I just laughed out loud reading that Janet Maslin called “Midnight Flyer” the only dud off 1974’s On the Border. It’s a catchy, banjo-and-harmony-driven, almost bluegrass song and I don’t care what you think, Janet Maslin. This is an old-time country song you could put on your 2019 workout playlist.
Desperado was something of a flop at the time, which is wild because of what a massive icon it’s become since. The band decided they wanted to blame their producer Glyn Johns, and partway through recording their third album On the Border, they changed producers and threw most of their work in the trash.
A lot of things about this are really funny. Johns worked on Harvest and Exile on Main Street around the same time he did On the Border, so he was really fine. He joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. The Eagles didn’t like that he didn’t want them to be high when they were recording, and they didn’t like his “slick” production style. (The camera zooms out to reveal Don Henley’s future as the poster child of ’80s cocaine urbanalia.) And the best thing is that not only did the Eagles withhold the single Johns produced for them out of spite — when they finally did release “Best of My Love,” whose soupy lovey-doveyness, trust me, Glyn Johns did not cause, it became their first number one hit.
Take It to the Limit (1975)
This is the only Eagles hit in the list, but it’s one of three from 1975’s One of These Nights. Rock guitarist Don Felder joined the band in 1974, first as a session player then as a full-time member. Having an open-throttle rock-band guy in the band in turn enabled Henley and Frey to keep moving the Eagles out of country rock and into what they thought of as just rock but what sounds like pop rock to my ear. The title track “One of These Nights” is, well, a disco song. Felder’s very cool guitar hook deserves better than the beginning of the Eagles’s pivot to “Hotel California.”
Instead, we rejoin the episode in progress with the Randy Meisner vehicle “Take It to the Limit,” written by him, Frey, and Henley. Like the album’s other single “Lyin’ Eyes,” this is a country song. In fact, it’s a sweeping, orchestral, Nashville-sound country song, as rich and smooth as any of the productions the band claimed to break up with Glyn Johns over.
Randy Meisner’s high, clear voice is qualitatively different from Don Henley’s lower and tougher one. High voices tend to use less airflow and rely a lot on amplification, compared with the beefy, no-mic-required voices of people who sing live musical theater, for example. As the high harmony part in the full complement, Meisner could shine but not be the star. “Take It to the Limit” is a challenging and inescapable part, which wore on Meisner’s voice itself and his nature as a shy ensemble player in the Eagles.
Jon Bon Jovi largely retired his song “Always” from live performances after admitting he was at risk of blowing out his voice from its demanding range and high notes. Kelly Clarkson said in a Wired video that she notches difficult songs down a half step or more for concerts. Meisner had to sing the same sustained high notes as the encore at every stop on a world tour, and when he called it off once and said he had the flu, it started a fistfight backstage.
All that is to say, Meisner soon decided he didn’t want to be an Eagle anymore.
Pretty Maids All in a Row (1976)
Meisner did stick it out through 1976’s Hotel California, but Bernie Leadon didn’t. The band brought in James Gang member and general rakish charmer Joe Walsh as a guitarist on par with Don Felder in both rock bona fides and lead guitar potential.
Can I be honest? Hotel California is a bad album and that was before I learned “Life in the Fast Lane” was literally inspired by a fast car ride with Glenn Frey’s drug dealer. I guess Glyn Johns really was holding them back!
But I love “Pretty Maids All in a Row,” a sweeping, beautiful, and improbably earnest song written and sung by Walsh. The best comparison I can think of is to the Rolling Stones’s 1969 hit and long-tailed movie soundtrack staple “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Or that terrible Aerosmith song from Armageddon, but a thousand times better and not on the radio five times an hour in 1998. Walsh balances a large amount of instrumentation and thick production with his interestingly imperfect vocals and the arrangement’s very intentional rises and falls to and from dramatic crescendos. It’s a great song.
I Can’t Tell You Why (1979)
Randy Meisner finally walked away from the Eagles after Hotel California. Long ago, when Meisner left Poco and was literally painted out of their first album, the band found the comparably gifted high harmony singer Timothy B. Schmit. And now Schmit replaced Meisner again, joining the Eagles and singing lead on “I Can’t Tell You Why,” which became a top-10 hit. This song has a few of the tells of late-era Eagles, but mostly it’s a star vehicle for Schmit’s astonishing voice.
I don’t feel right saying Schmit stayed with the band, although he technically did. But no one was an Eagle after their 1980 tour until the aptly named 1994 reunion Hell Freezes Over.
In the City (1979)
I’m sneaking a solo song into the list in the form of Joe Walsh’s version of “In the City,” harder and more dynamic and interesting, from the soundtrack to the movie The Warriors. It also appeared on The Long Run.
The members of the Eagles were fighting constantly by this point, and in the meantime, Joe Walsh continued to very naturally embody the Los Angeles-Nashville hybrid rock that Glenn Frey and Don Henley had to work really hard and grow to hate each other in order to make. And it’s not that I think the more baroque and moody later Eagles songs are inherently bad, besides how overplayed they’ve been for 40 years. These songs feel like they’re wearing costumes, or they reveal that Henley and Frey had no firm musical vision to begin with. Neither explanation makes me feel great.
Learn to Be Still (1994)
Country-rock reunions happened in a wave beginning, perhaps, with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1987 hit “Fishing in the Dark,” followed by Poco’s 1989 Legacy, Neil Young’s 1993 Harvest Moon, and finally, Hell Freezes Over. My favorite new songs from these times are ones that reflect on contemporary life as the band members age, grow, and reflect.
“Learn to Be Still” is one of these, and I want to say it sounds like a Don Henley solo hit, except that it does really sound like the Eagles. It’s a fully realized Eagles song 15 years later. In fact, the four new songs on Hell Freezes Over form a microcosm of the Eagles catalog. There’s a sort of cocaine-energy city-slicker song (“Get Over It”), a Timothy B. Schmit ballad (“Love Will Keep Us Alive”), a Glenn Frey story-song (“The Girl from Yesterday”), and “Learn to Be Still.”
And as much as I hate to admit it, Don Henley is still the best lyricist in the band. He deserves to be the lyric police.
We are like sheep without a shepherd —
We don’t know how to be alone.
So we wander around this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
It’s been a real and pure joy putting this primer together, much moreso than I expected. Ending on “Learn to Be Still” turns out to be very cinematic, because this would be a great song to soundtrack my long drive home down a dusty rural road, which is Don Henley’s specialty. As Soul Asylum once sang, Henley’s “homesick for a home he never had.”
Maybe this is the crux of the thing with the Eagles: there were always some band members with a firm feeling of place and time, firm musical identities and ideas of their own talents and position. But Frey and Henley both continued to grasp and explore while they tried to find their sound, and despite their famous fights later on, they stuck together through the years. Even in hiatus, they were united.
I hope the Spotify embeds in this piece are okay, but if not, I’ve put together a full separate Spotify playlist to run with the primer.
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