A Fan's Notes On Selected Works
Author: David Wild
Publication: Selected Works 1972-1999 Booklet
Abstract: An overview of the career of the Eagles, taken from their Selected Works booklet.
"Who can go the distance?
We'll find out in the long run"
- the Eagles
Most victories are flashy and fleeting.
In our increasingly fickle pop culture, we tend to change our heroes a little like we change our t-shirts. Eagles fans were long ago forewarned about this often-cruel relentlessness of time and fashion. "They will never forget you 'til somebody new comes along" goes one knowing line in New Kid in Town that artfully communicates the harsh speed with which new kids on the block can find themselves old news.
Yet every once in a great while, a group of musical artists bands together and in its moment creates a body of work that doesn't fade away like so many boys of summer, but rather resonates year after year. Some troubadours travel a road so well at precisely the right time that they become part of that road. They create a living record of their journey that continues to connect with people in a way that is deep and enduring. Ultimately thtese artists must be considered winners of a different sort of race, one measured in the long run.
On reflection, it seems that the Eagles were not so much musical revolutionaries as master craftsman creating solid pieces built to last. The Eagles didn't always do things first -- they just did them better than the rest. Others may have pioneered the fusion of rock & roll with country music, but nobody ever made that union sound so harmonious, so potent, so perfectly right.
Unlike some major acts that would follow, the Eagles' popularity can't be considered just another profitable by-product of hype. Indeed, few major groups have ever done a better job of lying low in the press and keeping their faces off the front of their album covers. Though a pretty attractive bunch, they managed to underplay this, effectively hiding themselves under period hairstyles, beards, and moustaches. In truth, there were plenty of similar-looking cosmic cowboys riding the FM prairie, trying to rustle up a few hits, but none of them had the tunes the Eagles did. The Eagles' success clearly wasn't much about persona. Apart from the attitude of the songs, there was precious little showbiz on display. And the whole thing certainly wasn't due to the nifty videos or studio wizardry either -- there really weren't videos then and in concert the Eagles always sounded almost exactly like those well-crafted records.
The Eagles were hardly purists, and as a result, the band eventually covered the musical waterfront as they wisely followed wherever their best songs took them. The song was the thing, and in the end the Eagles' songs took them far indeed. Henley and Frey are the first to admit that they weren't pioneers, but they were fans of the best parts of several different genres. In the early days, the boys used to sit around and listen intently to recordings by Al Green, Ray Charles, The Isley Brothers, The Spinners, The Ohio Players and Sly and the Family Stone. Then, they would turn around and listen to George Jones and Merle Haggard just as avidly. After that, they would crank up the Beatles and then maybe the Dillards. Those were some of the influences.
As time went on, the creative core of the Eagles increasingly seemed to become the songs of drummer/vocalist Don Henley and guitarist/vocalist Glenn Frey, though the contributions of the other band members -- initially bassist/vocalist Randy Meisner and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Bernie Leadon, later guitarist Don Felder, guitarist/vocalist Joe Walsh and bassist/vocalist Timothy B. Schmit -- were all real parts of the Eagles' winning equation.
In the end, everybody brought something to the party, even if life within the Eagles didn't always feel like one big party. The contrast between the group members turned out to be a good thing although it created difficulties when they weren't all headed in the same direction. The Eagles didn't march in lock-step, but there is a thing called 'creative friction' that really works... if you can live with it.
The songs the Eagles brought us were introspective and intimate enough for a solo cross-country drive when you were trying to clear your head, yet exhilirating enough to blast to your best buddies on a rowdy road trip. Whatever the context, these songs came to represent much more than the sonic wallpaper of an era. This was the best sort of traveling music, not just for one band clearly on its way somewhere, but also for a few generations of fans anxious to go along for the sweet, if sometimes dark, ride.
The Eagles' body of work became the soundtrack for millions of lives. Fans all over the globe played Eagles music in their cars, their homes, at parties, during happy times and sad. They fell in love, broke up, got engaged, got married and started families with the band's music surrounding them. A lof of people did a lot of things to the Eagles.
Some of those things were even legal.
Perhaps this helps explain one of the most remarkable parts of the Eagles phenomenon -- the fact that it's never really gone away. Yes, Virginia, the Eagles were a big band in the Seventies -- okay, the biggest -- but when they abdicated their lofty perch during the Eighties and Nineties, they stayed big almost despite themselves. This seems to be thanks to undying fans support, non-stop Classic Rock radio play and -- again, it all comes down to this -- songs that refused to be discarded with the passage of time.
Though they enjoyed massive international success, the Eagles can be considered in a very real way to be America's band. Certainly their domestic track record as record-sellers and as a concert attraction supports this distinction. So too does their decidedly American migratory flight pattern. Appropriately, the boys in the band were drawn to leave their assorted hometowns to chase the late Twentieth Century American Dream that drew countless hopefuls to the rocky, gold country of California.
It's an interesting storyline. It is indeed more than a little curious that the song of an automobile factory worker in Michigan, Frey, and the son of an auto parts store owner in Texas, Henley, could wind up in California together and do what they did.
There are many myths surrounding the Eagles, but the one they have tried to dispel for so long is the notion of them being the quintessential California band. The truth is they came from all over the United States -- Meisner was from Nebraska, Leadon from Minneapolis, Felder from Florida, Henley from Texas and Frey from Michigan. Walsh has claimed Kansas, Ohio and other states -- though no one could ever quite pinpoint where Walsh was from. I guess you could say he's a Midwesterner.
Schmit was the only California boy in the band and, being part Hispanic, added yet another rich element to the mix. Between them, they had myriad influences including bluegrees, country, latin, Dixieland jazz, big band, folk, rock, rhythm and blues, soul -- it was all in there. I think it's safe to say that a healthy portion of their individual music tastes were formed before they ever got to Southern California. Still, it is undeniable that the Los Angeles music scene had a big influence on them.
The Eagles would make the American Dream a little bigger before they were done and spread it throughout the known universe. With each album, the band seemed to comment more eloquently on both a sense of generational freedom and its darker consequences. By the time of Hotel California and The Long Run, the Eagles were exploring, in fell swoop, the glamour of the Dream and its more nightmarish side effects. Though the Eagles vividly documented life in the fast lane, they also counted some of the casualties on the side of that road.
As Henley would later say, they were growing up and coming face to face with the harsh realities of the music business, of fortune and fame. They were losing their innocence -- and they knew it. There was a certain amount of prescience on the Desperado album. The Eagles more or less predicted their demise there. But, as time went on, the songwriting got better, as did the production and musicianship.
The long run may not be quite over, but the record shows that to date the Eagles have already won and won big. I'm not just speaking here of May 7, 1978 -- a day that will live forever in rock critic infamy -- when the brotherhood of Eagles kicked the Rolling Stone staff's collective ass in a highly charged game of softball. No, the greater public record is clear that the Eagles have outlasted and outlived their naysayers. Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 is the single best-selling album of all time in America, selling over twenty-six million copies in the United States alone. For countless fans, Their Greatest Hits somehow became ours too. Yet that ten-track collection could hardly tell the entire Eagles story -- it doesn't even document material from the group's widely acknowledged masterpiece, Hotel California, and their subsequent rough gem, The Long Run.
On Selected Worksyou can finally hear in one place how the West -- and the rest of the world -- was won. Gathered together for the first time is the best of the Eagles' recorded output -- material gleaned from their six studio albums and assorted live releases.
The final CD of the collection -- recorded live on New Year's Eve 1999 -- documents the Eagles' Millennium concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and offers aural evidence that the group remains at the peak of its performing powers here at the front end of the new century. Also featured are a few previously unheard studio moments, though the same professionalism and exactitude that helped create their legacy makes the Eagles less than anxious to share every one of their previously unreleased audio morsels.
The Eagles never finished anything that they didn't use. There are no forgotten gems in the vault. Instead we get a window into the previously poorly documented lighter side of the Eagles in the studio. (Yes, they had fully functioning senses of humor).
Much was made over the years of the exacting standards with which the Eagles' later records were created, but time turns out to have been on the Eagles' side. These records were built to last and last they have. It's as if the band were heeding the words of their first hit Take It Easy -- "We may lose/We may win, but we will never be here again."
On January 12, 1998, all seven musicians who have been members of the Eagles appeared onstage at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For the first time, all the Eagles played together -- performing Take It Easy and Hotel California.
That night, Henley appeared to have put all the honors and success in perspective. "Old buildings, politicians, and whores all become respectable if they stick around long enough," he said with a grin.
In the beginning there was Disneyland.
Perhaps oddly, it was at the self-proclaimed Happiest Place on Earth that the original Eagles lineup first shared a stage together as the backing band for a young songstress named Linda Ronstadt. By this time Henley and Frey were already young veterans of different regional music scenes who had headed west to make the L.A. scene and to make their names.
The pair actually met at the dawn of the Seventies at Amos Records, the small label of their respective outfits. Henley's band was Shiloh, while Frey was in Longbranch Pennywhistle, a duo with future Eagles frequent flyer J. D. Souther. "I may have seen Don and his band when they came through the offices of Amos Records on Sunset," Frey recalls. "But then I saw his band play Hoot Night at the Troubadour and I think I talked to him sometime after that."
Henley had played with a number of bands back in his native Texas, displaying promise from the beginning. Henley's longtime friend and former bandmater Richard Bowden recalls one interesting fan Henley made during one mid-Sixties era gig, where Henley's band was the opening act for Ike and Tina Turner. After the show, Bowden remembers that Ike returned to the stage and said "Hey man, that little drummer boy of yours, he can really sing. Yeah, he's gonna do just fine."
It's almost enough to make you scream "I Like Ike."
Frey, meanwhile, had established himself as a bit of a Motor City madman, even doing some work with then local Detroit rock hero Bob Seger, as well as playing in a series of bands including The Mushrooms and The Heavy Metal Kids. Asked about these early musical efforts, Frey quickly laughs, and jokes, "You could put out The Worst of Glenn Frey: Every Record He Made in Detroit."
If anything Henley and Frey's two original Eagles bandmates were better-known than themselves, having worked with groups that were among the first to marry rock and country. Bassist and vocalist Randy Meisner had been a founding member of Poco and was playing in Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band, while Bernie Leadon, who played guitar, banjo and mandolin, had worked with Dillard & Clark and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
The Eagles came together in 1971 to back future superstar Linda Ronstadt for $200 a week per man. Henley remembers Ronstadt as a fine boss lady and frontwoman, and he and Frey both express gratitude to the singer and her then producer/manager John Boylan. "I give a lot of credit to Boylan and Linda for helping us find our way and for landing Bernie and Randy," Frey says. "At that time Boylan had the idea of putting together a super country-rock band to back up Linda. They came to us with this idea in mind. Don and I being totally honest said, 'But we want to have our own band.' Yet rather than being miffed about it, Boylan totally understood and proceeded to help us anyway. And that was how the Eagles were born."
The band would be signed later that year to Asylum by David Geffen -- a contact the band made through their pal and co-conspirator Jackson Browne. Before making their debut album, the group -- briefly known, believe it or not, as Teen King and the Emergencies -- would get their chops together during a month-long residency playing four sets a night at the Gallery Club in Aspen, Colorado. For the record, there were at least a a few outbreaks of genuine, peaceful, easy feelings in the early days of the Eagles, but, as I would later be reminded, the Eagles didn't write that song.
Peaceful, Easy Feeling was penned by Jack Tempchin -- another one of the Eagles' fellow travelers. That lovely and relatively lighthearted song was one of the highlights of The Eagles, an impressive if somewhat diffuse debut effort that staked out a good deal of the turf the band would make their own, and also included major radio hits like Take It Easy and Witchy Woman. Paradoxically, this distinctly American band would travel overseas to make their first recordings. The album was recorded at London's Olympic Studios with Glyn Johns, renowned for his work with the Rolling Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin, among others. The sessions were difficult. Superstar producer Johns was strong-willed and his strict methodology often clashed with the visions of the young band members. Still, they give him credit for driving them quickly through the recording projects and not allowing them to bog down in the studio.
The first album was recorded in a mere two weeks. The band wanted to spend more time in the studio, but Johns wouldn't allow it. He got them on tape, warts and all, and the Eagles left England with a decent first effort but numerous questions about their future in the studio.
Johns had tried to democratize the band, acting as mediator, referee, shrink and big brother, but before long, musical and personal tensions emerged. It has been said that the turmoil was the result of a deep concern for improvement in the quality of the music. Frey had some very definite opinions about songwriting, as did his former partner and Eagles collaborator, J.D. Souther.
Surprisingly, Henley only had one writing credit on the album -- for co-writing Witchy Woman. The drummer has explained that he was hanging back a bit at first trying to learn more about songwriting from those around him who had a little more experience, including Frey.
"I don't know if I was any more evolved than Don in the beginning," says Frey. "But I did have a lot of opinions," he adds with a laugh. Of his musical chemistry with Henley, Frey notes that he and Henley started writing songs together "in self-defense. We made our first album and it had a couple well-written songs on it for sure but it was spotty. But here we were at a management company on a new label with David Geffen and Elliot Roberts and they're representing some of America's finest songwriters, like Laura Nyro. We're hanging in the same world with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne. There must have been some unspoken look that Don and I gave each other that said we'd better write some good songs or they're not going to keep us around. We'd better get better. We'd better improve. We'd better get serious."
The same recording team would reunite for 1973's Desperado -- a conceptual song cycle that displayed considerable creativity and ambition, especially for a record made in three weeks. Many would mimic the album's theme of rock musicians as outlaws, none with comparable grace. A big leap forward artistically if not commercially, the album featured the classic title track and the lovely Tequila Sunrise, both products of the rapidly growing Henley-Frey songwriting partnership.
The Eagles next album -- 1974's On the Border -- represented all sorts of change. After some abortive sessions in London, which nonetheless produced The Best of My Love and You Never Cry Like a Lover, the Eagles split with Glyn Johns. They soon hooked up with the veteran record maker who would be a key player in their success: producer Bill Szymczyk, selected in part on the recommendation of then solo artist Joe Walsh, who would later figure prominently in Eagles lore.
"I think everything got better once we got with Bill," says Frey. "Suddenly the sound of the records got better and it happened to coincide with the writing and the musicianship getting better. Bill would give us a little rope to learn and pull us back when we went too far. We learned lessons that way. I learned a lot about producing records working with Bill. I give him high marks as an influence, and also as a coach and referee."
Like Glyn Johns, Szymcyzk [sic] acted as referee, but he did it in a more lighthearted manner. According to the lore, he got right down there and partied with the band. For better and worse, he got down in the trenches, bellied up to the trough. They all loved working with Bill.
With Szymczyk behind the board and the newly added electric guitar of Don Felder -- credited as a "Late Arrival" in the liner notes -- things took a rockier turn. The album kicked off with the infectious Already Gone and included the nostalgic stomper James Dean, co-written by Henley and Frey with Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther. Yet it was the ladies' choice ballad The Best of My Love that would turn out to be the band's breakthrough hit, topping the charts and becoming their first million-selling single.
As they hit their peak, Henley and Frey were nearly inseparable.
When they did their best work, they generally shared a house. Living together was what made it work. The conversations and their lives were intertwined and that would lead to songwriting. They would talk about everything from their personal relationships with women, to their political beliefs, to their spiritual beliefs to football and baseball. They lived it and breathed it and out of that camaraderie came the songs.
Glenn Frey concurs. "Absolutely," he says. "We'll never be able to be so single-minded again. We were on a quest. That was a very good time for us -- 74, 75, 76 -- the bulk of our best work was written in those years and we were either living together or in Laurel Canyon five blocks from each other and, yeah, that definitely helped. The times when we were living together we were on such a roll it was fantastic. We'd get together and lay out some legal pads, grab a couple beers and there'd be a couple guitars and a piano in the room. It was all very spontaneous."
The Eagles made the leap to superstardom with their next album One of These Nights, a far-ranging, impressive piece of work that spawned three top ten hits - the title track, Lyin' Eyes and Take It To The Limit, featuring an extraordinary vocal from Randy Meisner. One of These Nights reflected the group's growing eclecticism. One Of These Nights, for instance, was sleek soul music.
Not everybody was thrilled by the direction things were going, and Bernie Leadon left the group at the end of 1975. Signing on for a slightly surprising tour of duty was former James Gang leader and solo star Joe Walsh, who brought his many talents and eccentricities to the band, adding guitar firepower and his own distinctive brand of comic relief.
Interest in the band was now such that in the spring of 1976 a retrospective was released of Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975. The collection topped the US charts for five weeks -- and has never stopped selling well.
In truth, however, the crowning achievement of the Eagles was still to come. 1977's Hotel California would be not only their best-selling studio album, it would prove to be their creative high point. A song cycle that's somehow haunting and rousing, Hotel California was a masterpiece that worked brilliantly as a cohesive whole, yet the individual hits just kept on coming, including the atmospheric title track, New Kid In Town and the dead-on, edgy social commentary if Life In The Fast Lane. Songs like Wasted Time and The Last Resort, meanwhile, further established the band as insightful commentators on the exact sort of modern excess they were often accused of representing -- "the Mercedes bends," to quote one typically evocative phrase. The Eagles had captured the good, the bad and the ugly of life in the fast lane -- since then only the speed limit has changed.
Hotel California's richly deserved massive success would keep the Eagles tirelessly touring and then, in September 1977, Randy Meisner decided that he'd had enough of life on the road. His replacement would be Timothy B. Schmit, a gifted vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who coincidentally had also replaced Meisner when he left Poco.
Perhaps inevitably, the Eagles' final studio album The Long Run suffered for the crime of following Hotel California. Heard now -- long afrer the stories of delays, in-fighting and bad behavior have faded -- it's a little hard to hear the big problem. Yes, the album seems less cohesive and revelatory in comparison to Hotel California -- what doesn't? -- but it contains some gems and left-field charmers. The philosophical, soulful title track has aged well, while The Sad Cafe offers a moving eulogy for the scene that gave the band life. Heartache Tonight offers crunchy, party rock, and new kid Schmit came up with a killer vocal for the heartbreaking, silky smooth I Can't Tell You Why. Created under tense conditions, The Long Run is nonetheless a fairly funny album, if darkly so -- take another listen to The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks or Teenage Jail and laugh.
By now, however, the Eagles partnership was falling apart, though the official announcement wouldn't come until 1981 after the release of Eagles Live, an in-concert effort most notable for its inclusion of the band's lovely, harmony-drenched cover of Steve Young's Seven Bridges Road.
And that, sports fans, was basically that, or so it seemed for nearly a decade and a half. Solo careers got underway as former Eagles flew in their own directions with varying degrees of success. Occasionally there was talk of a reunion, but a true reformation seemed unlikely at best. And then, shortly after the success of Common Thread -- an album of country stars covering classic Eagles tracks -- something remarkable happened. Hell froze over -- a pre-condition that Henley once joked about -- and the band undertook what they called a "resumption," picking things up with the same band that had split so many years earlier.
The Eagles made a splendid return for an MTV special, which along with four newly recorded tracks -- the nicely pissed-off Get Over It, the exquisite Learn To Be Still, the tuneful country-rock of The Girl From Yesterday and the big ballad Love Will Keep Us Alive -- constituted 1994's massive Hell Freezes Over collection. The reaction to the album and the subsequent tour exceeded all expectations. No one was more surprised than the band members themselves. Having been physically off the scene for fourteen years, they had made very conservative projections about where and how much they were going to play. They originally had designed an approximately eight month schedule, but after having to cancel some of the dates in 1994, the band ended up touring until the end of the summer, 1996. The Eagles spent two years and eight months on tour -- with a sixty-day break for major surgery for Frey. During that time, they broke all kinds of attendance and sales records and the Hell Freezes Over album has gone on to sell 15 million CD's and over one million audio visual devices. Over the years, the band has tried to shrug off the overwhelming public reaction to the resumption, but it is apparent that they were deeply moved. They are finally coming to grips, it seems, with the fact that their music was -- and is -- an indelible part of the coming-of-age of an entire generation, and that this, along with the blood, sweat and tears that they put into it, is the basic reason for its longevity.
And so it is that the Eagles' songs thus far have connected with fans in two centuries and are currently heading for three.
In the meantime, consider yourselves welcomed to the Selected Works.
Such a lovely place.
David Wild is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and, yes, a confessed Eagles fan.