Eagles, circa 1976 (l-r) – Don Felder, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner
“We were all reading books about the Hopis and in the Hopi mythology, the eagle is the most sacred animal with the most spiritual meaning. I think it’s a beautiful symbol. I would hope that the music would soar that high. Glenn likes the name because it sounds like a teenage gang.” – Bernie Leadon, after one too many peyote-driven trips to the desert.
Having grown up in Philadelphia on a diet of R&B, doo-wop, soul and rock ‘n roll, I’ve never been much of a country music fan. Sure there was some crossover country on the radio that I dug (Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roger Miller, etc.) but there were no country stations and it was barely a blip on my radar.
When “country-rock” started to evolve in the early ’70s with artists like Mike Nesmith (a pioneer in this genre), Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, etc. my response was pretty much a shrug. It all just seemed to me to be too wimpy and laid back. If a band wasn’t pounding me into submission, what was the point?
Now I wasn’t totally averse to country-rock as a genre. I was well aware of the Stones’ affection for Gram Parsons and I kinda dug their attempts at country in songs like “Country Honk,” and “Torn and Frayed.” And a friend of mine who was into all this stuff turned me on to the Dead’s American Beauty.
But when the Eagles showed up and released a song called “Take it Easy,” my basic reaction was meh. I’ll never like these guys says I. Never. (I have a standing joke with my son that I’ll wind up in a “dad band” with a bunch of fat fucks playing songs like that on a gazebo in the town square.)
But then a funny thing happened. They kept releasing songs. And they kept having hits. And then I’d hear them on the car radio. And the songs would get into my head. They were fucking … EARworms. And I liked them, begrudgingly. And then I really liked some of them.
And then Joe Walsh joined the band and Hotel California was released. And so I said, well, you guys have won me over. Now maybe they’re a highly commercial form of country-rock or maybe not even that at all sometimes.
So let’s put labels aside and I’ll just say they were a damn fine band with a lot of good, singable songs. Interestingly, while I would now consider myself a fan, I own exactly zero Eagles albums (not even California) and never went to see them. For me, they were a radio band pure and simple.
For a band that trafficked in country-rock and both celebrated and decried the American (or California) Dream, the original members of this band showed up from far-flung places. Glenn Frey – Detroit; Don Henley -small-town Texas; Bernie Leadon, Minneapolis; Randy Meisner, Nebraska.
These guys all landed in California in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Frey met and hung out with guys like J.D. Souther and Jackson Browne. Frey met Henley at the Troubador and both wound up backing up Linda Ronstadt on tour and on her eponymous 1972 album. Frey and Henley decided pretty quickly to form a band and with Ronstadt’s help and blessing, did just that. Meisner and Leadon joined and voila! Eagles.
Their debut album Eagles was released in 1972 and yielded three hit singles – “Take it Easy,” “Witchy Woman*,” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Eagles (not THE Eagles insisted Frey) were in flight.
Now the thing about these six-packs (for the uninitiated) is that they are not a statement of the best six of a band or even the same six that would I have picked last week or might next week. They are just six that I dig. I tried to lean neither into nor away from the hits.
I left “Hotel California” off intentionally as A) I’ve covered it elsewhere and B) let’s face it, we’re all kinda sick of it. But I consider it hands-down one of the greatest no-shit rock songs of all time. If I wasn’t convinced that the Eagles were worth listening to before Joe Walsh, I certainly was after. Felder and Walsh made for a potent guitar mix and it’s too bad Felder is now persona non gratis with the band.
From the aforementioned Hotel California, here is the crunchy (forget country-rock here) “Victim of Love.” (Eagles are one of those prick bands that pull some of their stuff off of YouTube. So, where available, live versions will be featured there.) Slide here by Joe Walsh who learned how to play directly from Duane Allman. (So, by the way, did Don Felder who used to lose battles of the bands to the Allmans when they’d play against then in Florida).**
Tell me your secrets, I’ll tell you mine.
This ain’t no time to be cool.
And tell all your girlfriends, your “been around the world” friends
That talk is for losers and fools.
Eagles’ 1974 album On the Border was the first one to feature guitarist Don Felder. The title song was one that I’ve always dug with its slinky, funky rhythm and R&B-influenced Frey’s guitar figure. Just a great, great groove. (No YouTube).
In thinking about which six Eagles tunes to feature, I knew I would have to consider at least one wildly overplayed song from “Already Gone,” to “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Hell, it wouldn’t be an Eagles tribute without one. After much consideration, I somewhat arbitrarily decided on “Life in the Fast Lane.”
The background story is that Frey was driving down an LA highway with a drug dealer behind the wheel. The guy started speeding and when Frey told him to slow down he said, “Hey, man it’s life in the fast lane.”
So after surviving that incident, they had a new song title. The opening lick came from a riff Walsh was playing one day at rehearsal that they knew they somehow had to work into a song. So they married the two together and came up with this tune about a hot-shot couple partied out on blow. Henley said it was a bitch to learn how to play that syncopated bass-drum part and sing:
Desperado was the band’s second album. Despite the success of the title tune, at the time the Old West concept album never really took off sales-wise.
Henley: “The basic premise was that, like outlaws, rock and roll bands lived outside the laws of normality, we were not part of conventional society. We all went from town to town, collecting money and women, the critical difference being that we didn’t rob or kill anybody.” Keith Richards has often thanked his fans for living within the rules to allow him the lifestyle to live outside of them.
The track “Bitter Creek” from this album is a deep track hidden gem. Written and sung by Bernie Leadon, it took its name from the nickname of an outlaw they were all reading about at the time.
This song has a nice old-timey feel:
The Long Run (1979) was the band’s final album for like, a million years. Nobody will ever mistake the Eagles for a hard-rock band. But with Felder and Walsh on board, this album continued the trend towards a funkier sound. Like “Hotel California,” “Those Shoes” is a Henley-Frey-Felder composition:
I think one of the best covers the band ever did is of Tom Wait’s “Ol’ 55.” “It’s such a car thing,” Frey said. “I loved the idea of driving home at sunrise, thinking about what had happened the night before.” Waits wasn’t a fan of it, but well, tough shit, Tom. I dig it. You may be perceived as “cooler” but I stopped caring about who is and is not cool somewhere around high school.
Frey and Henley share vocals, Leadon on pedal steel:
And now the sun’s coming up
I’m riding with Lady Luck
Freeway cars and trucks
Stars beginning to fade, and I lead the parade
Just a-wishing I’d stayed a little longer
Lord, let me tell you that the feeling’s getting stronger
Social note – We went on a cruise a couple of years ago where – for some reason – I decided to sing a karaoke version of “The Best of My Love.” That went about as well as it sounds.
*Impossible to think of “Witchy Woman” without reference to the classic Seinfeld episode.
**I talk about the Leadon/Felder/Allman Gainesville connection in my series on Tom Petty.
Sources: Wikipedia; Eagles: The Ultimate Guide, Rolling Stone.