When I was a teenager in the 1970s, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing an Eagles song. They were practitioners of the “Southern California sound,” a mix of folk, country, bluegrass and rock played at a typically “mellow” pace (dude), made popular by artists like Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. Like the Beatles, CSN, and Chicago they always had multiple songwriters and at least three strong lead singers who could also combine to create amazing harmonies. The Eagles lyrics always struck a chord; somehow they seemed so much older and world weary than us fans. Songs like “Desperado,” Tequila Sunrise,” “Lyin’ Eyes” poetically exposed the human condition in the way of great country records. “Take it Easy” admonished us to not let the sound of our own wheels drive us crazy, to “lighten up” while we still could. My first girlfriend chose their sweet ballad “Best Of My Love” to represent us, and the song continues to be meaningful to me after all these years. Eventually, the radio overplayed many of these songs, and we “burned out” on a lot of them. In fact, this overexposure kept me from bothering to buy tickets to any of their shows in the 70s. We finally saw the band in Oakland a few years ago during what was their final proper tour, supporting their excellent documentary The History of the Eagles. It was a great show, full of classic songs, guest appearances, and interestingly, interludes where clips from the documentary were played on large screens that flanked the stage.
Their classic album, Hotel California, the band’s fifth, hit the airwaves in 1976 finding a receptive global audience. Their most polished, accomplished recording, it eventually sold more than 30 million copies. Packed with their signature sound, it’s also a more rocking version of the band, which now included three guitarists, Frey, Don Felder, and new member Joe Walsh. Their excellent musicianship balanced grit and polish making huge hits of the title track, along with “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Victim of Love,” and “New Kid in Town.” The messages in the lyrics are clear cautionary tales of excess, drugs, and lost dreams, mixed in with more typical love songs. The title track was open to interpretation, as was the album jacket’s imagery, which led many to draw outrageous conclusions, including accusations of Satanism. Yet the band was cagy about explaining the meaning, other than saying it was a metaphor for a “journey from innocence to experience.” Of the album as a whole, Don Henley told Rolling Stone “We were all middle-class kids from the Midwest. Hotel California was our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles.” A stark interpretation it was. The band embarked on a long and successful tour to support the album, which included a stop in Washington D.C. where the proceedings were filmed, and included in that recent documentary DVD.
A critic had accused the Eagles of loitering on stage, and it’s true that the band exuded the laid back California vibe so perfectly captured in their music. It’s one of the reasons they recruited rocker Joe Walsh into the band just before this album and tour. As the film shows, there were no duck walks, no stagecraft; the most animated player was Walsh whose facial expressions mimicked his winding guitar solos, demonstrated most aptly during his hit “Rocky Mountain Way.” The most memorable moment of the film is the signature solo for the title track “Hotel California” which found Joe Walsh and Don Felder delivering their dueling guitar solo facing each other in an exciting jovial moment. Yet their laconic style does not seem a disadvantage all these years later. It’s a pleasure to watch the band perform their many hits, including down-tempo classics like “Lyin’ Eyes” which demonstrates Frey’s ability to impress the audience, even with his eyes mostly closed! The professionally filmed wide screen movie is crisp and clear, caught by multiple cameras and edited to include wide shots and close-ups that are well timed to maximize the experience. Only eight songs are included, but it’s worth the price of the documentary set to have this content. Hopefully an unedited version of the film will eventually be released in the future.
We lost Glenn Frey this week, and while it means no more reunion tours for the Eagles, his music will surely live on all over the world. At the time of his 80s solo career success, Frey said he realized, “You don’t have to give this up when you turn 30, 35 or 40. I’ll always make records and write songs. I gotta do them, otherwise I’d go nuts.” He needn’t have worried. Even after the band broke up in 1980 the classic rock format dominated radio stations in the U.S. where the next wave of British punk and dance music was being relegated to niche status. The format continues to this day, and the Eagles are still played frequently all over the world. Frey once said, “even though the band broke up they kept playing our songs all the time. It was like we never went away….we were still on the radio…” And it’s still true. Frey and his body of work will remain in our hearts. R.I.P.