As the ’60s bled into the ’70s, the counterculture that had started so psychedelically was already turning rootsy and rust-colored. Out of that earthy aesthetic came country rock. Emblemized by The Byrds with the group’s 1968 album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the new country-rock genre gained steam thanks to other notable practitioners like Linda Rondstadt, Poco, and former Byrd Gram Parsons. It was Ronstadt who assembled a group of L.A.-based backing musicians in 1971—a group that soon decided to continue on without Ronstadt as the Eagles. Of its founders—Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner, and Bernie Leadon—only the latter two original Eagles had any real country-rock credentials (as former members of Poco and Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers, respectively).
As it turns out, the Eagles’ supposed level of authenticity became an issue. Critic Robert Christgau said the band’s self-titled 1972 album was “suave and synthetic—brilliant, but false.” That overall impression dogged the group until its 1980 breakup, and it would continue through various reunions up until now; the Eagles are still dismissed by many listeners and critics in more or less the same terms Christgau used. Granted, The Dude’s oft-mimicked exhortation of “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!” in The Big Lebowski gave a whole new generation of haters a convenient way to brush aside the band without actually having to think or talk about its music.
The Eagles’ narrative is not one of the underdog; Frey, Henley, and crew remain one of the most successful bands in the history of popular music. And there’s no denying that so many of the group’s hits from the ’70s—from its Jackson Browne cover, “Take It Easy” to the infamously overplayed (and overblown) “Hotel California”—can sometimes sound like little more than sepia wallpaper. That’s a shame, because many of those songs deserve a fair hearing. They’re not all coked-up, decadent rock-star lullabies, as the stereotype would have everyone believe. The Eagles could be sensitive, soulful, silly, ragged, rocking—and, yes, even authentic. Case in point: “Earlybird,” an aptly named song from 1972’s Eagles that features punchy banjo, a shuffling beat, rich harmonies, and a layer of distorted guitar. Country rock is a bastardized genre to begin with—for that matter, so are country and rock—which makes it odd that the Eagles have long been criticized for not being pure enough. But on “Earlybird,” the group’s immersion in the then-young genre is passionate and organic. And as clear as birdsong.
2. “Train Leaves Here This Morning”
The Eagles’ hits are so ubiquitous—and, for many people, carry so much baggage and dubious associations—it can be a revelation to dwell on the deeper album cuts that never made it on the band’s various multiplatinum collections. There exists an alternate history of the Eagles. On “Train Leaves Here This Morning” from Eagles, Leadon sings even more evocatively than he does on “Earlybird,” waxing bitterly while keeping things sweetly twangy. It doesn’t hurt that the song covers one of Leadon’s prior bands, Dillard & Clark—and was co-written by that group’s co-leader (and The Byrds’ original lead singer), the masterful Gene Clark. The Eagles covered other less-popular songwriters (including Steve Young and Tom Waits). But “Train” nails the Eagles’ sweet spot of country, pop, and weary melancholy.
One of the main complaints about the Eagles is that the group mixed unabashed pop sensibility into its country-rock formula, but few country-rock bands of the ’70s weren’t pop bands at heart. On “Tryin’,” the closing track from Eagles, the pop half of the equation definitely wins out. With fuzz-smeared guitar and rhythmic swagger, the song maintains a bracingly bittersweet undertone thanks to Meisner’s keening vocals—not to mention a fleeting homage to the end of The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It’s also a hint of the more refined hooks the band would be specializing in by the end of the decade. Far from being chameleons, a frequent accusation, the Eagles underwent a gradual, organic evolution from humble country-rock to stadium-ready pop-rock. And it began with their first album.
4. “Out Of Control”
The Eagles’ penchant for power-pop hit a peak on “Out Of Control,” one of the best songs from the band’s most solid album, 1973’s Desperado. Even more hook-injected than “Lyin’,” “Out Of Control” is a kissing cousin to the power-pop Big Star was making at the time—that is, when it doesn’t sound like a gritty, boogie-fied version of The Sweet’s arch glam rock.
5. “Outlaw Man”
Although stocked with plenty of able songwriters, the Eagles occasionally used outside compositions—the band’s upbeat, 1974 hit “Already Gone,” is an example—but “Outlaw Man” is the most successful of a previously unrecorded song that the Eagles made their own. Commissioned from folkie and Bob Dylan contemporary David Blue, “Outlaw Man” bears traces of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” in its minor-key menace and simmering swampiness. Inexplicably, it also bears the distinction of being the only single released by the Eagles in the ’70s that never made it on any of their greatest-hits collections.
6. “Certain Kind Of Fool”
Continuing Desperado’s string of excellent deep cuts, “Certain Kind Of Fool” veers back toward power-pop territory. Here, though, there’s a Who-like ring to the acoustic hooks—and more of Meisner’s sharp, distinctive vocals, which ache with regret without slipping overboard into ’70s singer-songwriter mushiness. Also unmistakable is Glenn Frey’s lead guitar: supple, raw, yet subtly bluesy.
7. “Bitter Creek”
Another overlooked classic from Desperado is “Bitter Creek.” Skeletal and scoured by desert sand, the track (penned and sung by Leadon) evokes Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—or at least America—with its ghostly harmonies and corroded acoustic strumming. “Bitter Creek” is as lo-fi as the Eagles get, showing an unvarnished, unguarded side of the group that listeners rarely get to hear.
8. “Is It True?”
By the time the third album, 1974’s On The Border, was released, the band was a bona fide hit-making machine. But that doesn’t mean those hits were prefabricated—although On The Border, like its predecessors, does draw openly from influences such as Gram Parsons, Neil Young, and further back to The Beatles. In particular, “Is It True?” nods toward George Harrison’s early solo work, right down to its “What Is Life?”-like title. Rather than blatantly copying Harrison (or any of their influences), though, the Eagles added its own brand of sweetener to classic-rock jangle and cooing harmonies. By and large, On The Border feels like a placeholder of an album—a cover of “Ol’ ’55,” the first song on the debut album of an unknown singer-songwriter named Tom Waits, is pleasant but noticeably weaker than the original—but “Is It True?” more than justifies its existence.
One Of These Nights came out in 1975, and it marks the point at which everything changed for the Eagles. Before its release, the group was just another promising, up-and-coming bunch of country-rock hit-makers. But Henley and Frey clicked in a new way, leading to mega-smashes like “Lyin’ Eyes” and the album’s title track—both of which were the right songs at the right time and place, turning the band’s mix of twang and rock into something that tapped into the zeitgeist of a decade. For better and for worse, One Of These Nights is also the first Eagles album with guitarist Don Felder as a fulltime member—and he graces the disc with his lone lead-vocal contribution to the band’s catalog, “Visions.” Chunky and propulsive, it’s a showcase of Felder’s way with a riff. Not to mention his ability to help stretch the Eagles’ compositional canvas.
10. “Too Many Hands”
Similar in tone to “Outlaw Man,” One Of These Nights’ “Too Many Hands” dwells on some of the recurring themes that have come to dominate the Eagles’ songbook: promiscuity, infidelity, and romantic resentment. All kinds of things can be read into that, from the dissolution of the Free Love ethic of the ’60s to a veiled drugs- and success-fueled distrust that had already begun to circulate among the bandmembers themselves. On a strictly instrumental level, however, it’s simply a scorching, snarling slab of ’70s rock.
11. “Journey Of The Sorcerer”
An oddity in the Eagles’ oeuvre, “Journey Of The Sorcerer” stands out among the other tracks on One Of These Nights—it barely sounds like the Eagles at all. That said, it’s fantastic. Like Yes and Led Zeppelin jamming together on a bluegrass standard, the song is a near-seven-minute vocal-free voyage of banjo, fiddle, and symphony orchestra, and it completely lives up to its admittedly cinematic, grandiose title. The fact that the original recording of “Journey Of The Sorcerer” is the theme song for the BBC’s radio adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (the subsequent TV show used a cover version) only makes it that much cooler.
12. “Pretty Maids All In A Row”
“You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave,” Don Henley sings at the end of “Hotel California,” the best-known, most-hated hit the Eagles ever had. Even for Eagles fans, it’s hard to defend the song’s tedious self-importance and maddening omnipresence. It’s as though the Eagles had checked out of the rootsy sound they’d started out with—yet were unable to leave the trap of decadence they’d built for themselves. Still, the band managed to own and milk that decadence up until the start of the ’80s, even if Hotel California remains its spottiest full-length. A highlight of the album is, incidentally, also the B-side of the “Hotel California” single: “Pretty Maids All In A Row.” Written and sung by former James Gang guitar-ace Joe Walsh, it’s one of only a handful of tunes Walsh produced for the Eagles; he had his own successful solo career to juggle, and it’s easy to see the group’s hiring of a loose-cannon like Walsh as a bid to help keep things real. Regardless of the cynicism this period of the Eagles is steeped in, “Pretty Maids” is a vulnerable, sparsely rendered ballad that shows the synergy between Walsh’s wild-card weirdness and the immaculate entity the band had become.
13. “The Disco Strangler”
The Eagles’ final studio album before its 1980 breakup is titled, ironically, The Long Run. The exhaustion of a decade’s worth of ungodly success, substance abuse, and intra-band acrimony suffuses every inch of the record—which doesn’t sound like a good thing, even though it makes for a compelling document of decadence and decay. “The Disco Strangler” is a symptom of that sickness, and it’s an eminently listenable one. In the three-year gap between Hotel California and The Long Run, founding bassist Meisner left, taking with him a hefty chunk of the group’s dwindling rootsy sound. But that left Henley and crew more room to assemble the stark, stomping, tightly wound storytelling of “Strangler,” which faintly presages Henley’s first solo hit, 1982’s “Dirty Laundry.”
14. “Teenage Jail”
Among the many strong selections on The Long Run—including Walsh’s anthemic “In The City”—is nestled “Teenage Jail.” The heaviest song the Eagles ever recorded, it’s the sound of the band on downers, perhaps listening to Black Sabbath. But Frey and Henley harmonize so uncannily, they sound like a hitherto unknown member of the band. And the plodding, creeping tempo adds a perverse note to an already perverse album. Within months of its release, the Eagles fell to Earth; from there, the band would stage comeback after comeback, always to diminishing returns. But “Teenage Jail” shows just how potent the group’s lesser-known tunes could be in spite of their creators’ hubristic dysfunction—or because of it.