In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits: 1971-75, which went to No. 1 on March 13, 1976, where it stayed for four weeks, and again on April 17, where it stayed one week.
One of the most influential rock critics of the last couple of decades doesn’t write for Rolling Stone, Spin, or Pitchfork; he’s not a writer at all, actually, or even a real person. You could call this figure the man for his time and place. Even if he’s a lazy man—and this person is most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest in Los Angle-less County, which would place him high in the running for laziest worldwide—sometimes there’s a man, sometimes there’s a man …
I’m talking about The Dude here. Specifically, I’m talking about The Dude hating the fucking Eagles.
Like all great surveyors of culture, The Dude didn’t tell people what to think when he famously declared his dislike for L.A.’s biggest country-rock band in the back of that guy’s cab in The Big Lebowski; he merely articulated what they were already feeling. He could’ve said, “I hate fucking James Taylor,” or “I hate the fucking Doobie Brothers” and been equally justified. But he wouldn’t seem nearly as right.
That doesn’t make him a hero, because what’s a hero? He’s just a man who—well, he fits right in there, along with the rest of us Eagles-hating folk. No band from the glory years of ’60s and ’70s classic rock inspires as much knee-jerk dislike and ridicule, while simultaneously maintaining such a big presence on the radio and concert circuit, as the Eagles. Hating the Eagles is a countercultural movement, and countercultural movements need short, sharp, and piercing bits of rhetoric to penetrate the hearts of potential followers. Which is why Jeff Lebowski is the Vladimir Lenin of contemporary anti-Eagles sentiment.
For a long time, I shared that sentiment. But something eventually pulled me back: the Eagles’ music. It’s debatable whether the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits: 1971-75 deserved to sell 29 million copies, putting it tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the best-selling album of all time. But after listening to these mild, unassuming songs many times over the past few weeks, I don’t really get how it could engender so much passion, positive or negative. Even the cover—a pale blue wash with an eagle’s skull at the center—is soothingly inoffensive. (The font is vaguely reminiscent of a death-metal band, but since death metal didn’t exist when the album was released in 1976, I assume this is a coincidence.) I spent several minutes staring at it, trying to muster up the bile I used to instinctively feel for the Eagles. All I got was sleepy.
Flipping the cover over, there’s a list of 10 songs, all of which still get played regularly in a variety of rock and adult-contemporary radio formats, as well as every Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s establishment I’ve ever set foot in. I once considered Eagles to be the worst big-selling band in rock history—certainly the least rock ’n’ roll rock ’n’ roll band of the bunch—but looking at this tracklist, I can’t find one song that I actively hate once I stop playing it in my mind and actually play it. “I hate the fucking Eagles, man!” is a state of mind, but in reality the reason why Their Greatest Hits—and the Eagles in general—is so popular is pretty obvious once you hear Glenn Frey and Don Henley rustle up those acoustic and steel guitars for their tales of Me Decade California living. It works because it’s supposed to work. These songs were designed to be liked by as many people as possible, and they accomplish the job extremely well—perhaps too well.
I’ve spent most of my life as a music fan believing that the Eagles suck. But I never realized why I thought they sucked, or that hating the Eagles is only a few millimeters removed from loving the Eagles. (Which makes hating them a defense mechanism, like carrying a can of mace or blaming your DVR for “mistakenly” erasing all those episodes of Treme.) If you hate the Eagles, you probably hate them for at least one of the following four reasons. And there’s somebody out there who probably loves them for the exact same reasons. With the Eagles, “success” and “sucking” go hand in hand. If you’re not careful, you can forget which side you’re on.
1. I hate the fucking Eagles because they are rich
While Thriller is looked upon fondly in part because of its popularity—the songs are great, but we love them because everybody loves them—the cultural ubiquity of the Eagles is probably the most detestable thing about them for people who hate the fucking Eagles. From the very beginning of the band’s career, making huge stacks of money was a central part of the Eagles’ mission. David Geffen (who, as the Eagles’ original manager and head of Asylum Records, built his media empire on the back of the band’s early success) makes this plain in Barney Hoskyns’ book about the ’70s L.A. music scene, Hotel California. “The Eagles weren’t going to fail,” Geffen said, as (I’m guessing) he slowly stroked a white cat and lightning crashed behind him. “It was a group put together with clear intentions.”
Michael Jackson also had clear intentions with Thriller—he was consciously trying to make the biggest crossover pop/R&B record of all time—but the Eagles’ arrogance and cool-guy cockiness have always made their calculation seem more brazen and odious. This is especially true of Their Greatest Hits, a compilation record released only four years into the band’s career, and before the release of its biggest studio-album triumph, Hotel California. The band hated the record—perhaps because it rendered the first four Eagles albums irrelevant—but Geffen shrewdly wanted to capitalize on the group’s cachet in the wake of 1975’s multi-platinum One Of These Nights. Instead of waiting until the end of the Eagles’ career, Geffen correctly believed that Their Greatest Hits would give the group a mythic makeover, stacking all those hit singles in one place and making the Eagles appear to be an unstoppable pop-culture force. In actuality, it was Their Greatest Hits (along with Hotel California) that made this “unstoppable” image a reality. It created the perception of dominance that allowed the Eagles to become dominant in the late ’70s.
Considering how Their Greatest Hits is likely the only record many Eagles fans own, it’s amazing how many of the band’s biggest songs aren’t on the record. There’s no “Hotel California,” no “Life In The Fast Lane,” no “New Kid In Town,” no “The Long Run.” The album has become its own brand, even if the “greatest” title isn’t wholly accurate. This has been rectified by The Very Best Of Eagles, a two-disc, career-spanning (including the ’90s comeback hits) compilation released in 2003 that has cut into the sales of Their Greatest Hits in recent years, moving 5 million copies. But Their Greatest Hits remains the Eagles’ claim to greatness. On the charts, at least, no band has ever been better.
2. I hate the fucking Eagles because they will never stop being rich
The first time I saw Their Greatest Hits, it was in a crate of records in my dad’s closet, along with some Supremes, John Denver, and Kansas’ Point Of Know Return. (It’s the one with “Dust In The Wind,” though it’s possible my father has a prog-rock past he’s hiding from me.)
There’s an old joke about unavoidable albums like Rumours, Frampton Comes Alive, and Their Greatest Hits being issued by the U.S. government to every Caucasian man, woman, and child—presumably as part of a massive soft-rock redistribution plan—in the mid-’70s. But, seriously, you would think these people would be sick of this music by now. And yet well-heeled Eagles fans continue to pay hundreds of dollars to see them perform these songs live. In 2010, the Eagles grossed $64.5 million on the road, making them the fifth-largest grossing touring act for the year. The Eagles made that much in spite of only playing 42 shows, thanks to an average ticket price of $105.53. That was the highest average for any of the top five acts, and the only one to go over $100. Overall, the band’s three-year Long Road Out Of Eden tour has made $250 million.
Going to an Eagles concert in the 21st century is a rite of passage for well-off retirees decked out in denim shirts and silver-bullet Bluetooths and their deeply bronzed, leather-skinned significant others. For those who can’t afford to get in, the group has come to signify the most overbearing aspects of declining (but still potent) boomer cultural supremacy. As one of the few classic-rock bands still standing, the Eagles are rewarded and crucified for the accomplishments and sins of an entire generation of artists. People go to see them because they represent “classic rock”; people hate them because they represent classic rock’s worst excesses, like ridiculous ticket prices.
People in their 20s and 30s look at the Eagles like they do Jay Leno, whose prominence is similarly taken as evidence that the American public consumes entertainment like vultures feasting on discarded Wendy’s bags. As Bill Carter astutely observes in The War For Late Night, the definitive chronicle of the Leno-Conan clash over The Tonight Show, the “Team Coco” movement had as much to do with younger viewers’ resentment over yet another tired old man refusing to yield the stage as it did with appreciation for O’Brien. Leno, like the Eagles, is responsible for keeping the generation gap alive for grown-ups and their middle-aged parents. And the parents still have their hands on the remote control.
3. I hate the fucking Eagles because they’re so fucking mellow
Writing on the Eagles in his Popless column, our own Noel Murray said the band represents “the rise of cynical, lackadaisical, studio-crafted Southern California FM rock in the wake of the hippie-era dream.” I’m not as eloquent as Noel, so let me dumb that down a bit: The Eagles don’t rock. Seeing as how the Eagles are commonly classified as a rock band, this is a problem tantamount to calling Zookeeper a “comedy” or LMFAO “music.”
To their credit, the members of the Eagles were also profoundly disturbed by their own lack of rocking. The band’s first two albums, 1972’s Eagles and 1973’s Desperado, were overseen by Glyn Johns, the famed producer and studio engineer who’s worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Clash, among many others. With that kind of résumé, Johns is uniquely qualified to determine a band’s ability to rock, and he was solidly unmoved by the Eagles, later telling Musician magazine that the group’s attempts to play Chuck Berry songs in its early club days were “blatantly, bloody awful.”
Johns believed the Eagles’ strengths were their vocal harmonies and the country picking of original guitarist Bernie Leadon, so that’s what he emphasized on the band’s first records. This apparently annoyed the band to no end, as Don Henley told Crawdaddy! in 1975: “Glyn thought we were a nice country-rock, semi-acoustic band, and every time we wanted to rock and roll, he could name a thousand British bands that could do it better.”
While the Eagles’ soared to new heights as an arena-rock band with Hotel California, Their Greatest Hits is mostly a showcase for the band’s “nice country-rock, semi-acoustic” side. The only song with heavy guitars is “Already Gone,” which the Eagles made with a new producer, Bill Szymczyk. (Band biographer Marc Eliot calls the song “an effective Eagles kiss-off to Johns.”) But comparing Their Greatest Hits with the stadium-oriented Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, I’ve got to say that Johns was right. “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “Tequila Sunrise” might be the epitome of easygoing ’70s soft rock, but it’s the template that presents the Eagles at their most appealing and comfortable. Don’t hate the Eagles because they don’t rock; hate the Eagles because they weren’t content to not rock.
4. I hate the fucking Eagles because they won
Right before The Dude chooses to not abide his thunderously touchy cabbie playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” on the radio, Lebowski has a run-in with porn-movie kingpin Jackie Treehorn and the surprisingly redneck-ish Malibu Police Department. I’m not sure if the Coen brothers intentionally tried to make a point by introducing an Eagles song in the aftermath of a scene where a ’60s burnout gets thrown out of an exclusive community associated with coke-addled ’70s L.A. rock-star millionaires, but let’s just say they did. Because it sums up why someone like The Dude (or anybody else) would hate the Eagles—or love them.
The Eagles’ music is handsome, well mannered, and popular. If an Eagles song walked up to you on the street, you would doff your cap or drop into a curtsy. Strip away the context of the band’s music, along with any history you might have being chased by Eagles songs in public places for the past 40 years, and it’s suddenly difficult to comprehend how anybody could hate it. Kick out your inner Dude, and hating the Eagles starts to seem like work. Why cheer against the good-looking high school quarterback with a Division I scholarship and the prettiest girl in town on his arm? He has everything, and why not? Winning is infectious.
Listening to “Take It Easy”—the first track on Their Greatest Hits, and in many ways the band’s signature song—is like turning on conservative talk radio. At first, the bluster turns you off. (He has seven women on his mind? What a creep—or a liar.) Then it starts to make you angry. (“It’s a girl, my lord, in a flat-bed Ford”? What is this pap?) Then that all-too-human instinct to assimilate kicks in, right around that snappy guitar solo. It gets tiring after a while calling out every instance of stupidity (“Lookin’ for a lover, who won’t blow my cover, it’s so hard to find”) and feeling mad about it. You want to laugh along with the host, and feel his hot air blow through your hair in the back of that flatbed Ford. You want to be inside, with Jackie and the naked girls on the trampoline, not outside with The Dude. You still object to the casual sexism, but certainly there’s nothing wrong with being your own man, just tryin’ to find a place to make your stand, like a real American.
You start to think that “Take It Easy” is a celebration of Americans venturing west in search of good old-fashioned hedonism. It’s like the ’70s version of The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” and Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang.” And who could (or would) resist that? We got it easy, so we oughta take it easy. Makes sense right?
And that’s when the Eagles own you. Suddenly, Jeff Lebowski deserves to be thrown out of Malibu, and Their Greatest Hits has earned its place among the most popular records ever released. And you see the world for what it is: very un-Dude.
Coming up: Kanye West’s 808s And Heartbreak