Week 46: The Eagles, The Crackers You Love To Hate
In 2009, A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
When it comes to the Eagles’ suitability for Nashville Or Bust, I am powerfully split. Part of me feels like I have to write about the Eagles, who became one of the most popular bands of the past century while playing a historically non-commercial genre: country-rock. I feel like I should write about the Eagles because they represented the non-cool side of the same hip scene that spawned Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons. Yet there is a dissenting voice in my head screaming that I shouldn’t write about the Eagles because they aren’t really country. After a certain point, it’d be a stretch to even call what they play country-rock, and this certainly isn’t a series devoted to the biggest-selling rock groups of all time.
Yes, the Eagles are too big to cover, and too big not to cover. For a group whose greatest hits implore listeners to take it easy and cultivate a peaceful, easy feeling, the group inspires an astonishing contempt. The mere mention of the group’s name is enough to inspire reflexive cries of “Fuck those guys,” or approving references to Gram Parsons’ description of the group’s music as “a plastic dry-fuck.”
To Eagles haters, guitarist-singer-songwriter Don Henley and drummer-singer-songwriter Glenn Frey are the bad guys. They’re cynical opportunists who rendered country-rock sterile, lifeless, and commercial. They’re supposed to have stolen its soul by diligently removing all that makes country music country: pain, vulnerability, rage, defiance, humor, heartbreak, and the like. Something irreplaceable and essential was lost in the journey from the honky-tonk to the amphitheater.
According to conventional wisdom, pop music had grown alternately too mellow and too ridiculously bloated in the 1970s. On one side of the equation, you had prog-rock bands performing hourlong story-suites—often about wizards and shit—on synthesizers. On the other, you had the Eagles soothing a frazzled nation with a laid-back, Southern Californian derivation of country-rock. Rock had gotten corporate, soft, and predictable, so punk and hip-hop developed as homegrown antidotes to the soulless slickness of major-label pap. The heroes were the guys with leather jackets, safety pins, and a finely honed contempt for society. They stood in fierce, principled opposition to the mainstream, and nothing was more mainstream in the mid-1970s than the Eagles touring giant stadiums for colossal paydays, in spite of the members’ legendary undying contempt for one another. They were in it for the money, not the music, man.
The irony, of course, is that the contempt directed toward the Eagles often has more to do with the iconic group’s lifestyles, persona, popularity, and audience than with its music. When I actually sat down to listen, I discovered that good music could be made by slick professionals rather than tortured artists, as evidenced by the output of the Brill Building and Motown. Even The Byrds recruited a murderer’s row of session pros to make Sweetheart Of The Rodeo feel like classic country rather a bunch of rock stars fucking around. For some, the group never stopped being mercenary guns-for-hire, but there’s a reason folks paid good money to have Henley or Frey play on their songs: They’re damn fine musicians and singers, with an impeccable sense of craft.
The widespread contempt for the Eagles has an unmistakable personal edge. People didn’t just dislike the songs, they hated the band members themselves, and especially their fans. The Eagles came to symbolize all that was wrong not just with music, but with the world. They epitomized rock’s de-evolution from the rebel music of hopped-up teenaged hellcats to the musical sedative of cynical Me Generation hedonists.
I came to feel a certain personal loathing for Henley when I read Marc Eliot’s biography To The Limit: The Untold Story Of The Eagles. Henley, who tried to halt the book’s publication, comes off like a Laurel Canyon Caligula, a debauched, drug-addled sex fiend whose noble environmentalist crusades will do nothing to keep him from becoming Satan’s bitch the moment he dies and goes straight to hell (which I hear froze over some time around 1994). Frey and Henley didn’t just squabble; they were engaged in never-ending psychological warfare. They jockeyed for power and position within the band, and more importantly, there simply wasn’t enough cocaine in the universe to satisfy both of them in the 1970s, so that became a source of explosive friction as well.
But what about the music? Could it possibly justify either the incredible hate directed at the band, or its incredible success? Would it be possible for me to listen without prejudice? Is it possible for anyone to listen to a band as notorious and famous as the Eagles without bringing too much negative baggage along?
It takes many bands years to find themselves as artists, but from the very beginning, the Eagles knew exactly what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. The initial quartet of Henley, Frey, Randy Meisner, and Bernie Leadon first gelled when they worked together as Linda Ronstadt’s backing band on her debut album. They clicked. Something about that particular combination made it more than the sum of those considerable parts. The Eagles never had to refine an aesthetic: The first song on their first album, “Take It Easy,” tunefully encapsulates everything they would become.
“Take It Easy” offers the Eagles in a nutshell. It has everything: impeccable harmonies, virtuoso musicianship, and memorable lyrics. It’s an infectious song with giant hooks. “Take It Easy” is almost perfect, but in the rough-and-tumble world of country, that isn’t necessarily a virtue. Country loves imperfections and rough edges, and the Eagles roared out of the gate with an album polished to a blinding sheen.
After “Take It Easy,” Don Henley offers “Witchy Woman” and Frey drags the fellows to a sordid local bar with the aggressively minor, inconsequential “Chug All Night.” (Could a song called “Chug All Night” be anything else?) The Eagles were conceived as a supergroup that paired session musicians Henley and Frey with Leadon of Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco’s Meisner. Eagles showcases the band’s talents in ways that favor eclecticism over cohesion: Frey’s working-class cock-rock and Leadon’s bluegrass fussiness co-existed in the band without quite connecting.
The first time I listened to Eagles, it inexplicably irritated me. I found its professionalism oppressive. That might seem a little odd, but I was raised to view professionalism and virtuosity with skepticism, if not outright disdain. That was the province of the Yngwie Malmsteens of the world, not artists. To a certain strain of music fan, the phrase “technically accomplished” has the same condescending tone as describing a period film as “handsomely mounted”: They’re both ways of praising an artist’s craft while implicitly suggesting that there’s not much of substance underneath. But craft tends to be a deeply underrated quality.
It always bothers me when someone complains that a movie is “just funny” or “just scary.” It’s damn hard to make a funny or scary movie. On a similar note, the criticism that the Eagles “only” made catchy songs feels illegitimate when you consider how infernally hard it is to write even a single hit song that permeates the culture the way “Take it Easy,” “Desperado,” or “Hotel California” have, let alone a whole bunch of them.
With 1973’s Desperado, the Eagles made an ambitious concept album about the infamous Dalton Gang. The rock-star-as-outlaw metaphor isn’t exactly fresh, but Desperado uses it to comment mournfully on the pervasive rootlessness and isolation endemic both to life outside the law in the Old West, and life as a touring rock star. Bernie Leadon’s “Twenty-One” celebrates the freedom that comes with having nothing left to lose, while “Tequila Sunrise” and “Desperado” are haunting ballads of world-weary resignation. From its cover to its title and concept onward, Desperado is the Eagles’ most country album; Leadon’s mandolin and banjo are given free rein. In this context, Frey’s “Out Of Control” qualifies as jarring, out-of-place filler, a bluesy rocker in a melancholy exploration of existential angst among the outlaw set.
The Eagles moved further and further from country-rock with 1974’s On The Border, though the album has its country-fried moments, from the rollicking train song “Midnight Flyer” to “My Man,” Leadon’s haunting tribute to his late friend and fellow Flying Burrito Brother Parsons. Though it bears a strong enough resemblance to Parsons’ own “Return Of The Grievous Angel” to suffer by comparison, “My Man” is so disarmingly tender that I began to wonder if the Eagles were not, in fact, soulless, robotic money-grubbing machines. At times throughout the group’s oeuvre, they seem almost human. And it doesn’t get much better than “Already Gone,” the killer opening song.
Leadon left by the time the group recorded its 1976 magnum opus, Hotel California. It’s an album so ubiquitous, odds are good that you’ve heard much of it even if you’ve never sat down to listen to it in its entirety. Like Desperado, Hotel California is a concept album, only this time, the theme is the empty decadence of the 1970s rock lifestyle, a subject about which Henley and Frey were, if anything, overqualified to write.
“Hotel California” kicks things off on an appropriately spooky, almost phantasmagorical note, with Henley inhabiting the existential identity of a traveler who finds himself in a strange place where, famously, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” That line, and many others, lead some listeners to postulate that the titular hotel, and the album itself, take place in purgatory, a spooky netherworld somewhere between heaven and hell, joy and sorrow, between the decadent excitement of being part of a world-famous band, and the torment of being tied with golden handcuffs to people you hate.
By that point the band had undergone all manner of lineup changes. Leadon left in 1975, taking many of the group’s bluegrass and country elements with him. He was replaced by Joe Walsh, a popular solo act in his own right, while Meisner left the group after the Hotel California tour due to exhaustion, and was replaced by Timothy B. Schmidt. (Schmidt also replaced Meisner in Poco, but at least had the decency not to marry any of Meisner’s ex-wives or adopt any of his children.) If only Frey and Henley could have thought up a way to give their tired bandmate a quick jolt of energy. The lineup changes did nothing to dispel the notion that the Eagles weren’t true believers, just a corporation that happened to make solid music.
“Hotel California” doubles as a moody allegory for the lost promise of the counterculture; in a particularly resonant line, the narrator asks for wine and is told that they haven’t had that particular spirit since 1969. A lot of good things ended that year. “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Wasted Time” continue the theme of runaway excess and shattered dreams. Hotel California is about the idea of California as much as the reality, about the mythology as much as the actual state. It’s about the party and the hangover, though the air of fatalism that hangs over the album like smog in L.A. suggests the good times may be over permanently.
It’s easy to write off the Eagles as the douchetastic epitome of corporate rock, as the musical pabulum of choice for yuppie assholes. Like a lot of stereotypes, especially those involving those Pope-worshipping, potato-stealing drunken Irishmen, it has a basis in truth. But there’s a reason the Eagles are one of the top-selling acts of all time, and it’s not just because of the business savvy of handlers like David Geffen and Irving Azoff, both of whom became show-business titans thanks in no small part to their association with the group.
There is no great secret to the Eagles’ success: The band arrived with the chops, polish, and experience of session musicians, and the craft of solid songwriters. They had multiple charismatic frontmen. They smoothed away the rough edges and underclass anger of country and made wildly commercial albums that appealed to the broadest possible audience. There’s no crime in that. I went into this entry expecting to hate the Eagles. Hell, I probably went into this entry wanting to hate the Eagles. But I like to think of myself as someone who appreciates a well-wrought pop song, and heaven knows the Eagles wrote and performed more than their share. It didn’t hurt to have people like Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther co-writing songs, either. (Browne made particularly valuable contributions: “Take It Easy” was co-written by the man who wrote “These Days” and “Fairest Of The Seasons” for Nico just a few years earlier.)
Though the Eagles specialized in concept albums, the songs they recorded over four decades have maintained such an ubiquitous presence in our culture that an entire album could be cobbled together just from the band’s greatest hits. Possibly even two. That kind of a format could really suit them. I’m not sure if it would do Thriller numbers, but I could see it doing pretty well, all things considered.
Up next on Nashville or Bust: