The sad death of Glenn Frey on 18 January, in a short period that has seen rather too many sudden check-outs, has caused me to reflect on the place (the) Eagles have held in my musical affections since first seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in 1973. Frey, as some have recently pointed out, was the leader of the band, even if the golden-throated Don Henley was the main creative force. Together they were a formidable team, both vocally and as songwriting partners.
Eagles – there was never a ‘The’ they insisted – supported my theory that the perfect four-piece rock band comprises an architect, an interior designer, a plumber, and an electrician. In other words, a visionary, a focal point, a grafter, and someone who can get out of the van on the road at 2am and fix the carburettor. Although there are exceptions, and they usually break up after the first album – imagine a band with four leaders – this sweeping generalisation does fit most successful rock quartets.
As for Eagles, they started out the near-perfect combination. Founder members Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner (the plumber and the electrician maybe, no slight intended) were great instrumentalists and vocalists, but both quit – at different points – roughly around the time the band went multi-platinum. Replacements and augmenters comprised the apparently difficult Don Felder, the eminently suitable Timothy B Schmit, and the rather incongruous Joe Walsh.
The golden vocal blend of Frey and Henley (with other members complementing the harmonies) was their trademark sound, used to good effect outside of the band on Randy Newman’s ‘Rider In The Rain’. It was this ‘ear candy’ that Eagles detractors found cloying, and annoying, especially when combined with Frey and Henley’s singleness of purpose and undoubted ambition. But had they not have aspired to producing ‘perfect’ records, with appealing melodies and lyrics that spoke to their fans, they would have been left behind with the other country rock under-achievers, such as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco.
I am not a total fan – much of Hotel California I found dull; The Long Run was makeweight; lines such as ‘you’ll have to eat your lunch all by yourself’ are simply stupid, and I’m not crazy about ‘Chug All Night’, or ‘James Dean’. But the high points – ‘Take It Easy’, the opening guitar chords of which heralded the arrival of some serious contenders; their sophomore Desperado LP, the artistic high point, and great songs such as ‘Lyin’ Eyes’, ‘One Of These Nights’, and Bernie Leadon’s ‘My Man’, place them among the all-time greats.
Beach Boys on horseback, if you will.