A curious feature of Rolling Stone’s already contentious Top 500 Greatest Albums list is that for the two dozen or so (perhaps more) hits compilations counted, missing is the most successful compilation of them all, which still ranks above Thriller
in the US: Eagles: Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)
. On second thought, it’s not really curious at all, as the band were never really a singles band in the ‘singles band’ sense despite shifting thirty million-odd copies of their singles collection; Eagles were, for a period of about ten years, the biggest album-oriented rock band on the planet, out-selling all and any of their peers before combusting from within in spectacular (and hilarious) fashion. That their albums were almost uniformly inconsistent and the singles were
the best songs makes matters more confusing, but their consistently strong album sales distinguished them as a pop act.
Eagles at this time of their first release were a pretty standard pop-rock act, far from revolutionary. They did, however, bring to a logical conclusion the country-folk-rock hybrid that had built up steadily through the latter part of the ’60s with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival, a movement not unrelated to that decade’s folky movement but with probably more hating hippies, merging the danceability of rock and country with the thoughtfulness and introspection of the ’60s folk-rock movement. But what separated Eagles from these notables and elevated them above them in the pop charts was the superior standard of musicianship they put forward.
As veterans of the Southern California country and rock scenes, both as session players and band members, the Eagles had experience at both ends. The foursome of ex-session players formed while part of country diva Linda Ronstadt’s revolving touring band: bassist Randy Meisner was a founding member of Poco and guitarist Bernie Leadon was a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers until Gram Parsons’ departure in 1970, while drummer Don Henley and guitarist Glenn Frey were both long-time rockers, albeit failed ones at this point. The result was an exceptionally tight band with a learned understanding of when to play and when not to play, and who between them had experience on a wide number of instruments which allowed them to revolve the line-up significantly if the song required it.
Most great bands are gifted with more than their fair share of tension both personal and musical, and the Eagles were no exception; they needed a producer who was able to harmonise this energy; in Glyn Johns (Beatles, Led Zeppelin), they found that producer. The product was an album that erred more than slightly to the country side, certainly more than Frey or Henley would have liked, but a product that made pop sensations of the group; Eagles
boasted three top twenty singles: two classics in ‘Take It Easy’ and ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’, and the Henley/Leadon collaboration ‘Witchy Woman’.
Of the three tracks written by non-Eagles, two were hit singles. ‘Take It Easy’ was originally a Jackson Browne composition, appropriated in its incomplete form by Glenn Frey and fitted with a new verse and bouncy, mid-tempo bluegrass arrangement, accentuated by Browne’s exceptional lyrics and stunning four-part close harmonies. ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ was written by another contemporary of the band, Jack Tempchin, a more straightforward country ballad which has reached a similar level of notoriety. The third single, the Henley/Leadon composition ‘Witchy Woman’, is a Byrds-influence rocker sung by the drummer; the sinister heavy blues riff and tight harmonies gave a clue of the direction the band’s later albums would take after the departure of Leadon and Meisner and the first manifestation of Henley’s lifelong obsession with demonic women.
The ghost of Jackson Browne looms large over the album, not only for his pair of musical contributions (he also wrote ‘Nightingale’, sung by Don Henley, which receives a similar ‘countrification’ to ‘Take It Easy’) but for the new style of cheery southern California songwriting he was a leader of (and imparted to Glenn Frey when they roomed together), not to mention the publicity ‘Take It Easy’ got, released just months after Browne’s debut went big.
‘Take It Easy’ is perhaps the era’s definitive example of this melding of styles. Browne’s original blueprint for the song included two verses and a chorus which spoke of weariness with women and a desire to slow down: ’I’ve been runnin’ down the road, tryin’ to loosen my load, I’ve got seven women on my mind. Four that wanna own me, two that wanna stone me, one says she’s a friend of mine.’
Frey turns the song on its head with an additional verse and bridge which introduces a girl (my Lord!) in a flatbed Ford (of course) whom he asks ‘I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me’
. It’s never revealed whether she does so or if she’s just witchy, but it can be safely assumed she’s a blonde, and she has her own truck- a country boy’s dream! It’s a million miles from Jackson Browne’s possible-admission-of-homosexuality- in Winslow, Arizona, to be exact- continuing rock n’ roll’s lifelong obsession with cars and women.
Glenn Frey’s rocker ‘Chug All Night’ does little to curb the tide, but his other solo composition, ‘Most Of Us Are Sad’ provides one of the album’s only real self-reflective moments, beautifully sung by Randy Meisner, far and away the most talented vocalist of the bunch. He also takes lead vocals on his own compositions, the abstinence anthem ‘Take The Devil’ (the second least shallow track on the album) and ‘Tryin’’, a relatively bland rocker which closes the album. The band falter on a few later tracks- ‘Earybird’ is little more than an opportunity for Bernie Leadon to play his banjo and tell everyone what an eagle he is- but on the whole it’s a rather consistent effort from the band whose strong point was never its songwriting.
But it’s to ‘Take It Easy’ that I must return to conclude. It may not be the most innovative blend of country and rock, and it’s certainly not the first, but it’s certainly one of the best. The outline and main lyric may have been borrowed, but the arrangement and performance are pure pop genius and like no other track here, play to each of the members’ strengths, combining the virtuosity of Leadon’s bluegrass style with the measured restraint of rock and pop. And that, in a nutshell, is why the Eagles were so damn successful. The Eagles went on to sell another fifty million or so albums, including the classic Hotel California
but every subsequent effort suffered from an inconsistency and disjointedness that Eagles
manages to evade. Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner only stuck around for one and two more albums respectively. Perhaps they weren’t taking it easy enough.