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Eagles at 50: The Beginning of Country Rock’s Conquest

Eagles are a band with a multifaceted reputation in the world of music. For most, they’re one of the primary voices of the turbulent 70s, an ill-fated force who delivered some of the decade's most enduring albums and singles. For others, they’re a gross anomaly, an outfit that stumbled into success and rode their luck to mind-boggling wealth and fame. Simply put, the band has both its stalwart fans and its detractors; and while both sides would likely spend an entire afternoon arguing their point to you, it could be that the truth about Eagles lies somewhere in the middle, wherein chance and good fortune smiled kindly upon this band of miscreants. This sentiment can be fully observed in the story of the band’s self-titled debut, which, believe it or not, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It’s a tale that’s reminiscent of many other musical origins, but with Eagles especially it highlights both the band’s tenacity and a few unsung heroes, who with all their powers combined created one of the most powerful debuts in the history of popular music.

First, the common givens: Eagles are a rock band initially formed in LA in 1971, with the original members of the band being Glenn Frey on guitar, Don Henley on drums, Randy Meisner on bass and Bernie Leadon on multiple instruments. All four members of the band contribute vocal chops as well, but Frey and Henley are considered to be the leaders of the band, guiding creative trajectory and musical output. Frankly speaking, the events that led to the forming of Eagles are a classic example of everyone being in the right place at the right time. All four members had recently moved to California in 1970, and coincidentally they were also looking for new musical projects, with each of them having played in many bands previously. Frey and Henley first met at the Troubadour, a famous West Hollywood venue, and they quickly formed a friendship and rubbed elbows with many in the burgeoning folk scene. More importantly, they were soon recruited by Linda Ronstadt, who needed musicians to support her tour in the summer of 1970. Leadon and Meisner also joined Ronstadt’s band around this time, and while on tour Frey and Henley decided they wanted to form their own band together. Ronstadt recommended both Leadon and Meisner to join in on the fun, and, after finishing work with Ronstadt, the four musicians set about crafting their sound, using the Troubadour as both their base of operations and occasional practice studio. In an interview with RockHistoryMusic, Leadon recalled how they'd “rehearse at the Troubadour in the daytime…then have to tear down after four hours because a band was coming in to set up.” This kind of schedule is daunting to say the least, but luckily it soon paid off: their hard work at the Troubadour attracted the attention of David Geffen, the man who would turn Eagles into a household name.

At the time of their meeting, Geffen was in the middle of starting his own record label, having previous experience working with acts like Jackson Browne, Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills and Nash. In 1971 his plans came to fruition, and with his co-founder, Elliott Roberts, they signed Eagles as the first band under their new label, Asylum Records. This contract wasn’t a full display of confidence though, as Geffen saw how the band, when surrounded by Hollywood, was susceptible to imbibing more than their fair share of marijuana and booze. In an attempt to help kick this habit, Geffen provided funding for the band to move up to Colorado, specifically housing them near Aspen and the University of Boulder. While in this area, the band frequented both the Gallery and Tulagi, venues where they arduously performed and further developed their harmonic sound. The band also gained crucial insight into what they wanted to be, with Frey once noting that “we had watched landmark country-rock bands…lose their initial momentum. We were determined to not make the same mistakes…Everybody had to look good, sing good, play good and write good.” This increased drive couldn’t have come at a better time, since Geffen had recently convinced producer Glyn Johns to head up to Colorado and evaluate the developing band. Johns was a seasoned producer at this time, having worked with bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, and to say he wasn’t initially impressed with Eagles is an understatement. He later confided to Uncut that the Colorado shows were “very badly attended and the sound was terrible…the material wasn’t that impressive. It was a mess.” Despite this, he quickly changed his tune after an acoustic session with the band, as he was drawn to their vocal harmonies and saw a new potential for their ‘high-flyin’ sound. He soon signed on as producer for their debut, and quickly took the band all the way to England, where they would begin recording at Olympic Studios in February 1972.

In an interview with Uncut, Leadon shares a fitting parable about the final moments of recording in England. He states that after “the final note is struck, and right as that ring-out decayed into nothing, the power went off…it was a blackout, due to…Britain [being] in the grip of a miners’ strike.” This event, even though it was right at the end, almost seems like the cherry on top of the hardships that Eagles had to endure when working in England. The band was on the textbook rigorous schedule of record, drink, sleep, record again throughout the entirety of the process, and, to make matters worse, the studio itself wasn’t exactly suited for the band at all. In the same interview with Uncut, Leadon describes how the studios “were large because they had been designed for orchestras…[they] were hard to heat, it was cold. It just seemed damp.” With these difficulties also came the professional oversight of Johns, which Eagles were simply just not used to. In particular, Johns had a hard ‘no drugs allowed’ policy during recording, which unfortunately did not mesh all that well with the looser habits the band had learned in LA. However, it should be stated too that Johns was an integral part of shaping the band's sound, even though his approach could sometimes be considered a bit severe. As Henley describes in an interview with Rolling Stone, Johns would “stare at you with his big, strong, burning blue eyes and confront you with man-to-man talk…we even cried a couple times.” Luckily, the band and Johns made it through the process with most of their wits intact, which would lead one to believe that all the troubles involving its recording had finally come to an end. But, of course, there was one more occasion to christen their debut: Leadon, in the Uncut interview, describes how “when [they] went back home, Randy freaks out and…he wants to trash-can the whole thing and start over…he’s paranoid, he’s afraid.” Fortunately, the band and Johns managed to calm Randy down, but it’s clear from this event that the band was under severe pressure to make the album up to their standards. It’s lucky that the band held their own at this time though, since we all know by now that they certainly succeeded in their ambitions.

In June of 1972, Eagles was finally released to the public, with all three singles climbing within the top 25 of the Top 40 charts. That level of success is nothing to scoff at, but it should also be noted that it wasn’t completely out of nowhere either. While the band and Johns were recording in England, Geffen rightfully got busy promoting the band, utilizing “his own radio guy to go on the road…[with] his only job [being] to promote the one record Asylum had.” Leadon later admitted to Uncut that “that’s why ‘Take It Easy’ was a hit…the biggest reason the Eagles were successful was the fact that Geffen was promoting it.” These efforts from Geffen were substantial in the long run too, with it only taking two years for the album to be certified Gold in January 1974. Naturally, as with most albums of this time, the success was definitely assisted by the strong 3 singles, with ‘Take It Easy’ and ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ soon becoming staples in the band's catalog. Funnily enough, the other single, ‘Witchy Woman,’ is the only one that is fully an Eagles original, being Henley’s only writing credit on the album. ‘Take It Easy’ was primarily written by Jackson Browne, but the song became part of the Eagles repertoire after Frey noticed his difficulties finishing the song. Browne humorously recalls in an interview with Outsider that “after a couple times when I declined to have him finish my song, I said…’This is ridiculous. Go ahead and finish it…and he finished it in spectacular fashion…what’s more, arranged it in a way that was superior to what I had written.” While ‘Take It Easy’ was fueled by this collaboration, it should be noted that ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ was written in entirety by San Diego songwriter Jack Tempchin, who would later go on to co-write ‘Already Gone’ for the band too. According to KLOS-FM, the story goes that in 1969, after a gig, Jack Tempchin “waited around trying to hook up with a waitress, but she left and never came back…he crashed on the floor of the club, but couldn’t sleep. To kill the time…[he] started composing this song, writing lyrics on the back of one of his flyers.” It’s a softly sad tale for a touching and hopeful song, and I’m sure that Eagles were singing their praises when Tempchin allowed them to utilize his lyrics. There’s two more assisted songs on this album as well, with ‘Nightingale’ also being penned by Browne and ‘Train Leaves Here This Morning’ being a cover of the Dillard and Clark classic. With this being said, i.e. before the naysayers show up, it should be noted how Eagles never phoned in any of these performances, instead opting to take the lyrics, inhabit them, and create ‘originals’ in a sense by delivering versions that were fully and truly songs of their own craft.

At the end of the day, Eagles’ legacy is inarguable. There have been mentions of ‘critics’ and ‘naysayers’ of Eagles in the preceding lines, but genuinely it feels laughable that anyone would have to try and defend them. Their mark on music is one that’s truly incalculable by now, though fifty years ago it could’ve been an entirely different story. From the beginning Eagles had the mindset that they were going to be champions, but what allowed them to truly succeed in their aims? Was it Geffen, with his knack for promotion, Johns, with his laser focused production, or, put simply, was it just hitting on the right note at just the right time? Henley would later admit to Grantland that, at the time, Eagles were also questioning their debut’s success, stating that it “scared the hell out of us. Why me instead of some guy down the street?” One could probably attribute Eagles success to their fastidious work ethic, or “[wanting] the whole package” as Henley stated to Dig!, but that doesn’t fully satisfy either. Other bands have put their blood, sweat and tears into albums, other bands have had excellent promotion and immaculate production, so why hasn’t any rock band since even come close to the high water mark set by Eagles? Thinking about it for too long could drive you crazy, so it’s best to let that go for a second. The hot streak that followed Eagles’ debut wouldn’t last past the 70s, but it should be understood by this point that it never had to. While Eagles didn’t create country rock, their ability to carry the soul of the genre into the popular sphere created a thousand ripples in the history of rock music, with dozens of imitators and those influenced by their work still chugging along even to this day. At this point they’re eternal, they’re everywhere, and their fine-tuned yet easy going atmosphere will probably keep attracting fans for as long as time will tell. But why? Why them? Again, it’s best not to try and understand.

Written by Nick Snow


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