Why the world loves and hates 1970s country rockers the Eagles

The band who brought us Hotel California and sold millions of albums of soft-rock with a country twang are either adored or detested by anyone who remembers them

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 August, 2016, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 August, 2016, 12:02pm

Glenn Frey (who died in January) and Don Henley (now on tour in the US) were the co-leaders of the Eagles, a record-setting American band who are both revered and reviled.

Beloved? The Eagles have the second bestselling album of all time – Their Greatest Hits (1971-75) at 29 million, compared with 32 million for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Belittled? Remember how the Dude dissed them in The Big Lebowski?

This a good time to reassess the Eagles – why people love them or loathe them.

WHY WE LOVE THEM

When they emerged in 1972, the Eagles gave a fresh, peaceful, easy feeling in a turbulent era of psychedelic and hard rock. They were the perfect soft-rock soundtrack for travelling down back roads, feeling free and maybe a tad rebellious.

The Eagles made pretty, catchy, singalong music, with lovely harmonies, meticulous sounds and well-crafted words. Sometimes the music was so pretty that the message got lost; The Best of My Love is about regret, and Peaceful Easy Feeling is about not connecting with the young woman in question.

Frey and Henley were visionaries and respected songwriters. They took their art and mission seriously. Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn wrote that the 1976 album Hotel California “chronicled the attitudes of a generation trapped between the fading idealism of the ‘60s and the encroaching greed of the ‘80s.” He said the album “conveyed the innocence, temptations and disillusionment” of pursuing the American dream.

When he signed on in 1975, Joe Walsh brought not only guitar heroics but much needed humour in song and conversation – and energy in the songs and on stage.

The Eagles recorded Ol’ 55, by a scruffy, little known LA songwriter named Tom Waits on 1974’s On the Border.

They always were a great hair band from Henley’s ‘fro to Timothy B. Schmit’s frizzy mane, not to mention Frey’s macho moustache.

The Eagles created the template for modern country music as Nashville knows it today. From Garth Brooks to Lady Antebellum, you can hear the influence of the Eagles.

Henley is a righteous do-gooder, who has created organisations and been involved with many causes including the Walden Woods Project (educating people about Henry David Thoreau), Caddo Lake Institute (to study ecology) and the Recording Artists Coalition (he testified before two US Senate committees about the unfair practices in the music industry).

WHY WE HATE THEM

The Eagles were one of the most unanimated big-name bands in the history of rock. Obsessed with recreating the immaculate sounds of their recordings, the guys seemed to be performing for themselves, not their sold-out audiences. Maybe because they didn’t really get along, the singers said little in concert. It never looked like the businesslike Eagles were enjoying themselves onstage – except for Joe Walsh, one of the clown princes of rock.

Everything about the Eagles was bloated. Their egos, lifestyle, recording budgets, ticket prices. Even their image. They were grown men who presented themselves as cowboys even though they didn’t even ride horses.

“They were rich hippies,” North Dakota-reared culture critic Chuck Klosterman wrote in the 2013 book I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). “They were self-absorbed Hollywood liberals. They were not-so-secretly shallow. They were uncaring womanisers and the worst kind of cokehead. They never rocked, even after adding Joe Walsh for that express purpose. They lectured college kids about their environmental footprint while flying around in private jets.”

The Eagles were the most corporate of bands. When guitarist Don Felder was fired from the group in 2001 and subsequently sued them (there were countersuits), he received an invitation to appear in the Eagles’ new History of the Eagles documentary through his lawyer – from the Eagles’ attorney, of course. The nub: Henley and Frey insisted they receive a higher percentage of Eagles income instead of splitting it equally among all members.

After infighting to the point that Henley often said the Eagles would reunite “when hell freezes over,” the band had a get-rich rock reunion in 1994 after a 14-year hiatus.

The Eagles were the first act to charge US$100 a ticket for a tour, starting with their 1994 reunion. Why? Because they could. Henley told me in 2001: “The analysts on Wall Street would tell you that rock’n’roll as a market was undervalued and this is some sort of correction. We hadn’t been (on tour) in 14 years. And may not be around again. Those things enter into the picture. As Frey said, ‘We’re worth it’.”

The Eagles took themselves too seriously. They were humourless. When my interview with Henley in the Star Tribune greeted their arrival at the Target Centre in 1995 with the headline “The egos have landed,” Frey made some pointed comments during the concert about the headline. He clearly was not amused.

The entire punk-rock movement was a reaction to the easy-listening style of the Eagles and the pompousness of prog-rock.

The Eagles’ songs were so overplayed. Just ask the Dude in The Big Lebowski, who went ballistic when Peaceful Easy Feeling came on the radio in a cab in which he was riding.

Tribune News Service