Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Eagles

After reading Jim Shea's look back at the music of The Eagles, I felt inspired to jot down a few of my own thoughts and favorite memories of this great, great music ... so here goes!  (kk)
We've seen it happen SO many times over the years.
A band hones its craft for 10-12 years ... thousands and thousands of hours rehearsing, out on the road, building a following, fine-tuning their sound and their presentation, distinguishing what works and what doesn't ... before it finally lands a record deal, scores a hit and becomes classified as an "overnight success" by the media when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Because they've had all this time to prepare and weed out their weakest links, their first LP is a bonafide smash ... every track's a winner.  But now they've shot their wad right out of the gate and there's nothing left.  The record label wants a follow-up release to cash in on the success of the first one but now, instead of having ten more years to prepare, they're lucky if they get ten months ... and the well is dry.  So (most often at the record label's urging) they try to clone the first release. (Boston anyone?)  "Well, we'll need one of those ... and then something that sounds like this" ... etc, etc, etc. ... and then, when the experiment fails, the media is quick to dismiss it as part of the music industry's "sophomore curse".  Again, nothing could be further from the truth ... but it doesn't really matter ... because we all love the hype ... and we all love seeing these artists crash and burn.
It's a shame, really ... but it has unfortunately become the norm for a great percentage of the music industry.
But then every once in a while a band comes along who actually builds on their momentum ... improves in the studio and makes each new release a huge step forward in their overall development as artists.  It doesn't happen very often ... but when it does, lifelong careers are born.
The Beatles certainly did it ... they went from "She Loves You" to "Rubber Soul" to "Sgt. Pepper" to "Abbey Road" ... they may be the prime example of what is clearly the exception to the rule.
So did The Eagles.  Their first couple of releases really haven't held up very well.  Their self-titled debut gave us a few hit singles, which allowed a follow up LP to be made.  But then they decided to get all "artsy" on us by creating the "Desperado" concept album.  I bought both of these albums when they first came out, largely because of a solitary song on each ... "Witchy Woman" on the first and "Desperado" on the second.  The truth is I rarely played many of the other tracks these two LPs contained because they just didn't hold up.
I was VERY fortunate in that I was turned on to The Eagles very early in their career.  I had the enviable distinction of seeing the band when they were still backing up Linda Ronstadt on tour, just prior to their first record being released.  (My girlfriend at the time bought us concert tickets to see Blood, Sweat and Tears for my birthday ... they were the headliners and riding high on a crest of hits ... a VERY hot ticket at the time ... and the warm-up act that night was Linda Ronstadt, still several years away from crashing through the charts with her own parade of hits.  Back then she was still doing a lot of country / folk material and only had a couple of hits.  I specifically remember "Different Drum", "Long, Long Time" and "Rock Me On The Water" being performed that night.
About halfway through her set she announced that a few members of her band would be leaving ... they had just signed a record deal and would be releasing their first album soon ... and then she left the stage so that the "about to be hatched" Eagles could perform two songs on their own ... "Take It Easy" (ironically, like "Rock Me On The Water", another Jackson Browne song, both of which were performed that night before anybody in the audience had a clue as to who Jackson Browne was ... or would become) and "Witchy Woman".
I didn't particularly care for "Take It Easy" ... in fact, I still consider it to be one of The Eagles' weakest singles ... but there was no mistaking the fact that these guys could play and sing.  "Witchy Woman" on the other hand put things over the top for me ... I absolutely LOVED it (and still do).  There was something eerie and mysterious about that whole "swamp rock" sound ... and even then they nailed it with note-for-note perfection in a live setting.  I waited for their first album to be released ... couldn't wait to buy it ... and was then disappointed to hear that, other than "Peaceful Easy Feeling" nothing else quite measured up to the two tracks performed that evening.
"Desperado" was even worse.  Yes, it contained "Tequila Sunrise", another radio hit ... and the outstanding title track ... but beyond that it just wasn't happening for me.  Too countrified maybe?  Trying to hard to stick to the concept perhaps?  I don't know ... but even today, some 40 years later, it remains the least likely Eagles album for me to play.
But then came "On The Border" ... and everything changed.  Almost overnight, The Eagles evolved in the studio.  (In hindsight, a lot of this had to do with them taking control of their sessions and switching producers.  In fact, the excellent "History Of The Eagles" documentary addresses this very era in excellent detail.)
I bought the LP for "Best Of My Love", their first official #1 Single ... but the moment I put it on, I knew things were going to be different.  "Already Gone" (a bigger radio staple now than when it was out in 1974 and peaked at #17), "You Never Cry Like A Lover", the title track "On The Border", "James Dean" (which sounded a whole lot like "Already Gone" but I didn't care), "Ol' '55", an even better ballad than their #1 Hit ... and still one of my all-time favorites by the band ... yes, The Eagles had matured and new producer Bill Szymczyk (no, not the backwards guy that used to drive Superman crazy ... but pretty darn close!) captured the sound that the band always knew they had inside (and needed to come out!).  Previous producer Glyn Johns was gone and the band was all the better for it.  This was an album I could finally play all the way through ... even some of my lesser favorites (like "Midnight Flyer", "My Man", "Is It True" and "Good Day In Hell") were still better than some of the stuff used as filler on their other LPs.
Then, just when I thought it couldn't get any better, out came "One Of These Nights", the album Jim Shea was talking about yesterday.  The title track immediately became my new all-time favorite Eagles song ... and "Hollywood Waltz", "Lyin' Eyes", "Take It To The Limit", "After The Thrill Is Gone" and "I Wish You Peace" weren't far behind. I probably sang "I Wish You Peace" at four or five weddings that year ... a BEAUTIFUL song ... written ... INCREDIBLY ... by President Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti Davis.  (Seems she was dating Eagle Bernie Leadon at the time, who helped her finish the song which, despite strong objections from bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey, ultimately closed out the album.)  What an amazing record.  In my mind The Eagles had peaked.  Where could they possibly go from here?
They disappeared for awhile, crafting their latest creation.  To fill the void, Asylum Records put out The Eagles' Greatest Hits, 1972 - 1975.  It went on to become the Biggest Selling LP of the 20th Century ... and their best known work was yet to come!!!
Imagine my complete surprise (and pleasure) when The Eagles turned the music world upside down a year later with the release of their masterpiece, "Hotel California".  This was it ... it didn't get any better than this.  (I thought the addition of Joe Walsh spelled the end of the band ... instead, it revitalized them once again.)  There may not be a more perfect record ever made than "Hotel California" ... everything about it ... especially the timing ... was right.  It went straight to #1 and stayed there for eight weeks, ultimately selling upwards of 30 million copies and spawning three hit singles, including two that went to #1 ("New Kid In Town" and "Hotel California") ... "Life In The Fast Lane", a song that seems to play CONSTANTLY on the radio today, stalled at #11, just missing The Top Ten.  What band peaks with their FIFTH album?!?!?  And yet they did.  (Most artists lucky enough to get to a fifth album are already on their way DOWN the ladder of success, about to be dropped from their label ... these guys just kept ascending higher and higher and higher with each new release.  It was unheard of!)
In fact, it became nearly an impossible act to follow.  Day-to-day life as The Eagles became increasingly difficult to bear ... and it ultimately did them in.  Their final release (for Phase One anyway ... the era BEFORE Hell Froze Over) was "The Long Run" (or, as they liked to call it "The Long One" because it just seemed to take forever to finish.  This time the record label stalled for time by releasing a double live LP!)
Yes, there were hits ... the title track, "Heartache Tonight" and "I Can't Tell You Why" all made The Top Ten ... but it was over ... there would be no more new music for fourteen years.  Unlike The Beatles analogy earlier, they just couldn't top their masterpiece.  (The Beatles last LP released as a group was "Let It Be" ... but that album was actually recorded BEFORE "Abbey Road".  The "Let It Be" sessions ultimately did in the band and much of that was filmed and sprinkled throughout the theatrical release.  Rather than go out with a whimper, the fabs decided to regroup one last time and go out with a bang ... and "Abbey Road" was the result ... the ultimate swan song to an incredible catalog of music.

Don't get me wrong ... "The Long Run" by ANY other standards would have been the kind of album that makes careers ... but for the Eagles, it went down as a disappointment.  The truth is, at this point The Eagles simply didn't care anymore ... it was over and that was that.  I still defy you to find any other artist who developed at the pace (and to the degree) that The Eagles did ... a truly amazing career.
The recent "History Of The Eagles" Documentary has made them the hottest ticket in town again ... and I am SO happy to report that we will catch this tour when it passes through Chicago in October.  But I expect this will be it ... I don't know if they have another "reunion" in them.  Thankfully we've got this incredible legacy of music to enjoy for the rest of time.