In Defense Of: The F*ckin’ Eagles

It’s probably what endeared The Dude to so many people and lodged The Big Lebowski into so many favorites lists. And yeah, it’s a great scene:

“I hate the Eagles”

Yes, it’s funny because it’s true. The Eagles, or as they insist on correcting us, “Eagles” is a band that can piss you off on a good day. One of the most successful bands in history, they began their career with a weird mix of softness and bravado, a country-rock band that seemed to lack authenticity in either genre. Eventually, they added rock god Joe Walsh to the band and resolved their dichotomy completely, but by that time, they had become fussy and exacting enough to undercut that tough identity as well. Legendary perfectionists, without the necessary ballast, projecting very little humility or self-deprecating humor, it can be annoying. They’re a band that seemed to rush onto the battlefield after the tumultuous counter-cultural struggles of the 60s and scoop up all of the spoils, a super-commercial singles-oriented band in an album-oriented rock era and one of the gentle giants of “mellow rock.” Not the band you want your cab driver to be playing after you’ve been drugged by Jackie Treehorn and kicked to the curb by the Malibu police.

When asked by Rolling Stone Magazine why the Eagles get such rough treatment in The Big Lebowski, music supervisor T-Bone Burnett explained, they “…sort of single-handedly destroyed that whole scene that was brewing back then.” Ouch.

But I’m not here to pile on, in fact, I’m here to defend the band. My first defense is an easy one.

“New Kid In Town”

Yes, these things are personal and subjective, but “New Kid In Town” is just a triumphant bit of songwriting. The lyric is clever and poignant, and the harmonic twists and formal structure inform the story and support the inventive melody, plus the countermelodies are to die for. It’s a second-person narrative about Johnny Come Lately, the new kid who everyone loves, who turns heads, and who has to live up to expectations. But “after a while,” the tables are turned… “they will never forget you ‘til somebody new comes around.” A nice metaphor for the changing times the old guard, jet-setting band was living through in 1976 when the song was written, as punk was entering the rock bloodstream (of course, it would be very un-Eagles to admit to this sort of insecurity about their band but we are all free to interpret the song in our own way).

“There’s talk on the street”… The melody comes right out of the gate showing some muscle, climbing up to a dissonant major seventh interval on the word “street” then descending down the scale again, a bit of tension and release that pulls you in immediately. Each line of the melody leaves room for a heartbreaking guitar countermelody, all expertly composed and played by Don Felder (how great is that gutsy arpeggiated figure and 3-note descending line leading to the “where you been lately” B section?). Two verses in and after a killer Felder solo, the bridge has Johnny holding his girlfriend, ironically regretting so many things he never told her, meanwhile, the tables turn as the song poignantly moves up a key… He doesn’t know it yet but he’s been replaced by somebody new.

The cherry on top of this already fascinating song is its double coda — the ending has an ending. The first coda is the repeating “just another new kid in town” section. The second one follows as another repeating section, “there’s a new kid in town (I don’t wanna hear it), etc.” and the effect is doubly gratifying. Lastly, let me mention that the expertly produced track is where the famous Eagles perfectionism pays off because it supports the “golden boy” aspect of the lyrics and makes the subject’s disappointment and frustration that much more deeply felt in the end. Bravo, Eagles. I just love this song, don’t you?

So, my first defense of the band is their songs. Not all or even most of them, but enough of them so that I call myself a fan. They are skilled songwriters who hit the mother lode once in a while. “Lyin’ Eyes” is another Eagles song that turns the tables on the pitiful hero and pays off musically for me as well. “Take It Easy” is a great song with a killer arrangement (although it should be noted that it was mostly written by Jackson Browne with Glenn Frey helping him finish the lyrics), and “Desperado” is nothing short of an American standard, something Hoagy Carmichael would have written if he were around in the rock era. They sometimes worked with some outside songwriters to get there (Jack Tempchin, J.D. Souther), and they put almost everything they had into their singles, but it’s hard to deny the Eagles credit for writing at least a few great songs.

A Fistful of Great Songs

Formed in 1971 as her backing band, Linda Ronstadt’s manager John Boylyn merged Glenn Frey and Don Henley (who were performing as Longbranch Pennywhistle) with bassist Randy Meisner (a founding member of Poco) and lead guitarist, Bernie Leadon. Though they only played one actual gig (a July, 1971 concert at Disneyland), all four members did play together on six tracks of Ronstadt’s self-titled third album in March of 1971. Rather than complain, Linda actually encouraged her players to leave to form their own band. Frey even credits her with pulling in the multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon for the expressed purpose of completing Frey and Henley’s spinoff group. Friends from the front bar scene of the Troubadour on Sunset in West Hollywood (where Henley and Frey first met), Jackson Browne introduced Glenn Frey to his manager, David Geffen and it wasn’t long before they were all labelmates on Geffen’s newly formed Asylum Records, along with Joni Mitchell, Ronstadt herself, and eventually Bob Dylan. Frey’s band still needed a name and a peyote-fueled photoshoot yielded Henry Diltz a fortuitous shot of an eagle flying high over the Joshua Tree desert. Not only did the band have a great cover for what would be their debut album, but with Glenn’s gesturing utterance in that fleeting moment, a band name as well, “Eagles!!”



That first album was produced in London by Glyn Johns, who dug their harmonies and helped shape them into a commercial country-rock band with “high-flyin’ vocals” (a point of view that included leaving the rocking to real rock bands, an attitude that would get Johns eventually fired). But it’s true. You can’t get too far into an Eagles conversation without mentioning their incredible vocals. At any point in the band’s history, you’ve got 3 of the best singers in rock doing their thing with power and grace in this band, plus all of the members sing and harmonize together in concert with a signature sound that any group would kill for. I’ll start with my personal favorite Eagles singer, Detroit native Glenn Frey, who adds the grit to their sound but has a plain-spoken sublime quality too when he wants it (that’s him singing lead on “Take It Easy,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “New Kid In Town,” as well as Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Tequila Sunrise”). Unlike Henley, I find Glenn Frey’s solo stuff from the 80s to be incredibly grating and pretty worthless, but as far as I’m concerned, he was pre-redeemed before he entered that cruel decade, at least as a singer.

High tenor Randy Meisner is the band’s secret weapon. He adds so much to the classic Eagles vocal sound, but he blends so well you don’t even sense that he’s there. Rarely taking lead vocals, it’s ironic that it’s Meisner on their biggest selling single of all time, “Take It to the Limit.” Even weirder, when he eventually left the Eagles after the Hotel California album, his replacement was the guy who had succeeded him in Poco on bass and high harmonies when Meisner left that band to join the Eagles, Timothy B. Schmidt. Right out of the gate, Schmidt came through with his own stellar Top Ten hit, “I Can’t Tell You Why,” featuring his soulful high tenor (and a super-melodic R&B guitar lead by Glenn Frey, incidentally).

Texas-born Don Henley has one of the most distinctive husky voices in rock, and one of the smoothest too, kind of like a lower-ranged Michael McDonald. Always singled out for his great singing, he’s just got a beautiful voice. But with music, it’s always personal — he can rub me the wrong way with a kind of emotional aloofness I can rarely escape hearing when he sings. An exception is “Desperado,” which carries real empathy for the song’s wandering hero, but so often Henley comes off for me as some subtle shade of arrogant or worse yet, mildly pretentious as in “Hotel California.” At any rate, the guy can really sing and here he is killing it:

“Desperado”

By their third album, On the Border, the band had tired of their reputation as a mellow country-rock band (dismal sales of the country-forward Desperado album didn’t help either). They pulled in Bernie Leadon’s old gunslinger pal Don Felder on guitar to give them some rock heft and fired Glyn Johns in favor of James Gang/Joe Walsh producer Bill Szymczyk (pronounced ‘Sim-chick”), releasing the hard-rocking “Already Gone” as a single. They eventually went fully toward rock, replacing Leadon with Joe Walsh but they never did lose those high-flyin’ Eagles harmonies, as can be heard on “Best of My Love” from On the Border, “”Lyin’ Eyes” from the next album, One Of These Nights, and this gem from their 1980 Eagles Live release:

“Seven Bridges Road”

My last defense of the band is an easy one and probably even The Dude can get onboard with and that’s the fretwork of Bernie Leadon, Don Felder, Joe Walsh, and Glenn Frey, the blazing guitarists of the Eagles. Man, I love guitar and there’s lots to love in this band.

From the first track of the first album, Bernie Leadon’s tuneful solo on “Take It Easy” sets the agenda, while on “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” Leadon might seem like he’s soloing on pedal steel, but he’s actually playing a Telecaster with a “b-bender” modification, a device triggered by a lever built into the guitar’s strap holder which allows the player to bend just one string within a chord (the b string) up a whole tone by pushing down on the neck, kind of like how the pedals on a pedal steel allow the player to bend just one string within a chord. If that isn’t clear, check out this video:

“How to Use a B-Bender Guitar”

Leadon also kills it on banjo and mandolin and he’s a great flatpicker too. Born in Minneapolis, moved to San Diego to be part of the California Country scene, Leadon made his bones in various iterations of the “Bakersfield sound” (including Hearts and Flowers, Dillard and Clark, and The Flying Burrito Brothers); his recruitment into the Eagles fundamentally changed the mission of the band, placing them firmly in the country-rock camp, where they stayed for two albums.

Don Felder grew up in a different hotbed of American music — Gainesville, Florida. Felder was in The Continentals with Stephen Stills, learned slide guitar from Duane Allman, and gave guitar lessons at the local music shop where one of his students was Tom Petty. A master of both precision and tone, Felder earned his nickname, “Fingers” and then some. With the ability to bridge across country and rock with grace and power, he’s my all-time favorite Eagles guitarist but he really shines in tandem with the final “ringer” recruited into the band, Joe Walsh.

By the time he was drafted into the Eagles, Joe Walsh was already a bonafide rock star guitar hero of the highest order, and hearing him face off with Don Felder in one of their fiery guitar duels is one of the most thrilling spectacles in rock. These guys trading solos and harmonizing their composed parts at the end of “Hotel California” is the best dual guitaring this side of the Allman Brothers and they’re both firing on all cylinders on “Life In the Fast Lane” too. Walsh added a loose, powerful sweep to the Eagles, giving some real swagger and providing that ballast to their famous perfectionism, sending the group into the stratosphere, not just in terms of success but in fulfilling all of their ambitions. Hearing Felder’s powerful precision matched lick for lick by Walsh’s fiery looseness is just one of the greatest treats rock has to offer and, for me personally, provides the ultimate redemption for a band that can often inspire ambivalence and worse in the best of us.

The lifespan of the Eagles as a band has been marked by tension, acrimony, infighting, and threats of violence among members, often fired by prodigious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Henley and Frey acting as a faction, allegedly exerted power over bandmates, inspired all kinds of equal and opposite reactions. Bernie Leadon famously signalled his quitting during a band meeting by pouring a beer over Glenn Frey’s head, something that Frey resented for decades. Meisner tired of the constant battling and eventually just folded. Felder’s term in the band was particularly rocky, ending in onstage threats of violence and a huge lawsuit (settled out of court for an undisclosed amount). Not to single anyone out, suffice it to say that for the ultimate California group, the Eagles did not resonate with peace and love as a band.

So even though I’m ultimately an Eagles fan, I’ve got to thank the Coen Brothers, T-Bone Burnette, and The Dude for giving a name to an insidious, co-opting force in rock. Yeah, I do like their music and dig various aspects of the band, but it’s true that they did help to commercialize, commoditize, and capitalize the one currency that held value for the youth culture coming out of the 60s, which was authenticity. 

Denigrating pop music as a lower form of art is the domain of snobs, but the Eagles were very often a pop band posing as something more, and that’s worthy of ridicule and worse, so yeah, as much as I love the fucking Eagles, I do kind of hate them too. But that’s…y’know… like, just my opinion, man.

Photo Credits:

Eagle Photo by Samrat Maharjan from Pexels

Links:
The Definitive Guide to the Music of The Big Lebowski:
https://www.laweekly.com/the-definitive-guide-to-the-music-of-the-big-lebowski/ 

The vocal ranges of the “Ealges”:
https://forum.kentamplinvocalacademy.com/discussion/11732/the-vocal-range-of-the-ealges 

Bernie Leadon explain’s “the beer”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XirwdE1mNA4&feature=youtu.be 
Q&A with Don Felder:
https://www.westword.com/news/qanda-with-former-eagles-guitarist-don-felder-5840897