‘We just wanted to be as good as the people we admired. And we did a pretty good job.’ Glenn Frey
Glenn Frey, co-founder and acknowledged linchpin of the best selling US group ever, led a loose band of fledgling songwriters and musicians from suburban LA to the biggest and most illustrious venues on the planet.
The writer, co-writer and singer of some of the Eagles’ biggest hits, a man with a well-known reputation for getting the job done, (‘a work ethic that wouldn’t quit’ – Don Henley) Frey has made a major contribution to southern California’s musical heritage. His single-minded determination and music business savvy would drive the Eagles to become one of the most successful bands in the history of music.
Often a target for critics and purists who demand profound meaning and pushed boundaries, there’s never been anything hugely sophisticated about what they do – hippie cowboys singing mainstream radio-friendly rock ballads with a bundle of catchy riffs and sun-kissed harmonies.
But when you break it down, you find that writing great songs with universal appeal is an awful lot harder than it sounds. And when you’ve sold over 150 million records worldwide, won 6 Grammys, 5 American Music Awards and been inducted to the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Songwriters Hall of Fame, well, that’s something else.
In an 2012 interview, Glenn Frey characterised the Eagles’ appeal. ‘People didn’t just listen to the Eagles, they did things to the Eagles. They broke up with their girlfriends. They got in a car with a bunch of guys and drove from Chicago to California. They asked someone out they never had the nerve to.’
And that’s the point.
It’s a crowded, noisy world and sometimes you just crave music that isn’t trying to be clever, or radical, or dangerous. Something you can sit back and bathe in. Something that speaks to that sentimental part in everyone, where we indulge in the memories of our highs and lows. That’s not to say these songs are simplistic. They simply represent the kind of wistful reflection that we can’t resist.
Frey’s move from Detroit to LA in the late 60s put him where the action was. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor and Jackson Browne were already making waves and although Frey had shacked up with proficient songwriters JD Souther and Jackson Browne in Echo Park, he still had a lot to learn. It was talent agent and future label giant David Geffen who told Frey to join a band if he wanted to succeed in the business.
Frey’s meeting with Texan native Don Henley was to prove one of the most important songwriting pairings of the 1970s. The addition of bluegrass player Bernie Leadon and bassist Randy Meisner would help shape the subsequent country rock feel that would characterise the band’s early 70’s work. Frey’s soft, plaintive vocal style was used to great effect on singles Take it Easy (which he co-wrote) and Peaceful Easy Feeling from their eponymous debut album. The lush harmonies were destined to become a defining feature of the Eagles’ sound.
The band’s second album, Desperado, provided greater creative space for Frey and Henley’s writing style. Desperado and Tequila Sunrise continue to receive the most attention but curios like Out of Control and Frey’s full-on rock vocal on Outlaw Man hint at the harder sound that would define the next three albums.
On The Border and One of These Nights would yield 4 US Top Ten singles between them – Best of My Love, One of These Nights, Lyin’ Eyes and Take it to the Limit – and cement the band as the undisputed golden boys of American rock.
Hotel California, arguably the band’s most assured record, and with Henley and Frey at the top of their game, still stands as a rock ‘n’ roll landmark. From its title track, a six-and-a-half minute tour of the dimly-lit corridors of fame and fortune shot through with a layered guitar solo that’s still alight after 40 and purists, years, to the mournful closer, The Last Resort, it’s a work of supreme confidence. The song was born in Don Felder’s Malibu beach hut on an acoustic guitar but after many reworkings and tweaks it became the track every kid guitar player wants to nail. With a two minute solo that’s still up there as one of the best examples of harmonised guitar ever – Don Felder and Joe Walsh’s effortless fretboard chemistry is still enough to take the breath away. The rest of the album doesn’t disappoint either – after the highs of Life in the Fast Lane the inevitable comedown is played out in Wasted Time and Pretty Maids All in a Row with the kind of harmonies that got them noticed back in the day.
With a certain amount of inevitability, it was a tough record to follow (it’s sold over 32 million copies to date) and subsequent albums – accompanied by classic tales of drug abuse, personnel changes and creative differences – nodded to the eventual break up in the early 80s.
The band reformed in 1994, (‘For the record, we never broke up. We just took a fourteen year vacation.’) and released Hell Freezes Over while continuing to record and tour until Frey’s death in January 2016. During that ‘fourteen year vacation’, Frey released five solo albums that maintained his status as an accomplished AOR songwriter. Frey’s recording (he didn’t write it) of The Heat is On from the 1984 Hollywood smash Beverly Hills Cop drew some welcome attention to his early solo releases and the singles You Belong to the City, True Love, Part of Me, Part of You and Smuggler’s Blues have aged surprisingly well.
Frey spent many years supporting children’s charities such as the Tiger Woods Foundation, Childhelp USA and Boys & Girls Clubs of America – and with his wife, Cindy, the Grassroots Aspen Experience which provides memorable experiences for disadvantaged children. He was also a supporter of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
A year after Frey’s death and there is talk of the Eagles touring again – much to the excitement of fans worldwide, no doubt – and although those songs without that voice will never be the same again, it’s good to know we’re left with some of the best rock tunes ever recorded.
Tribute by Kieran Fahy