And a lot of Eagles’ music was down to him. The band may have been “an anonymous monolith” (Rolling Stone), but the fact is, they had two public faces, and two main songwriters: Don Henley and Frey. But which were his finest contributions or co-compositions out of the dozen or so albums he did with Eagles or as a solo artist? Classic Rock dares to pick 10 of the best.
Take It Easy (1972)
Co-written by Frey and Jackson Browne, the first track on their debut album set out Eagles’ stall with consummate ease. Its breezy optimism posited the band as purveyors of a country-rock palliative as the hippie dream turned sour and the realities of a daunting new era dawned. Reaching No 12 in the US, it instantly succeeded where Eagles’ country-rock forebears, such as Gram Parsons, failed, thereby earning the band critical opprobrium throughout much of their career - as agents of the genre’s commercial debasement. Still, there’s no denying the blissful harmonies and beatific melody .
Tequila Sunrise (1973)
The first single from the band’s second album Desperado, this was a joint composition by Glenn Frey and Don Henley, the Lennon and McCartney of mellifluous Americana, with keening lead tenor courtesy of Frey. It didn’t concern the cocktail of the same name - tequila plus orange juice with a dash of grenadine on top to approximate the dazzling hue of a sunrise - but was about someone guzzling tequila from night till morning, a portent, perhaps, of the hard partying to come for the stadium behemoths.
Another Henley-Frey co-write designed as part of the parent album’s theme of rock star-as-outlaw. Henley took the lead vocals on this campfire ballad while Frey supplied the poignant piano chords. The song’s haunting atmosphere was enhanced by the lush strings of the London Symphony Orchestra - Henley remembers “some older gentleman” bringing in chessboards to play between takes to relieve the boredom. He recalls: “I would hear these remarks like, ‘Well, you know, I don’t feel much like a desperado.’”
One Of These Nights (1975)
The soulful croon was Henley’s, the outlaw mythos (“You’ve got your demons, you’ve got desires - I’ve got a few of my own”) his and Frey’s. For Frey, who brought the supple rhythm guitar while Don Felder played lead, this was the song where the band’s love of the studio, their sonic immaculacy and attention to getting the sloppy-sharp details just right, came together. It also saw a considerable leap in terms of the pair’s songwriting, betraying Frey’s love of R&B. “It was a breakthrough song,” opined Frey. “It is my favourite Eagles record. If I ever had to pick one, it wouldn’t be Hotel California; it wouldn’t be Take It Easy. For me, it would be One Of These Nights.”
Lyin’ Eyes (1975)
Frey took the lead on this song about a woman cheating on her husband. You will either find it an easy-listening bowdlerisation of the authentic country-rock template, or complete and utter hick-pop harmony heaven. According to Don Felder, Frey’s pickiness and determination to get every note and syllable right was evidenced by his deliberation about the exact pronunciation of the song’s first word “city”. It worked: peaking at No 2 in the States and No 23 in the UK, Lyin’ Eyes also won a Grammy and cemented Eagles’ position as a massive American band. And then they got a whole lot bigger.
Hotel California (1976)
Probably the biggest song by America’s biggest ever band, featuring one of the best known guitar solos of all time, rhythmically at least Hotel California patented a brand new idiom, country-reggae - according to Frey, its working title was Mexican Reggae. It was also Frey’s idea to create a sort of cinematic scenario for the protagonist entering “a weird world peopled by freaky characters [who] is quickly spooked by the claustrophobic feeling of being caught in a disturbing web from which he may never escape.” As for the use of the word “steely” in the lyric, “They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast,” that was payback to Steely Dan, who had nodded archly to Eagles in their track Everything You Did, from that other 1976 landmark of mellow FM vibes (but watch the fangs), The Royal Scam.
New Kid In Town (1976)
With Frey on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, this was the first single from the blockbuster monster that was Hotel California. In the title, Eagles continued the outlaw/cowboy theme mined throughout their work. And oddly in the lyrics the band, probably the biggest on Planet Earth that year, were already casting forward to the moment that they would be usurped by someone younger and, well, better - a faster gun. Not quite yet, though: New Kid In Town was Eagles’ third No 1 in the US.
Life In The Fast Lane (1976)
It wasn’t all laidback good times at the Hotel California, as this blistering rocker amply demonstrated - welcome aboard, Joe Walsh, who co-wrote this with Messrs Henley and Frey. “There were lines on the mirror, lines on her face,” sang Henley. What could he have possibly meant? Druggy excess, for sure, but also just fast, loose living in general. Certainly Eagles will have been consuming industrial quantities of narcotics by this point in their career. In fact, the song was rumoured to be about Stevie Nicks (who Henley briefly dated) and her ex, Lindsey Buckingham, of that other late-‘70s mainstream mellow colossus Fleetwood Mac.
I Can’t Tell You Why (1979)
Glenn Frey was the one who brought the R&B/soul to Eagles - listen to the intro to Take It To The Limit and then compare it to the opening to Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ classic Philly soul ballad If You Don’t Know Me By Now from 1972. There’s no way Frey - a massive fan of the lush soul productions of Thom Bell and of Bluenotes belter Teddy Pendergrass - didn’t inveigle that one in. I Can’t Tell You Why, from Eagles’ last studio album for 28 years, The Long Run, was largely the work of Eagles new boy Timothy B Schmit, but co-writer Frey surely helped make it sound the way it did: basically, like a smooth soul ballad that anyone up to and including The Bee Gees could have written. Frey also played lead guitar on this song, not Don Felder or Joe Walsh. R&B girl group Brownstone had a hit with it in 1995, not surprisingly. Frey later decided that this and One Of These Nights were the two Eagles songs he helped write that he would put into a time capsule to represent Eagles’ best work.
The Heat Is On (1984)
Frey and Henley both enjoyed successful solo careers in the aftermath of Eagles’ split, especially in the ‘80s. And they don’t come much more ‘80s than this No 2 hit (kept off the top slot by REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Fight This Feeling, fact fans!) from the soundtrack of Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop. Frey didn’t actually write it - Harold (Axel F/Top Gun theme composer) Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey (who wrote _Don_’t You Forget About Me for Simple Minds) did - but he played guitar. “It sounded kind of like a Huey Lewis thing, the saxophone in it,” noted Frey when he was presented with the song by Faltermeyer and Forsey. “Kind of sounded like something I might do. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ So I met the guys, I came in, I sang it one day, I played guitar and did background vocals the next day and I got a small check, I think 15 grand. I had a little Christmas money, and I was happy.”