‘Song power’ was their catchphrase – they had it printed on T-shirts. And it was no idle boast. With iconic songs such as Hotel California, Take It Easy and Life In The Fast Lane, Eagles rose in the early 70s to become one of the biggest rock acts of all time.
In a career that has lasted for more than 50 years, the band have sold in excess of 200 million albums worldwide. Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) was the biggest selling album in America in the 20th century, and it's still at the top of the list (falling to second place between 2009-2018, after the death of Michael Jackson boosted sales of his Thriller). Worldwide, it's shifted more than 42 million copies.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1971, Eagles would define the California rock sound of the 70s with a blend of rock and country music and a melodic sensibility attuned to pop radio. But none of the group’s founding members were native Californians – guitarist Glenn Frey was from Detroit, drummer Don Henley from Texas, guitarist Bernie Leadon from Minneapolis, and bassist Randy Meisner from Nebraska.
While the band members all shared vocals, it was Frey and Henley who were Eagles’ creative powerhouse from the start. They were the principal songwriters and lead vocalists – on stage, Henley sang lead on many of their biggest hits from behind his drum kit – and it was the two of them who led Eagles to huge success as other band members came and went.
It was in the second half of the 70s that the band reached their artistic and commercial peak, scoring five US No.1 singles and attaining global superstardom with 1976’s now classic Hotel California. But by 1980 a combination of drugs, money, ennui and ego led Eagles to split, with Henley calling it “a horrible relief”.
Solo careers followed, Henley’s the most successful. And then, in 1994, the previously unthinkable happened: Eagles reunited. The 1980 line-up – Frey, Henley, guitarists Joe Walsh and Don Felder and bassist Timothy B. Schmit – recorded the jokingly titled album Hell Freezes Over.
Although Felder was fired in 2001 and Frey passed away in 2016, Eagles have continued, and while they may not have recorded since the double Long Road Out Of Eden album in 2007, they remain a live act capable of filling stadiums. More than half a century after taking flight in Los Angeles, Eagles remain the ultimate testimony to ‘song power’.
10. On The Border (Asylum, 1974)
Eagles’ third album provided a major breakthrough with their first US number one single – acoustic ballad The Best Of My Love. It put the band’s career back on track following weak sales of Desperado. But on an artistic level, On The Border is the worst album Eagles ever made.
It has three good tracks: The Best Of My Love, a great version of the Tom Waits song Ol’ 55, and My Man, on which Bernie Leadon pays tribute to the late Gram Parsons, with whom he had starred in pioneering country rock act The Flying Burrito Brothers. But the rest are poor – typified by Already Gone, a second-rate Take It Easy, and the ghastly homage James Dean.
9. Live From The Forum MMXVIII (Rhino, 2020)
Featuring a mammoth 33 songs, this late period live album found the band on another money-spinning trip around the globe, with a lineup that starred the late Glenn Frey’s son Deacon and country star Vince Gill alongside Henley, Walsh and Schmitt. On paper it might look like a rather mercenary exercise, but the results are anything but, and it feels like a proper celebration.
The hits don't stop coming, the playing is perfect, the harmonies delightfully intact, and Gill's excellent Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ fits the set like it's always been there. Inevitably it's a little bit by-the-numbers, but when the numbers are this good only the most churlish would complain.
The band had already split by the time this double live album was released in November 1980. On one level, it was an epitaph. More prosaically, it was the fulfilment of a contractual obligation to deliver one more album to Asylum. Eagles Live was comprised of recordings from two tours, in 1976 and 1980.
And amid all the big hits, from Hotel California to Take It Easy, were a few curveballs, including Joe Walsh’s solo classic Life’s Been Good, two brilliant album tracks in Wasted Time and Saturday Night, and a stunning a cappella version of country singer Steve Young’s Seven Bridges Road. It was not one of the great live albums. Like Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same, something got lost in production. But turn it up loud, close your eyes, and you can sense it: the warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air…
7. Long Road Out Of Eden (Eagles Recording Co, 2007)
A double studio album was something Eagles had first considered while they were making The Long Run in 1979. They finally delivered one in 2007 in the shape of Long Road Out Of Eden, the band’s first studio album of original material in 28 years.
Taken as a whole it’s certainly no Hotel California (but then, of course, few albums are) but the country rocker How Long rolls back the years, No More Cloudy Days is vocalist Frey at his best, and the album’s title track, written by Henley, is a powerful 10-minute meditation on spirituality and American imperialism.
6. Hell Freezes Over (Geffen, 1994)
It was a running joke: during the 80s, whenever Don Henley was asked if Eagles would get back together he replied: “When Hell freezes over.” So the band had the perfect title for this comeback album, which featured studio cuts of four new songs, and an 11-track live set recorded at Eagles’ first reunion show in April 1994.
The new songs are good – especially Love Will Keep Us Alive and Learn To Be Still – but the live set is something truly special. From Tequila Sunrise through to the classic finale of Desperado, Eagles proved just how much they’d been missed in what Henley wryly describes as their “14-year vacation”.
5. The Long Run (Asylum, 1979)
Hotel California was such a hard act to follow that the Eagles spent two years making The Long Run – a product of cocaine-fuelled perfectionism that led inexorably to the band’s implosion in 1980.
Few traces of The Eagles’ country roots remained here, except for Frey’s whoops on the rollicking US No.1 hit Heartache Tonight. The album’s smooth, clinical sound is typified by deluxe MOR ballad I Can’t Tell You Why, sung by Timothy B. Schmit (Randy Meisner’s replacement), and Henley’s creepy dance-rock track The Disco Strangler. But it’s still a great record. In the US it was the last No.1 album of the 70s.
The Eagles’ debut had a sound as all-American as the band’s name: country-rock, with sweet vocal harmonies inspired by The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
It was recorded in London at the insistence of British producer Glyn Johns, but the music is pure Americana. First single Take It Easy, co-written by Frey and singer-songwriter buddy Jackson Browne, would become one of the band’s signature songs.
Two more hits – the rockier Witchy Woman and the blissed-out Peaceful Easy Feeling – powered the album into the US Top 30. Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed it a contender for “best first album” of 1972.
After the success of their first album, The Eagles were brought down to earth when this follow-up, a concept album based on the legends of the Wild West and the Doolin-Dalton outlaw gang, stalled at No.42 in the US, and its singles, Outlaw Man and Tequila Sunrise, failed to make even the Top 50.
In hindsight, the obvious choice for a single was the title track, a beautiful ballad. Over time, the latter song and this album have attained classic status.
The imagery might have been hokey – the band dressed up as gunslingers for the cover – but the music was among the most richly atmospheric that The Eagles ever recorded.
2. One Of These Nights (Asylum, 1975)
The Eagles’ first No.1 album in the US, and their first as a quintet with new guitarist Don Felder.
A consistently great record, One Of These Nights featured three US top five hits: country heartbreaker Lyin’ Eyes, Randy Meisner-sung ballad Take It To The Limit, and the funky title track which made No.1. Also included was Journey Of The Sorcerer, a highly unorthodox hillbilly/orchestral-rock epic later adopted as the theme for TV series The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
When that song’s author, Bernie Leadon, quit the band in late ’75, he was the first original member to go. His replacement was guitar hero Joe Walsh.
1. Hotel California (Asylum, 1976)
Described by Don Henley as “a concept album”, Hotel California was, on the deepest level, a critique of modern America. More simply, it is an album full of great songs (Wasted Time, Life In The Fast Lane, The Last Resort), The Eagles’ masterpiece, and one of the greatest rock albums ever made.
The band’s biggest-selling original studio album, selling more than 16 million in the US, Hotel California topped the Billboard chart for eight weeks and reached No.2 in the UK. It also yielded two US No.1 singles in the bitter-sweet New Kid In Town, and a mythic title track built on a reggae groove and capped with the mother of all lead guitar codas.