‘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, the Eagles rose in the early 70s to become one of the biggest rock acts of all time.
In a career that spans 45 years, the Californians have sold more than 120 million albums worldwide. Until 2009, when the death of Michael Jackson boosted sales of Thriller, the Eagles had the biggest-selling album in American history with Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), which has shifted more than 42 million copies.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1971, the 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 they all shared vocals, it was Frey and Henley who formed the Eagles’ creative powerhouse from the start. They were the principal songwriters and lead vocalists: on stage, Henley sang lead on many of the biggest hits from behind his drum kit. And it was the two of them who led the Eagles to huge success as other band members came and went.
It was in the second half of the 70s that the band reached its artistic and commercial peak, scoring five US number one singles and attaining global superstardom with 1976’s Hotel California. But by 1980, a combination of drugs, money, ennui and ego led the band to split, with Henley calling it “a horrible relief”.
Solo careers ensued, Henley’s the most successful. And then, in 1994, the previously unthinkable happened: The 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. And although Felder was fired in 2001, the band have continued ever since, releasing the double album Long Road Out Of Eden in 2007. Over 40 years on, the Eagles were still drawing huge audiences all over the world, until Frey’s death in January this year prompted the band to split for good. That they thrived for so many years was the ultimate testimony to ‘song power’.
9) On The Border (1974)
The 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 the 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.
8) Eagles Live (1980)
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 (2007)
A double studio album was something the band had first considered when making The Long Run in 1979. They finally delivered one in 2007 with Long Road Out Of Eden, the band’s first original studio album in 28 years. It’s certainly no Hotel California, but the country rocker How Long rolls back the years, No More Cloudy Days is 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 (1994)
It was a running joke: during the 80s, whenever Don Henley was asked if the 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 versions of four brand new songs and an 11-track live set recorded at the Eagles’ first reunion show in April 1994 at Warner Burbank Studios, California. The new songs are good – especially Love Will Keep Us Alive and Learn To Be Still. But the live performance is something truly special. From Tequila Sunrise through to the classic finale of Desperado, the Eagles proved just how much they’d been missed in what Henley wryly describes as their “14-year vacation”.
5) The Long Run (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, save for Frey’s whoops on the rollicking US number one Heartache Tonight. The album’s smooth, clinical sound is typified by deluxe MOR ballad I Can’t Tell You Why, sung by Randy Meisner’s replacement Timothy B Schmit, and Henley’s creepy dance-rock track The Disco Strangler. But it’s still a great record. And in America, it was the last number one album of the 70s – a fitting way for the Eagles’ imperial phase to end.
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4) Eagles (1972)
The Eagles’ debut album had a sound as classically all-American as the band’s name: country-rock, with sweet vocal harmonies inspired by The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The album was recorded in London at the insistence of British producer Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin), 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. And 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. The Eagles had made a flying start.
3) Desperado (1973)
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 on the US chart, and its two singles, Outlaw Man and Tequila Sunrise, failed to make even the Top 50. In hindsight, the obvious choice for a single was the album’s title track, a beautiful ballad, sung by Henley. But over time, that song and this album have attained classic status. The band dressed up as gunslingers for the cover, but if the imagery was hokey, the music was among the most richly atmospheric that the Eagles ever recorded.
2) One Of These Nights (1975)
The band’s first number one album in America, 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 number one. 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. But that song’s author, Bernie Leadon, would quit the band in late ’75 – the first original member to go. His replacement: guitar hero Joe Walsh.
1) Hotel California (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, with more than 16 million sold in the US, Hotel California topped the Billboard chart for eight weeks and hit No.2 in the UK. It also yielded two US No.1 singles in the bittersweet New Kid In Town and a mythic title track built on a reggae groove and capped with the mother of all lead guitar codas.