21 July 2019
Singer/guitarist Glenn Frey of The Eagles, with singer/drummer Don Henley in the background, performs the song "New Kid In Town" during a sold-out show on the band's "Farewell I" tour in Las Vegas in this August 9, 2003 file photo
Singer/guitarist Glenn Frey of The Eagles, with singer/drummer Don Henley in the background, performs the song "New Kid In Town" during a sold-out show on the band's "Farewell I" tour in Las Vegas in this August 9, 2003 file photo

The Eagles and the Southern California rock sound

Eagles band co-founder Glenn Frey passed away last month due to health complications. The news put the spotlight back on the iconic rock band. 

For those above the age of forty, the Eagles band has come to symbolize the quintessential Southern California rock sound.

This was an evolution of the sound pioneered by the Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, which normally meant country and folk vocal harmonies mated to a rock beat that sometimes came with a societal message.

The natural leaders of The Eagles were Don Henley, the vocalist drummer, and Glenn Frey, the guitarist composer and vocalist.

The band was notorious for infighting among its members, notably the one involving Glenn Frey and Don Felder, melody composer of its iconic rock song, Hotel California, and those that involved Frey and earlier band members Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner.

The Eagles began their journey when Henley and Frey met as backup bandmates for Linda Ronstadt, a popular female rock/pop singer at that time, during their stint at a popular Los Angeles musical club called The Troubadour.

Influenced by some close friends like then upcoming singer Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther, the Eagles were signed up by rising producer David Geffen and his fledgling record label Asylum Records.

To produce their work, The Eagles chose legendary British rock producer Glyn Johns, who had nurtured bands like the Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin.

But Johns tried to downplay their desire to do hard rock, as he had grown tired of working with hard rock bands. Glenn Frey was always getting into arguments with Johns, but the latter said that “The Who is a rock and roll band, and you’re not.”

Once when Henley wanted to have some additional microphones installed near his drums to get a louder sound, Johns asked him to hit the drums harder. Eventually, they realized along with Johns that their real trademark sound was a rock vocal harmony, and not the old version of rock that most people were used to.

Their first national hit, Take it Easy, began when Jackson Browne asked Frey to help him complete the song, which began with “standing in a corner in Winslow, Arizona” as he had gotten stuck on how to proceed. To which Frey added the now famous “Such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.”

Eventually, the band dropped Glyn Johns for a communications electronics veteran of the US Navy, Bill Szymczyk. They also replaced their folk banjo style guitarist Bernie Leadon with a harder rock sounding Don Felder and eventually added Joe Walsh as well.

In 1976, the band released “Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), the group’s first compilation album. It became the highest-selling album in the US with more than 29 million copies sold in the country. Worldwide sales topped 42 million.

As Glenn Frey and Don Felder narrated in their definitive History of the Eagles DVD, Felder often had the habit of sending Frey and Henley some guitar licks he had composed in a cassette tape that they often listened to for song ideas.

Felder wanted to write something musically that would fit two guitar players, him and Walsh, so they could play off each other. While relaxing in Malibu in a rental house by playing an acoustic guitar, a guitar riff came out. Felder had the good sense to use an old reel to reel tape recorder to record it, arranged the progression and put it on a cassette along with ten to fifteen pieces of music that he had assembled.

Frey would often receive these cassettes from Felder and wondered ‘well where do we sing?’ But as he and Henley listened to one of the Felder cassettes, a song came up and they both said, ‘Hmm, this is interesting.’

“The music to me sounded like a cross between Spanish music and reggae music. And that one really jumped at me,” said Henley. So he and Frey set out to write a song to that Felder guitar riff. “I’m pretty sure it was Henley’s idea to have a song called Hotel California,” said Frey.

“We’ve been asked a million times, what does that song mean. Don and I were big fans of hidden deeper meaning. You write songs, and you send them out to the world. And maybe somewhere in that song is some stuff that’s just yours that they’re never gonna figure out,” said Frey.

As for Henley, he said: “There’s been a lot of ridiculous speculation about that song over the years. It’s taken on a life or a mythology of its own, like the Paul is dead thing. It’s been denounced by evangelicals. We’ve been accused of wacky things like being members of the Church of Satan. People see images on the album cover that aren’t there. Just lunatic stuff. My simple explanation is that it’s a journey from innocence to experience. That’s all.”

The group went on to dominate the charts in the late seventies. But sometime during the making of The Long Run album, the group experienced the debilitating effect of success coupled with drugs.

While Timothy B. Schmit of Poco eventually replaced Randy Meisner to hit their high note songs like Take it to the Limit, the band was spiraling out of control. A fight between Felder and Frey broke out during a 1980 concert, caused by a disagreement from a benefit gig for then Democratic senator Alan Cranston.

The band parted ways, and both Henley and Frey and the other band members embarked on solo careers for a while. But during a reunion spurred on by country singer Travis Tritt, the group decided to reunite.

“For the record, we never broke up, we just took a 14-year vacation”, announced Frey at their first reunion performance in April 1994.

The Eagles and their timeless songs form a staple of classic rock radio. For many people, fond memories of 8 track cartridges, cassette tapes, long playing vinyl albums and eventually DVDs and MP3s will always carry hits like Hotel California, Tequila Sunrise, Best of My Love, Desperado, New Kid in Town, I Can’t Tell You Why, Heartache Tonight, and other songs.

The Eagles music is timeless, and will continue to attract a new generation of listeners who enjoy their classic vocal harmonies mated to a rock beat.

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Philippines based author, columnist and playwright

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