After The Thrill is Gone: A History of The Eagles

The Eagles“It wasn’t for the money, at least it didn’t start that way” – Certain Kind of Fool

It has been said many times that history is written by the winners. After watching “History of The Eagles” you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d been watching the Glenn and Don Show. Looks like we have a winner – make that two. This history isn’t so much written as smashed in your face and rammed down your throat. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Eagles, in fact I’ve been a fan since I was 15, a good 25 years now. This just wasn’t the story I was expecting or hoping to see. What I saw was The Eagles as viewed by the band’s all-conquering leaders, Glenn Frey and Don Henley. Part of me gets this and accepts it. The band is a different entity now, perhaps it needed to change to survive. Frey and Henley took the band to its greatest commercial success, so perhaps they are entitled to present the band’s story their way.

As a fan however, this is a big and bitter pill to swallow. In the 25 years that I have listened to The Eagles I have come to realise that my appreciation and perception of them has changed completely. The band I loved initially is the one you see in the doco, an endless supply of hooks, harmonies and monstrous hits. As I got older however, and my musical palette broadened, I started to appreciate a different side to The Eagles. I went back to those first three albums and found a band with four then five more or less equal parts, all adding great musicianship to terrific songcraft. Yes, they weren’t perfect, they were still learning. I liked that they weren’t perfect, and I liked that the band members were all different – it made them much more interesting, and gave much more breadth and variety to their songwriting.

My favourite of these early albums was their third release, “On the Border”, from 1974. Unfortunately, all we really learn of this period is the introduction of Don Felder to the band. The first two albums get a little more coverage, most of the focus being the band’s lukewarm relationship with producer Glyn Johns. Frey in particular clashed with Johns over what the band’s sound should be. Johns saw The Eagles as perfectly suited to country rock, with the emphasis very much on a laid-back country vibe. Frey thought The Eagles could and should be far more rock n’ roll. Frey does his best Johns impression when quoting the producer: “You’re not a rock n’ roll band. The Who is a rock n’ roll band, and you’re not that”. Johns may not have been the right fit for The Eagles but he did produce two terrific albums with them and I think he was right in this instance. For all their twin guitar attack during the peak of their success, no one ever labelled them as a great rock n’ roll band. At worst, they created or at least perpetuated what became known as ‘corporate rock’.

The best example of the Johns period is the performance at the BBC in 1973. It is fascinating to watch the group dynamic during this performance. Frey and Henley had yet to exert control over the band, and to a casual observer it would be easy to think that Bernie Leadon was the band’s leader. Leadon’s musicianship is astonishing and he shows it off to the full, and in doing so he often pushes the sullen Frey into the background. Not surprisingly, we see very little of this footage in History of The Eagles. We see very little of Leadon at all, and even less of Randy Meisner. Leadon at least gets to tell the story of how he left the band, telling Frey he needed to ‘chill out’ and then proceeding to aid him in this by emptying his beer over Frey’s head. Leadon then goes on to say how it may not have been the best way to make his point…bet you enjoyed it though, Bernie.

Meisner is seen even less than Leadon, and again most of his air time relates to his exit from the band. Like Leadon, Meisner had seen the power shift within the band, and the day to day demands of being an Eagle finally got to him. Meisner never really got his due, both as a singer and songwriter. As great as songs like “Hotel California” and “Desperado” are, if The Eagles have one genuine masterpiece then it is surely “Take It To The Limit”, and no one could sing it like Randy. Sadly, when he finally got his moment in the spotlight, it all became too much for him. Every show became like Russian roulette when it came to the song. Apparently Randy felt he couldn’t always pull off the high note at the end of the song and would sometimes refuse to sing it. To be fair to Frey and Henley, I can’t blame them for pushing Randy on this. Many people, myself included, would have gone to one of their shows for that song alone. Hell, he could have sung that one note and I would have been happy. To play a set without “Take It To The Limit” would have been unthinkable and unacceptable.

Once we get to the Hotel California phase you can begin to see the writing on the wall. Joe Walsh, bless him, arrives and tries to loosen up proceedings. In this respect he has more success off-stage than on, but you can’t blame him for trying. For all the fun he had partying with the likes of Keith Moon, the toll it has taken is clear in his interview. For all that, Joe is thankfully still with us, unlike Keith.

With The Eagles back catalogue now available on Spotify, I took the opportunity to have another listen to the Hotel California album. What struck me was how heavy and bombastic much of the album sounds. When I finally got to Randy Meisner’s lovely “Try and Love Again” I almost felt like a drowning man getting a reprieve. It is a wonderful breath of fresh air, a reminder of what the band had once been. I still love listening to the song “Hotel California”, but mainly for the intro and Felder’s solo at the end. Felder’s playing was integral to so much of The Eagles sound, it is hard to imagine the band without him.

The film moves from the party days of Hotel California to the decline of the band during the production and promotion of “The Long Run”. Timothy B Schmit replaces Meisner, and contributes probably the best and certainly the coolest song on The Long Run with “I Can’t Tell You Why”. By this point Felder was very much on the outer with Henley and Frey. Things come to a head during one performance, and we get to hear Frey and Felder posturing and mouthing off between songs. By this stage it is fair to say that everyone is beginning to look like an asshole and you can see why Leadon and Meisner wanted to get off this ride.

Part Two of History of The Eagles continues the Glenn and Don show. To be honest, I was surprised that a Part Two was even necessary. What takes 3 hours could have been covered in 30 minutes, an hour at most. Instead we have to sit through Frey and Henley’s sporadic solo output in the ’80s. We even get clips of Frey’s ‘acting career’. Really, Glenn? It was Miami Vice – enough said. From there we get a 2 hour view of a 20 year victory lap. We see more of Don and Glenn and less of everyone else, except for the third musketeer and partner in crime, Irving Azoff.

The one point of interest in Part Two is the firing of Don Felder. In essence, Don thought his value to the band wasn’t being recognised. Frey and Henley thought otherwise. Frey and Henley won and Felder was gone. Don was always going to lose this battle, he was fighting for a place in an Eagles that ceased to exist around 1975. Most bands don’t have a democratic set-up, and The Eagles were no different. What is sad in this instance is that it is clear this was a business decision, not a musical one. Frey almost sounds triumphant when speaking of it – another win for Eagles Inc. Conversely, Felder (almost in tears at one point) clearly misses the music and yes, the people too.

When did The Eagles become a business instead of a band? I’m sure Frey and Henley would argue that it is still about the music, but anyone who has listened to “Long Road Out of Eden” would know better. Henley and Frey sound (and in Frey’s case look) increasingly like corporate fat cats. It is suggested at one point during History of The Eagles that The Eagles wanted to be Crosby, Stills and Nash. I can certainly imagine Frey and Henley wanting to be like ‘Captain Manyhands’, Stephen Stills. Stills’ personality, talent and ego dominated CSN, but Stills would never have been as effective without the counterbalance of Graham Nash, a calming influence and a mediator. The Eagles never really had someone who could fill this role, and in my opinion, as a band they paid for it dearly.

Perhaps one day we’ll see a more balanced history of The Eagles, but I don’t expect to see it anytime soon. In the meantime, History of The Eagles is what we will have to take, albeit with a rather large grain of salt. I’ll finish with a reminder of how wonderful Frey and Henley could be and perhaps an omen of what they would become:

Same dances in the same old shoes
Some habits that you just can’t lose
There’s no telling what a man might use,
After the thrill is gone

The flame rises but it soon descends
Empty pages and a frozen pen
You’re not quite lovers and you’re not quite friends
 After the thrill is gone

What can you do when your dreams come true
And it’s not quite like you planned?
What have you done to be losing the one
You held it so tight in your hand well

Time passes and you must move on,
Half the distance takes you twice as long
So you keep on singing for the sake of the song
After the thrill is gone

You’re afraid you might fall out of fashion
And you’re feeling cold and small
Any kind of love without passion
That ain’t no kind of lovin’ at all, well

Same dances in the same old shoes
You get too careful with the steps you choose
you don’t care about winning but you don’t want to lose
After the thrill is gone

One of Frey and Henley’s best and most underrated songs. The truth laid bare.

One of the hidden gems on the Desperado album. Leadon’s playing on this is sublime – turn up the volume from about 4.20 to see what I mean.

A beautiful breakdown of Felder’s playing on “Hotel California”. If you don’t think Felder is essential to The Eagles sound, watch this and imagine someone else playing it.

Randy’s finest moment, and The Eagles’ true masterpiece. If you’re looking for ‘the note’, again, go to around 4.20