13. The Eagles

Today, we’re going to fly like an Eagle. No, we’re not going back to the lame warblings of Steve Miller (Post 01), but rather, we’re going to delve into one of the best-selling acts of all time, The Eagles. If any band could be said to epitomize the mandate of this series, it might be The Eagles. Just as the eagle is a symbol of The United States, we can look at The Eagles as a symbol of everything that my pre-adolescent self found detestable in the classic rock canon. It could be said that The Eagles – and the people who liked this band – were a primary motivating force in pushing me straight into the chilly synthetic embrace of Magazine, Ultravox, and Kraftwerk. Are friends electric? Mine were.

What do I know about The Eagles? They’re Glen Frey, Joe Walsh, Don Henley, and some other guys. Don, Joe, and Glen all made solo records. One of them did “Dirty Laundry” in the 1980s, right? I think so. That Joe Walsh song, “Life’s Been Good” was hilarious when I was like nine years old. No idea who the other players are, no idea if the band had many (or any) line-up changes, no idea when they got together or broke up, but clearly the 1970s in toto were their heyday. Oh, and I guess they hate each other, because their reunion record (or was it just a tour?) was called Hell Freezes Over.

The logical place to start would have been with Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), a record that spent five weeks at #1 on the U.S. charts, and haunted that document of debatable merit for 239 weeks. It was the first album ever to go platinum, it was the best-selling album of the 20th century, and it remains the best-selling album of all time, although Michael Jackson’s Thriller overtook it in 2009 before dropping back to the #2 slot by 2018.

I’ve never heard it.

That said, I’ve probably heard – and ignored – most of the songs from that record at various points in my life. As I mused when discussing Fleetwood Mac, these songs just exist as part of the background static of our lives, and even if we’ve never made an effort to listen to them, we can all probably hum along with “Hotel California” or “Life in the Fast Lane”. But The Eagles had a career that continued well past 1975, and it seemed journalistically prudent to explore a bit of that. So I selected Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits (2003). This two-CD set duplicates all ten tracks from Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) and adds 23 more. That presents another problem: I don’t want to listen to 33 songs by The Eagles.
In my life.
I just don’t hate myself that much.
Abridging Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits down to a sort of a customized expanded version of Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), it’s time to fly.

As always, I’m listening some of this music for the first time ever, and am actually paying close attention to the rest of it for the first time ever. The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written while the record was playing, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

The Eagles
Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits (2003) (excerpts)

Eagles LP cover

Already Gone
I’m already thinking back to the first post in this series, Steve Miller. There’s a similar bluesy vibe here with hard-panned guitars. These guitars are recorded much better than Steve’s though. The arrangement and mix are fine, but I can do with less hi-hat. Why do so many bands of this era mix the hi-hat louder than the lead vocal, guitar, or snare drum? Anyway, the song. We’re near the guitar solo already. The lead guitarist sounds very comfortable. Is that Joe Walsh? He sounds like he’s playing, in the real sense of the word. No struggling at all, not fighting his instrument. Just making it do what he wants it to do. Those parallel 4ths (or 5ths, whatever) that come in next always sound goofy to me. It’s like a Spinal Tap level of cliche. Song builds and then fades when it needs to. Nothing challenging here, just a pop package wrapped in a bit of rawk.

Best Of My Love
These acoustic guitars. My word. So in your face. Pull ’em back a bit, and give them some ambience. This song wants to be gentle, but those heavy akus won’t let it. That ambient slide guitar in the background is tasty and atmospheric, so someone in the mix room that day knew something about depth and space in a mix; but this recording needs more of it. The singer needs to be heard. This isn’t post punk (damned right it’s not), we don’t need to bury the vocal here. But again: the song. I dunno. It’s dull. It just kind of does it’s job of being universal enough to have been a big hit. Maybe that’s what we’re in for here: music made with quality, but that staunchly refuses to challenge us… which is exactly why it was so popular. The bass player is the only one who isn’t plodding along on the quarter notes. Come to think of it, a little more bottom would help this song. Really, if I were the arranger, I’d dump the snare and hi-hat in favor of some more woody-sounding percussion. Warm it up.

Eh, the heart-rendering piano and string ballad. Plodding along. He’s singing about some dude who needs to let love in. But his woman wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand, shouldn’t understand: He’s a loner. A rebel. No, really, this sentimentality sounds forced. This band are so contrived. I haven’t heard anything sincere from them yet. Hmmm, I wonder if someone else we know could do a much more real and convincing job of delivering the message to “let love in”. Hint hint. Oh my lord, that huge drum fill comes in exactly where it is supposed to. Fucking hell, it’s like this song came from a template. Ack, and the backing choir. No, just make it stop. This is the kind of thing that wins awards from the songwriter’s hall of fame, not because it takes risks and pushes the art of songwriting forward, but precisely because it doesn’t. It plays it safe all the way, and has sort of polished and re-tooled, safe and comfortable format to it, to the point where the lowest common denominator can absorb the song and message without effort. Keep writing the same song until all the flaws, imperfections, and quirks are gone… but it’s those things that make a song interesting.

Heartache Tonight
Right. This one is showing signs of life. A big opening, but then a little fake-out as the arrangement drops back down to a floor tom beat with an electric clap(?) and a capella vocals. This works. Then this bass player again. Right in the pocket. He’s doing a lot more for the groove in this song than this stiff drummer ever could. The guitarists are laying back and keeping things minimal, leaving room for development in the choruses. The three songs before this one were really crispy sounding, too much so really. That might be bad mastering. Or just playing to this band’s aging audience by overcompensating for the age-related hearing loss that we all face. But this one is more murky. Opposite extreme. There’s a little nonsense at like 200Hz that needs to be notched out. I despise this song less so than the previous two.

Hotel California
Ok, the big one. Was this their biggest hit? Well, maybe it’s their most iconic song anyway. The spacey effects behind the guitar arpeggios work. Wow, there’s a real reggae-influenced groove here. Never noticed that before (because, as I’ve oft stated, I’ve been trying really hard to ignore this song since the day it came out, when I was a freakin’ toddler). Bass player is on point once again though. He’s consistently got a good tone too. Good arrangement in this one. If nothing else this band often do a good job staying out of each other’s way and letting the songs breathe (“Best of My Love”, are you listening?). Oh, starting at 2:20, we hear the guitarists (both of them) subtly foreshadowing the material they’ll play during the song’s extended solo section. Nice. See, that’s what this band can do when they try to do something other than pandering to the lowest common denominator. And it was a still a huge hit. Still no idea what the lyrics are about. Does anyone? Is this hotel a portal to hell or something? Ok, now we get into two solid minutes of guitar wankery. Oh crap, the edit at 4:46? Who the fuck is responsible for THAT? Dude needs to have his razor blades revoked. Yeah, the guitarists are having a good wank. I really don’t like this kind of self-indulgent stuff. Then at 5:30 we get into the stuff foreshadowed earlier. Those parallel 4th (or 5ths… I’m bad at hearing harmonic intervals) again though. They’re just goofy and sometimes give me a headache. The fade doesn’t work either. This song needed a proper ending. The bass tone gets weirdly resonant too. A little EQ is needed.

I Can’t Tell You Why
Ack, the mastering here! No! Turn this whole song down like 3dB or more. And this snare drum. Sounds like a machine, and who thought it would be a good idea to jack up the low end of the snare so much? I can’t focus on anything else. Wait, that Hammond organ tone, wayyyyy in the background. That’s nice n’ grainy. But the snare drum. And the drumming in general. Fuck. And those string pads. That’s a keyboard, not a real string orchestra. And it’s just holding those chords forever. There’s nothing interesting happening there. Pull those back and let that Hammond shine. The Hammond is doing the tasty bit. This song really needs to have been mixed better. I guess it’s a nice little ballad though. Better than “Desperado” for sure. The melodic hook on the pre-chorus is what makes it work (“Every time I try to walk away / Something makes me turn around and stay.”), and then that little instrumental question/answer with the Rhodes piano. Then, toward the end, we get more guitar noodling for a while. This is the part where you make out. But: the song has no climax, and you don’t get one either if anything by The Eagles is your go-to make-out record. Who’d want to fuck an Eagles fan? Not me.

In The City
This sounds familiar. Up until this one, I’ve heard all of the songs before. This one, I wasn’t sure about. But yes, for sure I’ve heard it. Is that Joe Walsh singing this time? This one is especially dull. Just repetitive and nothing much going on. Oh yes, this chorus, I know it. This song is just generic. Was it a big hit? Musta’ been if I’ve heard it. At 1:20 we get this bridge with slide guitar. Seems like that’s what Walsh is known for? If it’s his thing, he’s gonna feature that on the song he sings. Well, this one is recorded and mixed with a baseline level of competence. Mastering doesn’t suck. But the song and the performance are uninspired and uninspiring. I always tell my sound engineering students that it doesn’t matter how well we record, edit, mix, and master something, if the thing we’re recording isn’t any good to start with. Although I can’t help but to be critical of the production value of the things I listen to, I’d still always rather hear a bad recording of a good song than a good recording of a bad song (if I had to chose between the two). A good recording of a good song is optimum of course. This song isn’t bad. It just isn’t good.

Life In The Fast Lane
Here’s a bit of cock rock. Real macho riffing there at the beginning. And a little clavinet in the background. I could stand to hear that a shade louder. Or really, pulling the guitars back a notch would work better. The clav is always good for a little funky sleaze. The interplay between the guitars continues to be a strength for this band. But the solos are mixed a little hot. That’s not surprising though. I’m not engaged in this lyric. The device of two lovers in trouble told from a third-person perspective is always kind of tired. It was tired the first time. Ever. Woof, that huge flange on the entire mix at 3:39. I’m a sucker for a judiciously applied flange. Bring it. In this case, it provides an effective moment of suspense before the instrumental outro of the song. Looks like another noodling fade for this band. This band loves the noodling fades instead of proper song endings or repeating vocal choruses. But once again we’ve got at least three guitars and they’re managing to avoid stepping on each other, so there’s that.

Lyin’ Eyes
Here’s another one I wasn’t sure if I’d know. It kinds sounds vaguely familiar. Ah yes, the chorus, I’ve heard this one a little bit. Nothing new to add here. This one feels like “Best Of My Love” from a production standpoint. Much faster, different vibe, different tempo, but the same in the sense of the over-loud acoustic guitars, and the density of a mix that needs to have some space and breathing room. The mastering thing too. Whoever assembled this compilation has no understanding of dynamics. The ballads need to be a little lower to give some room for the rockers to have impact. The ballads all feel too loud and in-yer-face, which is the opposite of what we want from a ballad. I keep wanting to turn the ballads down, or the rockers up. That’s wrong. This dynamic variation needs to be baked into the way the record is mastered. The ballads shouldn’t overpower the rockers. Well anyway, this song is fucking generic. If it never existed in history, no one would have ever noticed.

New Kid In Town
Oh, is this The Eagles? Man, these guys did have a lot of hits. They were doing something right. Really, I think I covered it already. Don’t get too complicated, don’t get too challenging, and pump out crowd-pleasers. Well, nothing to say about this song that I haven’t said about this band already. What they do is pretty repetitive, pretty consistent, be it within a single song, or across their catalog. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ol’ 55
Before this song started, I was hoping that it would be a cover of the song by the untouchable legend Tom Waits. Indeed it is. A little treat here. Tom’s 1970s material is good, but for me his sweet spot is Swordfishtombones (1983) through Mule Variations (1999). A sixteen-year run is a hell of a sweet spot. But it’s his 1970s material, like eight albums worth, that keeps a roof over his head. This is the material that heavy hitters like Eagles, Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones, Rod Stewart, Queens of the Stone Age, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Tori Amos keep covering, and those lucrative publishing royalties probably provide Tom with more income than his album sales do.

One Of These Nights
Ha, this intro. Modest Mouse totally ripped it off. I never noticed until now that this is where the Mouse got this bass riff from. That’s Modest Mouse’s best song too. They sound a little like Care-era Shriekback on that one. And now my friends, you have read the only sentence in history that mentions Shriekback, Modest Mouse, and The Eagles in one breath. Oh right, we’re supposed to be talking about this Eagles song. I dunno. Sounds like the rest of them. I was reading about surrealist filmmaker Maya Deren last week. I’ve seen the entirety of her small catalog of works several times over the past few decades, but it turns out that October 13th is the 60th anniversary of her death. That’s today (for me). I planned to watch her best film, Meshes of the Afternoon, today. I’ve got seven more Eagles songs to get through and I’m losing objectivity already. It’s all sounding the same. So hold the phone, I’m gonna go watch a Maya Deren movie and eat some food.

Ok, So back to the Eagles. Between the drum beat, the tempo, and the falsetto backing harmonies, I swear this is like The Eagles making a concession to Disco. Not as egregiously as Kiss on Dynasty or E.L.O. on Discovery, but still… a little…?
Yeah, it’s there.
Deal with it.

On the Border
This one is funny. It’s got this big heavy riff, but then the electronic clap button again. Then another cock rock groove. That guitar on the left sounds like another clavinet. Was that the guitar doing the clavinet-type sound on “Life In The Fast Lane”? And those little guitar ganks on the right. So funny. Is this song supposed to be funny? I don’t think it is. But it’s kinda musically hilarious. That one big again clap at 1:44. And the baritone backing vocals at 1:55. It’s like these guys are trying to so hard be funky but they just can’t do it. Now I get it. This is why all their songs are kinda samey. They can’t do anything else. When they try it’s just… wrong. Really guys, don’t do funk. Ha, another break at 2:48, with the fake clap and the porno guitar in the right channel. This is cracking me up. It’s so bad.

Peaceful Easy Feeling
Ah, more acoustic guitars right in our face, and mastered too loud. Once again at least it can be said their their strengths and weaknesses are equally consistent. This acoustic guitar is all pick and no body. Well, this is a pleasant and happy little tune. The vocals are recorded well. Harmonies sound nice. Singer is having a little trouble with the low notes. Listen to “what a woman can do to your soul” at 1:15. He’s struggling there. This song just chugs along. Not much in the way of dynamics or variation. Someone somewhere loves this song a lot. It isn’t me.

Take It Easy
What do you get between “Peaceful EASY Feeling” and “TAKE IT To The Limit”? “Take it Easy”, of course. They can’t even give us much variation on song titles. This song has got a bit of country in it, and a production style similar to “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, but a little better balanced. There’s a guitar solo with some fast banjo arpeggios behind it. Didn’t see that coming from this band, but somehow it works. Banjo keeps going. Band sound a bit lively on this one. This take has some spark. I wonder if some of the other songs were the result of too many takes. The search for some kind of technical perfection in performance can definitely have an impact on the soul of a song. Assuming a song has been well-rehearsed before recording, a third to fifth take or so on recording day tends to have the band warmed up and comfy with the tune, but not yet feeling mechanical, bored, or tired. If you can get a keeper in that zone, you’re doing it right. Things often get stiff or lose energy after more than a half-dozen takes or so. But it’s not always easy to get a take, unless you take it easy. See what I did there?

Take It To The Limit
Yeah, so this is the 16th Eagles tune I’ve heard today, and 14 of them were big enough hits that I knew the hooks and the tunes, even though there has never been a moment in my life – until today – when I listened to The Eagles on purpose. That’s really saying something. There’s no doubt that this band were a big deal, but their music is just kind of boring. These guys show some life when they rock out, but when they do ballads or middle of the road lite-rock or country-inflected tunes they’re just an insanely boring band. Feels like The Eagles were all about this three-way guitar assault, but when the hits started coming, their record label made them do these lame-ass ballads with the syrupy string section behind them. That has always been a bad idea. Even Frank Sinatra was better when backed by a big band or a jazz quartet; when the string orchestras started showing up on his records, his days were numbered. Listen to “Hotel California” or “Life in the Fast Lane” and then tell me that’s the same band who did “Take it To The Limit”. Fuck no. Where are those interlocking guitar riffs? Not here. It’s like some label exec and a producer got an anonymous rhythm section to back up the string players and then threw one of The Eagles singers on top. Did the rest of the band even have to show up? I wouldn’t have. I don’t even like this band and I’m still offended at what a bunch of sell-out horsecrap this song is.

Tequila Sunrise
Tequila? Wait, are we back to Steely Dan? Neh, I guess other bands can sing about booze. That bendy acoustic guitar break is weird. Maybe in a good way. Maybe not. Is this song still on? I’mm’a go take a nap.

The Long Run
All righty, I’m awake now. So is the band. See, this is what these guys are good at. This one happens to be at a more moderate tempo, that’s fine, but they sound like they’re The Eagles being a band, rather than functioning as a cog in the MOR (Middle Of the Road… a 1970s / 1980s radio marketing term, kids) record company machine. Their hooks are better and their songs are more memorable when they’re loosened up. The instruments get to play instead of being buried under a string section or a relentless wall of multi-tracked quarter-note acoustic strumming. This isn’t their best song though.

Witchy Woman
Oh good, last song, this is almost over. Wow, reverb. This band have never been big on reverb. The drum sounds on all of these songs have been so tight and try. They still are here. All the ‘verb is on the vocals here. No, I mean that ALL the verb is on the vocals. Tone it down man. Are they trying to be spooky because of the song title? That’s trite. This reverb and this witchy woman are not making you Eagle people goth. Nothing could make you Eagleoids goth. That is for the best. Really, don’t even try. This lyric sounds like something Stevie Nicks would have discarded.
Fly away, Eagles, I’m done with you.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape:
Let’s narrow it down.
The songs that do the best job of avoiding the MOR machine are:
“Already Gone”
“Heartache Tonight’
“Hotel California”
“The Long Run”
“Life In The Fast Lane”
From their ballads, the production on “I Can’t Tell You Why” is so bad, but the song there. Really, that may be one of their best songs, from a songwriting perspective, but it’s probably their biggest disaster sonically. We don’t do ballads on mix tapes anyway, “Hotel” is too long, “Long Run” is kinda boring, “Already Gone” is kinda lame, so we’re going with “Life in the Fast Lane” or maybe “Heartache Tonight”.
With reservations.

This series has veered toward pop a bit. I want to steer it back toward sweaty long haired guitar rock. So we’ve got Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Meat Loaf, Billy Squier, Van Halen, Blue Öyster Cult, Uriah Heep, and Led Zep on deck for the coming months, and then some stuff that gets a little lighter again, like Styx, Boston, J. Geils, Moody Blues, and Tom Petty. That’s your playlist for the next six months, kids.

Next: Aerosmith, coming November 01, 2021.

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