The Eagles and producer Glyn Johns parted creative company after three albums because Johns had the nerve to tell them they weren’t a convincing Rock Band. He knew about Rock Bands: he’d worked with The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and for whatever reason (the evidence of his ears, let’s say) he just didn’t feel that The Eagles cut it. The band was miffed, especially Glenn Frey, and so they switched producers and went on to become one of the biggest bands on planet earth. This is something you will learn if you watch the documentary on The Eagles airing on Showtime, and not that I didn’t know this already more or less, I also discovered that Glenn Frey and Don Henley are two of the least fascinating rock stars ever to be given the full documentary treatment and afforded the opportunity to put their music in the context of history. Not that they didn’t have interesting people swirling around them, David Geffen, Irving Azoff, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, and not that it isn’t a kick to see these people young and starry-eyed at the Troubadour at the start of the ‘70s (it’s clear that Jackson and Linda, in particular, had charisma to burn: you see them on the screen in those early days and the contrast between them and the subjects of the film is dramatic).
Why The Eagles? Most of their best early songs were at least partially Souther’s, they didn’t come up with anything that was an improvement (or even a novel spin) on what’d been done by The Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo or The Flying Burrito Brothers on The Gilded Palace of Sin, or Buffalo Springfield, or Crosby, Stills and Nash on their debut (and once Neil Young came on board, they had the Eagles lapped in every conceivable category), or Little Feat, and their Big Statement, Hotel California, may have some representative-of-an-era cache, but it also isn’t very good, except for “New Kid In Town,” a song with a smidgen of Roy Orbison-Everly Brothers mystery that I’m going to lay at the feet of J.D. Souther.
Are the Eagles anyone’s favorite band? I’ve been writing about, arguing about, discussing pop music for at least as long as they’ve been in existence, and I’ve never heard anyone make an impassioned case for them, heard an affectionate defense. No one ever talks about their warmth, or humor (except those who find “Hotel California” unintentionally funny, all that smug “decadence” and the dopey word games), or urgency. The most anyone can say is that they have “good songs,” enough to fill the biggest-selling Greatest Hits album ever and then some, and that’s not nothing (I certainly understand the appeal of their balladly things like “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Take It To The Limit” and the lovely “I Can’t Tell You Why”), but I don’t think they have as many good songs as — some L.A. groups more or less at random — Bread, The Association, The Turtles, groups that are probably in no one’s pantheon, and when you go up a few notches to Fleetwood Mac, The Beach Boys, Love, The Byrds, I don’t think it’s even a fair fight. I also think Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt made more lasting contributions (without Linda rescuing the song, “Desperado” is merely a decent LP track; without Jackson starting to write “Take It Easy,” the group’s debut album doesn’t have a kick-off single).
We didn’t take them seriously in the ‘70s, not nearly as seriously as they took themselves (that’s a high hurdle to get over). All the rock writers I knew would trade in their promo copies of Eagles albums. Maybe we found it difficult to give them a break because they came across as arrogant and smug — so did Lou Reed, to be fair — but they made themselves such conspicuous targets, and even artists like Gram Parsons and David Crosby couldn’t resist taking shots. And this new doc does them no favors: all of part two is devoted to the solo years and the run-up to the inevitable reunion, and there is simply nothing compelling about it (except that David Geffen rightly calls Henley out for being a chronic malcontent: Geffen’s not known for understatement or restraint, but that’s an exceedingly polite term, considering). A super-popular band breaks up at the height of its super-popularity and decides after some time that the potential to make big money outweighs the residual rancor: alert the media!! Hit records, band dissension, bad behavior (although the worst of the alleged behavior isn’t even alluded to), reconciliation and commercial redemption. You’ve seen this before, many times. Why are we seeing it again? Frey and Henley aren’t Mick and Keith, or the surviving Zeps, or Pete and Roger, or Brian and Mike, or Lindsey and Stevie. In a rare moment of self-awareness, Henley mentions that one rock critic accused the Eagles of “loitering on stage,” and I’d accuse the band of loitering a good part of the time in the studio as well. As subjects of a more than three-hour documentary, they’re guilty of another non-moving violation.