May 3, 2013 6:28 pm

The band they hate to love

What was great about the Eagles is the reason they are resented by succeeding generations

A new documentary on the Eagles was released on DVD this week, following its screening at the London Sundance film festival. For the hell of it, I spent the last week asking people in the office if they liked the Eagles. As I had suspected, no one did. I was met by curled lips and indignant snarls, like the place had turned into a teatime for Elvis impersonators. The same criticisms were repeated: the group was bland, boring, irritating. One colleague said it was like asking if he liked buses, and that was just about the kindest answer to my question.

This was strange. Here was one of the most successful acts in rock history, responsible for one of the top 10 bestselling albums of all time – their first Greatest Hits collection – and the most adored exponents of a cultural phenomenon, southern Californian soft-rock, that might have changed the course of the western world. (Don’t scoff, young people: Google the heady liaison of beauty and power that was Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Brown. The Eagles were a couple of strums of an acoustic guitar away from real influence. Or so it seemed at the time.)

Today the Eagles still sell out huge arenas. VIP tickets cost nearly 1,000 bucks a throw. They are loved, but they are also hated. What was great about the Eagles – their sweet melodies, immaculate harmonies and all-abiding mellowness – is the reason they are resented by succeeding generations. They were way too pleased with themselves. They dealt with the injustices of the world by wrapping themselves in a wonderland of peaceful easy feelings and gloopy sunsets.

Alison Ellwood’s shamelessly indulgent documentary features a lot of the strumming and the harmonies, but it is the discordant notes that sound loudest. “We made it and it ate us,” says co-leader Glenn Frey of the group’s dizzying ascent in the mid-1970s, and its subsequent demise. Never did feel-good turn so quickly into misery.

To do justice to the group, the descent is described in the very song that would prove their crowning moment. The widely derided “Hotel California”, a deft mix of Hispanic melody and lilting reggae rhythm, could not resist a dabble into LA noir in its famous final line: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”. The duelling guitars that formed the song’s coda was the apotheosis of what was beginning to be called “adult-oriented rock”, dovetailing sweetly into a sunny cul-de-sac.

It was, in effect, the end of the Eagles. Since that song hit the charts 36 years ago, they have produced just three albums, and no more great songs. They live on reputation and on a small body of work that, like all great popular culture, chimed with eerie neatness with the climate of its times.

. . .

While the Eagles tried to check out of their blissed-out lodgings, musical fashion changed. There was punk, new wave, dance music, hip-hop, and all the rest. To be meaningful, art had to be urban, edgy, angular. Woe betide a well-crafted harmony. The Eagles split up at the end of the decade which they had dominated, and became a joke. In a Seinfeld episode, Elaine falls for a man who is perfect apart from his obsession with the song “Desperado”. Steely Dan waspishly name-checked the group in their tale of marital discord, “Everything You Did”: “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbours are listening.”

The two most important members of the group, Frey and Don Henley, substantial talents in their own right, did well out of solo careers. Frey acted in an episode of Miami Vice (no small cultural achievement: he shared the distinction with Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and Peter Sellars). Henley had another row with David Geffen, who sued him for $30m. “I’d sooner die than let you f*** me,” Geffen told Irving Azoff, Henley’s manager. Peaceful easy feelings seemed a distance away.

But the Eagles still entertain the hundreds of thousands who turn up to see them play. Audiences are not interested in listening to any new work; they want to hear those canonical works from distant pop history. In this respect, rock music is beginning to resemble classical music, no longer about the here-and-now, according reverence instead to discrete bodies of work from the past that are already winning their initial skirmishes with that forbidding enemy, the test of time.

If you are holding a Colt 45 to my head, I’ll own up to liking the Eagles. I loved that they cared so much about getting their harmonies right, that they liked to play at being cowboys, that they had the kind of guitarist who left the group because he wasn’t getting to play enough country licks. The music came first. “When a kid picks up a guitar or a drumstick, it’s not to become famous,” says Henley at the end of the film. Proof, if it were needed, that the Eagles really have lost touch with the modern world.

‘History of the Eagles’ is released by Universal Music

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

The podcast of this column is at www.ft.com/culturecast

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