Playing What People Want with the Eagles
When veteran California rock band the Eagles hit the stage in London on June 21, there was no pretence about why people had come to see them or what the band was expected to do. It was a case of play the songs we know, dudes, and please don’t change anything.
So, a lively run-through of “Hotel California”, “Tequila Sunrise”, “Take it Easy”, “Witchy Woman”, “Life In The Fast Lane”, “Desperado”, “Take It To The Limit”, and more than three hours of other Eagles standards went down a storm with a packed crowd at the cavernous O2 Arena.
Which is exactly what the band — founded in 1971 and still playing, after, give or take, a 14-year split-up — intended.
“We know why our audience comes,” co-founder Don Henley told me when I interviewed him. “We are not up there to indulge our musical interests. We are most interested in making the listener happy.”
Indeed, the Eagles’ current world tour is called “History of the Eagles” and is a rare beast in that it is the concert of the DVD rather than the other way round.
After producing a documentary film about their career — from Southern California country sound to heavier rock band, through burnt-out breakup to reformation — the band’s manager suggested that they replicate that evolution on stage. “(He said) ‘It will do more for your career than putting out a new album’,” Henley said.
So the closest Henley, co-founder Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit, and guest original member Bernie Leadon got to something new was a song from the 1994 part-live reunion album Hell Freezes Over.
Henley says there are two reasons for this: One is that fans tend not to go to see famous old bands to hear new music. “If you play brand new material, it just puts them to sleep,” Henley said, reflecting on the penchant some reconstituted bands have to fill the mid-section of concerts with new, unfamiliar sounds.
The exception to this is if fans become familiar with the new music through radio play. But here is the second reason Henley says for sticking to the old stuff:
“There is a bit of ageism in this business. Radio, in particular, is not really interested in new material from old bands. It’s not fair, really. I think that older bands are quite capable of producing new material.”
It helps, of course, that the Eagles have a repertoire that is large enough and familiar enough to make all but the biggest rock bands envious. They are among the world’s best-selling bands, having sold over 150 million records by one calculation. But, Henley also reckons, the band has plenty of other outlets for creativity in terms of solo projects.
He is working on a country album to come out next year that will focus on the kind of music he listened to on the radio with his father and grandfather when he was a child in rural Texas, in the 1940s and ’50s. It will feature country greats Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, among others.
The “History of the Eagles” tour, meanwhile, is finishing up in Britain, will move on to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, then back to the States before finishing up next year in Australia and New Zealand.
Having famously said, when the band broke up in 1980, that they would not get back together until “hell freezes over” — hence, 1994’s album title — Henley would not say whether this would be it for the Eagles. “It’s a big mistake to announce an official retirement. When we do stop, we will just fade privately into the woodwork.”
(This is an edited version of a story I wrote from my main employer, Reuters)