Q Magazine, June 2001
The Henley Regatta
It's time for the American rock aristocracy's reunion soiree.
By Paul Elliot
"YOU DON'T KNOW how far your music goes," says Eagles singer, guitarist, pianist and self-styled "lone arranger", Glenn Frey. "You know, when that United States spy plane crash landed in China and the crew were being held, a Chinese guard asked one of the American pilots to tell him the words to Hotel California. "Frey pauses and winks. "Oh yeah."
The makers of the biggest selling album in the history of American popular music (their first Greatest Hits volume has now sold 27 million in the US alone) are gathered in an airy hangar on a Los Angeles movie lot to begin rehearsals for a European tour. Next door is the set of the animated mouse caper sequel, Stuart Little 2.
Although a lucrative proposition, this is a low-key affair compared to the band's 160-date, 1994 reunion tour, wryly titled Hell Freezes Over after a quote from the bad old days, when the Eagles themselves bitterly referred to the conditions under which they might re-form.
The Eagles are planning to make their first complete studio album since 1979's The Long Run and view their forthcoming European gigs as a means of bonding anew for a task that Don Henley – drummer, singer, Eagles' "lyric police" – likens to walking a tightrope.
"It's going to be tricky to be who we are and still be contemporary," says the one-time amour of Stevie Nicks. "How can we sound fresh and new and still sound like the Eagles? We all feel the pressure. We don't want to fail. We've never known much failure."
To date, the Eagles have sold 120 million albums.
The band report to the studio lot at 9am to perform their first hit single. 1972's Take It Easy, for live satellite links to various European TV and radio stations. Frey and Henley, plus bassist Timothy B Schmit and guitarist Joe Walsh, wear the classic American uniform of T-shirt, sweatshirt and blue jeans, belying their millionaire status. Filling out the ensemble this time are guitarist Steuart Smith, percussionist Scott Crago and keyboard players Michael Thompson and Will Hollis.
A notable absentee, though, is guitarist Don Felder. He was present for the Hell Freezes Over tour but has since been dismissed. Litigation is ongoing; Henley – arriving late after a spot of road rage – speaks with due caution of his former colleague's exit.
"There's been unrest for many years now and it got to the point where it was intolerable. It's not the first change we've made and every time we make a change things seem to get better. That's all I can say . . . I mean, I could go on a complete rant. . ."
Prudently, Henley avoids ranting and goes back to work, joining the circle of musicians around Frey's piano, polishing the harmonies on Desperado, the Eagles' '73 ballad. With the wisecracking Frey acting as drill sergeant, rehearsals are conducted in a surprisingly light-hearted fashion: a far cry from the era of a cocaine paranoia that blighted later Eagles sessions.
Once Desperado is completed, Michael Thompson tinkers with The Beatles’ You Never Give Me Your Money.
"Oh no," Frey groans. "We've opened that Pandora’s box filled with every Beatles song we ever learned."
Moments later a chord change reminds Frey of Prince's Cream. "We're supposed to be country rock!" he barks, before singing Cream and other Prince songs in the style of country stars George Jones, Johnny Cash and Travis Tritt. Frey attributes this rediscovered sense of fun to the fact that all four band members now have children. "We have a common enemy," he smiles.
At Frey's behest, the band work through a handful of slow numbers: Take It To The Limit, I Can't Tell You Why and Wasted Time. For the latter, the band reconvene at Frey's piano to get the harmonies just right. "If it hurts and you're running out of air," Frey wheezes, "you're probably on the right note."
Wasted Time also provides the day's great comedy moment. As Henley is about to sing the song’s most affecting line, he is interrupted by the warning bleep of a forklift truck reversing past the hangar’s open doors. Laughing, he nods to the repetitive sound as if it were a new techno tune.
"Let's open that can of worms called Wife In The Fat Lane," Frey cackles, strapping on an electric guitar as Henley retreats to his drum stool to blast through Life In The Fast Lane, their quintessentially Californian tale of crash-and-burn. Suitably loosened up, they conclude with Joe Walsh's 1973 solo hit Rocky Mountain Way. Fiddling with an old amplifier that resembles a kitchen stove, Walsh yells the first few lines off-mike, his booming, cartoonish voice clearly audible over the racket.
Sinking into a sofa, Frey jokes about his young son ("Happy eighth birthday, kid – now get a fucking job!") before pondering the task ahead. "The new album is our Holy Grail," he says, half in jest. "Everybody's got their eyes set on the big prize."
"We still have something to say," Walsh insists. "In rock and roll, there's no mandatory retirement."
Don Henley turns 54 when the band play Glasgow's Hampden Park in July. Schmit and Walsh are the same age, Frey a year their junior.
"A lot of things have to come together for the Eagles to do anything," Frey Says. We were living in different places, we all have families – it's different to how it was in the '70s. But now the time is right. We all have to be in the same zip code for a period of time – and Don Henley is committed to moving back from Dallas to LA. We think we can do it."
The Eagles will begin recording the new album in the autumn, Hotel California producer Bill Szymcyk (a good hand in Scrabble) has been lured out of semi-retirement in North Carolina where, Walsh reports, he has been making excellent spaghetti. And with no record label to answer to, there is no deadline pressure.
"Hopefully we can get this done in a year, but if it takes two that's fine," says Henley. "The main thing is, it has to be credible. We can't go back and create those fabulous desert days of yore, when we were the hip young LA cowboys – but a good song is still a good song. I don’t think we'll go out in the desert and take peyote and puke like we did in the old days, but to make this an authentic Eagles project, Glenn and I are going to have to co-write at least three or four songs together."
And if, by chance, they can't recapture the so-called "Song Power" they once flaunted as a punk rock-baiting T-shirt slogan?
Frey laughs. "We won't put the record out if it's bad! How about that?" Henley rubs his chin and smiles. "A lot of people will buy it in an effort to recapture their lost youth. There's an association with our music with some of the best times in their lives.
"I can't think of another band that has not made an album of new material for 22 years, and then made a triumphant return. "We believe we can."