The Entirely Explicable Popularity of The Eagles’ Greatest Hits

Blockbusters: The Bestselling Albums Of All Time

Cynicism is very easy. You risk very little by dismissing something as trash. Enthusiasm, on the other hand, is a risk, and an act of vulnerability. It only takes one sneer or a scoff to introduce humiliation into the equation. Cynicism is a defence mechanism used to minimise humiliation – you kill the joy before someone else gets the chance to kill yours. It’s a social shield. When I was getting ready to write this column, I knew I wanted to start with The Eagles’ first Greatest Hits album, still the best selling LP in the United States, the best-selling greatest hits album, and the third best selling LP worldwide. I saw a golden opportunity to milk my spleen and roll my eyes until they bounced down the street. Easy work. I know why this has sold as much as it has: compromise. It’s just rock enough for the rock crowd, just schmaltzy enough for fans of syrupy ballads, just country enough for the cowboys and cowgirls, just theatrical enough without being pretentious (or feminine), and it makes serviceable background music for restaurants and the like. This LP is like a laundry basket – everyone has it because it serves a function. No one is “passionate” about laundry baskets. Right? Well, it turns out I’m about to defend The Eagles and the album that calculated the middle of the road with radar precision.

In the mid-70s, an Arab oil embargo drove up the price of vinyl, and record companies recovered the costs by releasing a glut of Greatest Hits collections. What better way to be thrifty than releasing albums with no new material? Some artists are ideally suited to this format. Take The Carpenters – at their best, some of the most emotionally rich and illustrious music ever recorded; at their worst, the sound of American toothpaste commercials. None of their studio albums are held up as classics, but careful curation of their singles will yield a composite masterpiece. By boiling down The Eagles’ first five years into ten tracks, maybe this could be a masterpiece too.

What’s most striking about Their Greatest Hits is how good-natured this band is. The narrator of the opener ‘Take It Easy’ has seven women on his mind – “Four who wanna hold me, two who wanna stone me, one cos she’s a friend of mine”. This is masterfully efficient pop songwriting. We know so much about this character from that one line. He’s a ladies’ man, he admits he makes mistakes, and he can still hold down a platonic friendship with an adult female. He’s relatable and attractive (to at least 4 people); confident, but not entirely smug. I’m not saying I love it, but if you want to write a “Women want him! Men want to be him!” narrator, watch and learn. It’s charming and genuine enough to get away with embarrassing lines like “Come on baby, don’t say maybe”.  

Witchy Woman is part of a rich tradition of songs warning you about a mysterious irresistible gal who’ll mess you up if you get too close. ELO’s Evil Woman, Hall & Oates’ Maneater, Nelly Furtado’s Maneater, Livin La Vida Loca – they’re everywhere. This song showcases another secret to this record’s success: camp. The Eagles are an extremely heterosexual band – a group of men with those haircuts clearly don’t have any gay friends. And yet Witchy Woman is both so serious and so silly I’m amazed I’d never seen a drag queen lip-sync to it before today. (A quick Youtube search will show the famed drag performer Raja doing exactly that to Kristin Chenoworth’s cover version. Or you could just check the video below.) Camp is a surprisingly lucrative aesthetic when done just right, and it brings in two key demographics: LGBT people and (more importantly here) kids. (I was once both of those things and this song was absolutely my jam.) Children love this kind of theatricality, and even the melody and lyrics have a nursery rhyme-like tone. You could easily slot this into a primary school Halloween revue. And yet, is it also about drugs? The Eagles were no stranger to the seedy side of LA life (apparently that’s actually what “Hotel California” represents. There are numerous LA hotels who claim to be the real-life inspiration for Hotel California, but the band insist it’s a metaphor. Hotel California will appear in this column in the future). Is it so out of the question that this witchy woman who “drove herself to madness with a silver spoon” is chasing the dragon every night? “See how high she flies”… just saying.

Not many songs have such multifaceted appeal, and every single one on Their Greatest Hits has it. If you want proof, take a listen to The Langley Schools Music Project. In 1976 and 77, a Canadian music teacher called Hans Fenger decided to make a record with his students in their big reverberant gymnasium. The children chose songs that they wanted to play, then arranged, performed and recorded them with the help of their teacher. This strange and wonderful collection became a cult classic on its re-release in 2001. Right in the middle, you’ll find a version of The Eagles’ Desperado, by far the most unhappy song on Their Greatest Hits. As with movies and television, music designed specifically for kids is almost always obnoxiously cheerful. Adults worry about upsetting their little’uns and try to shield them from sadness. The fact that these children chose to perform Desperado indicates two things. One, children understand melancholy even if you try to protect them, and two– these are such well written pop songs that kids will even love the bleakest of them. (A scene in Jim Sheridan’s underrated movie ‘In America’ features the young protagonist singing Desperado in a school play, almost certainly inspired by the Langley Schools record.)

Being a miserable old man (by my own standards) it makes sense that my favourite songs on this record are the saddest. Desperado is a plea to a self-destructive friend, asking him to admit his vulnerability and stand up against the hardships of life. Meanwhile, Lyin’ Eyes is a classic storytellin’ country song about a dissatisfied woman, her rich emotionally stunted husband, and the young stud she cheats with. These are by far the most adult songs on the album, especially the latter. When I listened to Lyin’ Eyes as a child, it hit the same emotional beats as an episode of Hey Arnold or Charlie Brown. It explores the realistic disappointments of life, all the while still being dramatic enough to be understood by a seven year old.

The most annoying song is also the most inoffensive. Peaceful Easy Feeling is somehow grating enough that it’s appeared in a classic movie scene and a news story as a figure of aggravation and ridicule. In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges is thrown out of a taxi after begging his driver to turn off the radio. “I’ve had a rough night and I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!” The directors were wise to choose Peaceful Easy Feeling as the song The Dude objects to. Meanwhile, in 2013, a woman stabbed her roommate with a knife for refusing to stop playing Peaceful Easy Feeling on repeat. The irony is too obvious to point out, and to make a joke would be somewhat callous.

Overlooking that for a moment, the mass appeal of this collection can’t be overstated. At its very beginning, rock n roll was a mixture of the sacred and the profane. The Eagles grew out of a world full of drugs and decadence, and they made it agreeable, family friendly, and yet not entirely sanitised. The lyrics of One Of These Nights say “I’ve been searching for the daughter of the devil himself, I’ve been searching for an angel in white, I’ve been searching for a woman who’s a little of both”. This exact line was quoted in the anti-pop music Christian propaganda film ‘Rock: It’s Your Decision’ as an example of the evils of rock music. Yet, this line may also be indicative of why this is the best-selling record in America. This is a soundtrack for two Californian teenagers dry-humping through their Levi’s in the back of a Chevrolet; and it’s also a mainstay at my parents’ dinner parties. You can read rebellion into it if you really want to, and yet it’s also thoroughly competent, smooth, clean, easy, boring (depending on your viewpoint). I wonder how many Generation X’ers were conceived to this record. I bet it’s a lot.

The makers of ‘Rock: It’s Your Decision’ don’t count; they were anti everything. The people who really hated The Eagles (and who still hate The Eagles) were hardcore music fans – the record store clerks, the critics, the dedicated nerds etc. I am one of those people and I absolutely get it. If you’re one of the lucky few people who are familiar with the less lucky artists from the same scene – Judee Sill, Gene Clark, hundreds of others – it’s easy to resent The Eagles. It’s easy to see them as watered down, overproduced, compromised sell-outs standing on the shoulders of unseen giants. Sadly, pop music is not a meritocracy, but the near-peerless success of The Eagles’ first Greatest Hits isn’t undeserved. There is genuine beauty here, genuine fun, genuine comfort. Come to think of it, comfort is what I get from this. It’s not just nostalgia-goggles – the first song is literally called ‘Take It Easy’. The world is a frightening place and life is hard. I will never judge anyone for liking The Eagles again because I absolutely get the appeal now. If this collection is good for anything, it’s comfort… that and filling champagne buckets with cocaine, which is what they continued to do for the rest of the 70s. I hope that brought them some comfort too but I can’t imagine it helped all that much.

And finally…
How much did it sell? 45 million
Does it deserve the millions? Somewhat yes
What else deserves to be here that could do the same job? Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

EXTRAS

  • The first four bars of One Of These Nights is the best and most gorgeous thing The Eagles’ committed to tape. Frankly it writes cheques the rest of the song can’t cash. You can hear it sampled on Saratoga from Ultramarine’s ambient house classic ‘Every Man and Woman Is a Star’.
  • Here’s a lovely 20 minute VH1 documentary on the Langley Schools Music Project for those who are interested.
  • Here’s the scene from In America.
  • This album isn’t just good for what it includes, but also for what it omits. Two of their singles from this period were not included: 1973’s Outlaw Man was removed because it’s a cover, and 1974’s James Dean was probably left out because it is, was and always will be utterly utterly inexcusable.

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