Glenn Frey: The Eagles rocker who took it to the limit

Eagles founder member Glenn Frey, who has died aged 67, gave the band their cutting edge. Andy Gill pays tribute

eagles-rex
Eagles – Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon and Don Henley – 1973 Rex

Just as we’re getting over the sudden shocking death of David Bowie, another sixtysomething musician departs the stage. The loss of Glenn Frey, who died aged 67 in New York on Monday night from a combination of rheumatoid arthritis, colitis and pneumonia, may not have the equivalent seismic impact in the UK as Bowie’s passing, but in purely commercial terms he was vastly the more successful performer.

As a founding member of the Eagles, Frey became one of the world’s most admired and successful singers and songwriters by honing the West Coast harmony sound to its most potent cutting edge. For many years, the band’s Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) was the biggest-selling album in music history, while Hotel California (the actual song was co-written by Frey) long since assumed iconic status, exemplifying the dark glamour behind the American Dream.

Initially under the stewardship of manager David Geffen, the Eagles came to personify the denim-clad California cocaine-cowboy music culture of the Seventies. Although none of the original band members was Californian, the individual players having moved there from places like Texas, Minnesota, Florida and Nebraska during the great westward drift of hippies in the late Sixties. Glenn Frey came from Detroit, Michigan, where he played guitar with rocker Bob Seger, before being lured into the California consciousness by hearing the first Buffalo Springfield album.

When Frey’s girlfriend moved to Los Angeles, he didn’t need much persuading to follow her, and his first day in town, he met country-music enthusiast John David Souther, who would become Frey’s songwriting partner on such Eagles hits as “Best of My Love” and “New Kid in Town”. The two formed the country-rock duo Longbranch Pennywhistle, and shared a house with precocious local talent Jackson Browne, whose businesslike application to songcraft shamed their laid-back ways. But at night, the three would hang out at the bar of the Troubadour in Hollywood, epicentre of the burgeoning singer-songwriter scene,which is where Frey first saw future Eagles partner Don Henley, drumming and singing with his band Shiloh. “It was a real place of foment for a while, a melting pot, we would all gather there,” Henley told me last year, recalling the camaraderie of the club’s patrons. “It was like our church, singer-songwriters would mingle and we’d go there and talk about songwriting.” Frey, however, was more ambivalent about the club, describing it to journalist (and future director) Cameron Crowe as “infested with spiritual parasites who will rob you of your precious artistic energy”.

When neither Shiloh nor Longbranch Pennywhistle seemed to be setting the world alight, Frey and Henley joined forces, and the Eagles were up and flying. Geffen signed them to his new label, and dispatched the band first to a club in Aspen, Colorado, to hone their sound, and then to London, to record an album under the watchful ear of Glyn Johns, master producer of both the Stones and Led Zeppelin. “I think they wanted to get us away from the drugs and the women,” noted Henley, wryly. Whatever the reason, it proved a winning strategy. The Eagles were an immediate success, with their anthemic debut single “Take It Easy” – co-written by Browne and Frey, and sung by Frey – epitomising the freewheeling, carefree lifestyle of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon hippie elite. Frey also took lead vocal on another hit from the band’s eponymous debut album, the laid-back love song “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, and the similarly easygoing “Tequila Sunrise” from the follow-up Desperado, a concept album about outlaw cowboys, based on Frey’s fanciful notion that rock musicians were the outlaws of the 20th century.

Desperado, however, bombed badly. But successive albums soon restored and extended the band’s position, until by the mid-Seventies the Eagles had become the pre-eminent American band of their era. But as the albums One of These Nights and Hotel California hoisted them into the rock stratosphere, the band’s use of cocaine drove wedges between the members, with Frey in particular developing a widespread reputation for arrogance and ruthlessness that led to backstage fist-fights during their 1977 tour. As the bickering became toxic, the struggle to create an adequate follow-up to Hotel California effectively broke the band, and following the mediocre The Long Run, they finally agreed to call it a day in 1980.

They would reunite 14 years later with the droly-titled Hell Freezes Over, reflecting Henley’s quip about when he might work again with his former colleagues. “It was really Glenn who broke [the Eagles] up,” says Henley. “He had just had enough, and called the whole thing off, so it was really up to him whether we got back together again. We were too angry, and too busy doing our own things, competing with each other, and we didn’t know there were so many people who still wanted to see us play.” At their first reunion concert, Frey told the audience: “We never broke up, we just took a 14-year vacation.”

Frey recorded five solo albums, the most successful of which was 1984’s The Allnighter. His most recent release was 2012’s After Hours, a selection of songs from The Great American Songbook. But he will be mostly remembered as one of the two main poles of the Eagles, providing a rock’n’roll foil to Don Henley’s more soulful crooner, and as a crucial constituent of the band’s sublime harmonies.

Via the Independent

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