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Eagles on Desperado: “We were quite taken with the idea of being outlaws…”

Eagles on Desperado: “We were quite taken with the idea of being outlaws…”

The Eagles, currently on a huge tour of the UK, look back on the legend of 1973’s Desperado in this archive piece from Uncut’s June 2013 issue (Take 193). Forty years on, with help from Jackson Browne and JD Souther, the band tell the story of their “fucking cowboy record” recorded in wild west London. “We’ve had the hits, now we want acceptance as serious artists…” Words: Graeme Thomson

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Some 80 years after Bob Dalton met his bloody end during a shoot-out in smalltown Kansas, a book is being passed around a $60-a-month apartment in Echo Park, the low-rent Los Angeles locale where Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne and JD Souther live, write, drink, smoke and plot their futures.

The Album Of Gunfighters by J Marvin Hunter and Hoan H Rose contains photographs and brief biographies of the outlaws, bandits and bounty hunters of the Old West. Among the usual suspects – Jesse James, Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin – are the Dalton Gang, a band of train robbers from the early 1890s. Rootless and reckless, the Daltons lived outside conventional rules and were rarely seen until they blew into town, grabbed the spoils and split again. To the young musicians in Echo Park, hugely ambitious yet by no means immune to romance, certain parallels start to become apparent.

“We were quite taken with the idea of being, or at least portraying, outlaws,” says Souther. “It was a serviceable metaphor for our story.”

Alongside Browne, Souther was one of two honorary Eagles who would shortly co-write “Doolin-Dalton”, the lead song on the band’s second album. Although some of the participants now express reservations about the premise – “Generally, I thought there were limitations to the metaphor of musicians as gunslingers!” Browne tells Uncut – the framing device for the songs on Desperado had personal resonance for the Eagles. Frey was from Michigan, Don Henley from Texas. Bernie Leadon hailed from Minnesota and Randy Meisner from Nebraska. Like generations of Americans before them, including the Dalton Gang, they had each headed west in search of glory.

“All of us went out west,” says Leadon. “People would go to LA and fail, and the responsible ones would move back home and start a family, while the malcontent never-say-die type personalities said, ‘No, I’m staying!’ That was our story. The idea was: ‘How are we feeling about our lives and what we’re doing, and would the people in a gang have felt the same way?’ Breaking out of societal expectations and doing something extraordinary. We were just kids, but we were looking at our lives and trying to make reasonable comment about it.”

The result was an ambitious song-cycle that sold poorly, had no hits and was slated by their label as a “fucking cowboy record”. But the LP made the Eagles more than just another country-rock band. It made them mythic.

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The Eagles always had a complicated dynamic. They were less a one-for-all gang of musketeers, more individual sharpshooters who formed an affiliation to pull off the biggest job of their lives. Frey and Don Henley were friends who left Linda Ronstadt’s backing band to form their own group. They recruited Leadon, a guitarist, banjo player and baritone singer formerly of Dillard & Clark and the Burritos, and Meisner, ex-Poco bassist and a gifted tenor.

Meisner and Leadon were the more experienced and country-leaning, and perhaps the most accomplished musicians; Frey and Henley had the most forceful personalities and, in time, the most persuasive songs. It was never a sentimental attachment. “When we got together we defined our business plan: we wanted to be successful, world famous, acclaimed and rich,” says Leadon. “One of the first things Frey said was, ‘OK, let’s keep this simple. No Christmas cards.’ Did we go on holiday and call each other? No.”

Although never members of the band, Souther and Browne were integral parts of the Eagles’ creative family. Frey and Souther shared a one-room apartment at 1020 Laguna Avenue; Browne lived downstairs, where he wrote “Take It Easy”, the song that gave the band a major hit with their very first single. “Even when JD and Jackson weren’t directly involved in the songwriting they were involved in dialogue and ideas,” says Ron Stone, then a senior member of David Geffen and Elliot Roberts’ management company. “It raised the threshold for songwriting very high. Every word and melody counted. It wasn’t a casual enterprise.”

Taken from their eponymous debut album, released on Asylum in June 1972, “Take It Easy” and its follow up, “Witchy Woman”, were both sizeable hits.

“There was all this success and then – whammo – we were due back in the studio,” says Leadon. “Frey said at the time, ‘We’ve had the hits, now what we want is critical acceptance as serious artists. We’ll do that with this album.’”

The album-orientated premise found a focus, says Browne, with “the book I’d been given about gunfighters of the Old West. I showed it to the guys, and I think it was Glenn who started singing, ‘They were Doolin, Doolin and Dalton…’”

Souther recalls it slightly differently. “Truthfully, the seeds of the beginning sequence are hazy now, but the first picture my memory can dredge up is Jackson singing the first verse [of ‘Doolin-Dalton’] at a rehearsal in Hollywood and it making me smile.”

The other key foundation song was “Desperado”, a tough-but-tender ballad primarily written by Henley that became the album’s emotional anchor point and, according to Browne, was “really the seed of the whole thing” [see panel]. At this point, Leadon recalls that “Glenn sat everybody down and mapped out which characters in the gang could have songs written about them, or encouraged us to write songs about this concept. It’s a little bit of a thin premise, the outlaw gang compared to the modern rock’n’roll band, but then so are most Hollywood movies…”

The rest of the material came quickly. The only non-original song on the record, “Outlaw Man”, was written by David Blue, who was signed to Geffen and Roberts’ management roster. “He was in the office almost every day,” says Leadon. “I think Frey picked up on it.” Blue’s song fit the premise perfectly, but in fact much of Desperado’s conceptual unity relies on the power of suggestion. “It told a story if you wanted it to, and it didn’t really matter if you didn’t, because the songs were strong enough to hold up on their own,” according to its producer, Glyn Johns.

Leadon wrote the lowering “Bitter Creek” after Dalton gangster George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb, although it only references outlaw exploits in its final verse. His other song on the record, “Twenty-One” – “a silly banjo song about youthful optimism,” according to its author – captures the excitement of being “young and fast”, full of bravado and intent on grabbing what the world has to offer. The hard-rocking “Out Of Control” is fuelled by the same reckless energy, familiar to most touring musicians, but “Tequila Sunrise” describes the flipside, the “hollow feelin’” of the itinerant life. “Saturday Night” is similarly downbeat, a slow, nostalgic waltz lamenting the end of innocence and the lack of a tender touch. None of these songs are explicitly tied to the concept, but spun around “Doolin-Dalton”, “Desperado” and “Outlaw Man”, and suffused with the atmosphere of the open plains and a tough, peculiarly male kind of loneliness, they easily trick the listener into believing they are.

Desperado may have been intended, as cover photographer Henry Diltz puts it, to be about “young adventurous dudes living by their talents and wits, seeking their fortunes and looking for ladies”, but it is, ultimately, an album of shadows, moral ambivalence and cold morning-afters. After all, they knew how the story ended: The Album Of Gunfighters offered graphic illustrations of renegades after they had been caught by the law.

“It was filled with pictures of recently captured and killed late 19th-Century outlaws, including the Dalton gang,” says Souther, who took the book along to the cover shoot [see panel]. On the back of the album the band, alongside Browne and Souther, lie dead and bound, while above them stand a vengeful posse consisting of, among others, Glyn Johns, manager John Hartmann and road manager Tommy Nixon. The inference was clear. “Oh yeah,” says Browne. “The whole thing really comes together in that shot on the back where all the musicians are lying there dead!”

One of the last songs written, mostly by Meisner, “Certain Kind Of Fool” explored the mindset behind the “crazy kid” driven towards pursuing an extraordinary life. The protagonist who “had a reputation spreading like fire through the land”, could be either a bandit or a virtuoso. “The idea of musicians as outlaws was never intended by me to be the whole metaphor,” says Browne. “It was more something you could hint at, and the song on that album that does that best is ‘Certain Kind Of Fool’. It could be about a gun, it could be about a guitar, and it’s not really about cowboys at all. There’s no western motif.” It is also in many ways an eerie premonition of what would happen to the Eagles after success spun them around. “It wasn’t for the money,” sings Meisner plaintively. “At least, it didn’t start that way…”

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Eagles had been recorded at Olympic Studios in London with Glyn Johns in February 1972. Eight months later they were back, again with Johns, this time recording at Island Records’ studio in Basing Street. The four adopted Californians, singing country-rock and hymning the dusty myths of the Old West, arrived in a city in thrall to Bolan and Bowie. The culture clash was one to relish. The label found them flats on the King’s Road and they would travel by cab back and forth to the studio. At night they visited the local pubs, or occasionally stayed with Johns and his family in Epsom, driving around the country roads in the producer’s giant Lincoln Continental.

“We all loved being in England,” says Leadon. “It was still a nation of shopkeepers then, so we’d go to the greengrocers, the tobacconist, we had a little cash and our needs were met. Our biggest problem was that Marlboro cigarettes didn’t taste the same. They weren’t toasted!” The other major point of cultural contention was the temperature.

“They adapted to London very well,” says Johns. “To get them out of their own comfort zone was good, it removed any distractions, but really, we could have made Desperado on the moon, it wouldn’t have made any difference. You didn’t need to be sitting in the middle of the desert with a horse tied up outside.” Nevertheless, Ron Stone believes being so far from home gave the performances an extra layer of poignancy. “They longed for Southern California, and the album has that wistfulness,” he says. “Not being in that place helped them. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

The album took four weeks and cost £30,000. It was disciplined work, the band working weekday office hours, from late morning until 6pm. Johns wouldn’t tolerate any “hanky-panky” in the studio, something which Frey in particular resented, later comparing the producer to an over-officious school marm. The band’s drug use “increased with time”, admits Leadon, but during Desperado it was “self-regulating. We didn’t have much money, we were all quite well-behaved, and Glyn was very good at keeping us focused. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy: no substances in the studio – you’ll breathe air! Tea was the permissible stimulant.”

Johns remembers them as “very professional, very together”. The songs were written, the concept nailed down, even the running order agreed, before they set foot in the studio. The producer’s most obvious contribution was inserting an instrumental version of “Doolin-Dalton” and adding elegiac codas of that song and “Desperado” to enhance the idea of a narrative arc. The only big production flourish was adding strings to the title track, a task for which Henley’s friend Jim Ed Norman was flown over to conduct members of the London Philharmonic. “I was standing in the studio listening to the playback, and it was just astonishing when those strings swell up under the second half of the song,” says Leadon. Even Johns was taken aback. “I didn’t realise ‘Desperado’ would turn out as well as it did, in the delivery from Henley and the string arrangement. The strings I hadn’t envisaged, I’m sure that was their idea.”

It was perhaps the last Eagles album of which it could be said that it was fun to make. “We were all really thrilled with it,” says Johns. “In fact, when they finished the record they were over the moon, they carried me on their shoulders out of the bloody control room! They were thrilled to bits.”

Nevertheless, changes were taking place in the band dynamic. Having worked with them mere months before on their debut, and as a producer who was firmly committed to the Eagles being an equilibrium where “no-one feels left out and is fairly represented”, Johns noticed a clear shift in the power base. “Henley and Frey assumed control during Desperado, is the best way of putting it,” he says. “That feeling was always there, but stronger on the second LP.”

On Desperado, the pair had a hand in writing eight of the 10 originals, and shared writing credits on the two most high- profile tracks – “Tequila Sunrise” and “Desperado”. It was the start of the Eagles’ musical output beginning to reflect both the band hierarchy and also the manner in which it had been formed in the first place. “There was a degree of prefabrication to the Eagles,” says Stone. “We put them all together, with Glenn and Don as the centrepieces, but they wanted it to be a real, organic band. That’s the emotional component of the first two records: to be a proper band, almost playing at being a democracy. What they realised as time went on is that rock’n’roll is a benevolent dictatorship.”

Leadon, perhaps surprisingly, agrees: “They were more suited to lead. It was actually Glyn’s idea to make it more of a four-way thing. The natural dynamic was more like a Beatles vibe, with two main guys, but Glyn pushed hard to make sure Randy and I had two songs each on Desperado, and it worked out OK.” While both Leadon and Stone believe the friction and creative tension was a positive force initially, it quickly became a problem. Shortly into the recording of their third record, On The Border, they sacked Johns. “We fell out, really,” he says. “Henley and Frey treated the others like inferior beings – particularly Frey. I didn’t like what I was seeing at all and I made that fairly obvious.” Don Felder came in on extra guitar and the sound toughened. Not much later Leadon left, then Meisner. “Democracy does not serve the creative impulse well,” shrugs Browne. “In the end, Don and Glenn just took over the band.”

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Back in the late winter of ’72, returning to California with their new record, the Eagles began to experience misgivings. “Back home, the paranoia would begin,” says Leadon. “Second guessing everything: ‘Oh my God, it doesn’t sound like everyone else. The songs suck. We suck. We need to redo it.’” It was left to Johns, who flew over before Christmas to take part in the cover shoot, to talk them down. “Glyn was fabulous, truly what we needed at the time. He said, ‘You’re wrong. You don’t know, but I know. I’m right, shut up!’ And he was.”

Time may have proved him correct, but the initial impact of Desperado when it was released in April 1973 seemed to confirm the band’s concerns. There were no hit singles, critically and commercially the response was lukewarm, while “everybody at the record company was horrified,” says Stone.

“Like, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ It was a big disappointment, but creatively it was such a leap, such an ambitious thing to do, not to sit on your success but to push the envelope. Now, when you look back across their work it doesn’t seem like such a radical thing to do, but at the time it was a left turn without signalling.”

Browne agrees. “Desperado was a brilliant move, because it gave the Eagles an identity. There was something limited about the concept, but it was also very potent. There was a nouveau-Indian hippy thing going on, everyone was coming to California, and in the end that was what they were writing about: that projected dream of what freedom could be. Vacate your assigned positions in life and be what you fucking want!”

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