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…”