In tribute to Glenn Frey, who died on January 18, 2016, we look back on the legend of Desperado...
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.”