Eagles reform: checking back into the Hotel California

Once they were America's top-selling band, and then they broke up amid stories of sex, drugs and musical differences. But now the Eagles are back in the recording studio

They love the Eagles in Winslow, Arizona. They love them because the band took the trouble to memorialise their town - which, since the arrival of the interstate highways and the demise of the old roadstop culture of Route 66, had become a dusty, half-forgotten stopping off point on the way to such nearby natural wonders as the Painted Desert and Monument Valley. You probably know the lines - they are the opening verse of the Eagles' first hit, "Take It Easy":

Well, I'm a standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford,
Slowin' down to take a look at me.

Visit Winslow today and, sure enough, you'll find a spot in town known as Standin' on the Corner Park. Until recently, you would also have found a mural on the side of a building featuring a blonde woman smiling from the driver's seat of a red pick-up. The problem is, the building burned down in 2004 and the park is now closed indefinitely pending vague renovation plans.

And there you have an encapsulation of a lot about the Eagles themselves: the myth of the West and its vast open landscapes, a certain easy-going charm, the irresistible catchiness of their tunes, and an inescapable penchant towards destructiveness leavened only by the dangling promise of brighter times ahead.

The first time the band broke up, in 1980, it was under the worst imaginable circumstances. There was cocaine and alcohol, and too much Qaalude - in one notorious episode, a teenage prostitute was found overdosing in Don Henley's Hollywood home.

The Eagles' last studio album, The Long Run, took three agonising years to make and struggled to see the light of day at all.

Don Felder, the guitarist who was hired to edge the band away from its early country sound towards a more rocking groove, and Glenn Frey, Henley's main writing partner, loathed each other with such a passion by the end that at the band's final live performance, at a political fundraiser in southern California, they taunted each other between songs and laid into each other the second the set was over.

Henley and Frey, who also could not stand the sight of each other, put the finishing touches to the band's subsequent final release, Eagles Live, from opposite ends of the country.

The gorgeous three-part harmonies on the album might sound like the work of musicians sharing a stage in perfect accord, but in fact many of them were redubbed in separate locations and ferried from one band member to another and back again by Federal Express. The liner notes, which credited no fewer than five lawyers, stated simply: "Thank you, and good night."

That, though, was then. Fourteen years later, in 1994, tempers had cooled enough for the Eagles to announce that they were reforming. Glenn Frey had famously vowed that the band wouldn't get back together "until hell freezes over", so their comeback release was duly titled Hell Freezes Over.

And they've been on the road ever since, largely as a nostalgia band living off their old hits and putting out periodic releases of their live performances with just a sprinkling here and there of new material.

To Eagles fans out there - and they are still numerous - the dream for several years has been of a brand-new studio album. Periodic reports have suggested such an album was in the works, that it was to be titled The Long Road to Eden, and that it might - according to an interview Joe Walsh gave not so long ago - be released sometime this year. Then, the other day, came the closest thing to an official announcement the band is ever likely to make.

The Eagles were in Las Vegas - the lucrative retirement home of many a former chart-topping band - and performing an invitation-only concert at the MGM Grand hotel, when Henley started talking about the album and told the ecstatic crowd: "It's coming out in 60 to 90 days - if we don't kill each other first."

None of the band members has talked about tensions in the studio, but it wouldn't be a surprise to find out that there have been some. After all, the band line-up still features Henley, Frey, Felder, Walsh and bassist Timothy Schmit - the same line-up that imploded in 1980.

Looking on the bright side, they are all at least still with us. As Henley put it to one interviewer in the mid-1990s: "We pride ourselves on the fact that we're one of the only bands of our generation left where all the members are still living ... I really think that's an achievement."

And the Eagles are still very much in the American musical consciousness. They more or less define the term classic rock, the foundation on which any number of regional FM radio stations are built, and it doesn't take too many flips of the dial on a long cross-country drive to find "Hotel California", or "Desperado", or "Lyin' Eyes", or "Take It To The Limit" blaring back at you out of the car radio.

Their first greatest hits album, released in the mid-1970s while they were still in their prime, is the second best-selling record of all time, eclipsed only by Michael Jackson's Thriller. True, their audience has aged with them, and their classic harmonies and guitar riffs have little or nothing in common with the grunge or rap generations. Rather, they are the musical equivalent of an old pair of Levi jeans - someone somewhere is always going to want them.

The Eagles based their sound on the experimental blend of rock and country music pioneered by Gram Parsons, The Byrds and The Band. When they came together in 1971, Henley and Frey were working in Linda Ronstadt's backing band. All of them - the band's other two founding members were Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner - spent their time hanging out at the Troubadour music club in Los Angeles, then considered the ultimate place for up-and-coming musicians to meet.

A young David Geffen signed them to his Asylum Records label, which was also home to Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. Frey heard Browne singing an early version of "Take It Easy", and asked if he could use it for the new band.

A few changed lyrics and chord progressions later, the Eagles had their first hit. And, in those early years, the hits just kept coming. By the time of their fourth album, One Of These Nights, in 1975, they were the top-selling band in America. Their fifth album, Hotel California, was hailed as an instant classic and regularly makes Rolling Stone magazine's list of the greatest albums ever made.

They were, in many ways, pure California: a blending of American myths, fantasies and the laid back, sun-kissed optimism of the West Coast. Not that California represented their origins at all. Henley was from Texas, Frey from Detroit. All came from modest origins, and their stratospheric success was in many ways the embodiment of the American dream, only with a lot more sex and drugs.

As Frey said: "We went on the road, got crazy, got drunk, got high, had girls, played music and made money." One commentator looked at their denim outfits and straggly long hair and said they looked "like Jesus Christ after a month in Palm Springs".

And then it all fell apart. They were all under huge pressure to match or surpass the success of Hotel California when they started making The Long Run. And that led them into a spiral of drugs, paranoia and increasing bickering. Henley started suffering from ulcers and bouts of acute indigestion. In one particularly crazed moment, he fired off a long memo to the studio manager asking him to make sure the toilet paper came off the top, not the bottom, of the roll.

The tour following the release of the album in 1979 only exacerbated things, culminating in that notorious fundraising concert for California's Democratic senator Alan Cranston, where the on-stage discipline barely concealed the seething resentments beneath. "Only three more songs until I kick your ass, pal," Felder hissed at Frey towards the end of the set. Frey retorted: "Great, I can't wait." It was Frey who actually threw the first punch; Felder used his guitar to protect himself. Soon, the whole band was involved in the dust-up, with their roadies frantically trying to pull them all apart.

The 1980s saw each of the band members trying to establish themselves as solo artists, with only middling degrees of success. Henley probably made the best stab at it, thanks to such albums as I Can't Stand Still and The End of The Innocence. He also recorded a memorable duet, "Leather and Lace", with his then-girlfriend, Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. Frey popped up briefly with "The Heat Is On", the theme song from the Eddie Murphy vehicle Beverly Hills Cop and also wrote tunes for Miami Vice (the original television series) and Thelma and Louise.

It rapidly became clear, though, that none of the Eagles individually could capture the magic they had shared together. Frey joked after the first reunion: "We never broke up, we just took a 14-year vacation." They put out two singles in quick succession - "Get Over It" and "Love Will Keep Us Alive" - and then hit the road in serious fashion.

They are older now, all due to turn 60 in the next year or so. And they are perhaps more content than they once were to bask in their success without letting the tensions between them disrupt things. Will the new album be a ground-breaker or a monster hit? Unlikely. But will it make a lot of fans very, very happy all the same? You bet.

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