The Eagles have landed in London

The Californian rockers are in London this week for the UK premiere of a new film that tells the extraordinary inside story of the supergroup. You couldn't make it up, says David Sinclair

The manager of the Eagles, Irving Azoff, has a small plaque on the wall of his office mounted next to a disc of Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). The inscription says: presented to the Eagles to commemorate the best-selling album of the 20th Century [in America] with sales in excess of 26 million units. "That century's gone, so nobody's going to top that," Azoff proclaims with a satisfied air of finality towards the end of History of the Eagles, a new documentary telling the inside story of the group.

While plans are being finalised for an American tour beginning on 6 July, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Timothy B Schmit and Joe Walsh will be in London to submit to a Q&A session on Thursday following the first British screening of History of the Eagles at the Sundance Film and Music Festival.

These four men are the remaining members of a band which has weathered many bruising internal conflicts and external changes to the musical landscape while somehow maintaining a level of mainstream popular appeal that has hardly dipped since their heyday in the 1970s. Even when they stopped working together for 14 years from 1980 to 1994, their music never dropped off playlists, particularly in America, where the group's temporary demise coincided with the arrival of classic-rock radio – a format more or less defined by the musical legacy of the Eagles.

How have they done it? Why are people, all over the world, still fascinated to know what went on 40 years ago among a group of musicians in southern California? "We set out to become a band of our time, but sometimes, if you do a good enough job, you become a band for all time," is how Henley explains it, somewhat immodestly. "Perfection was not an accident. Our goal was to be the best that we could be."

The Eagles emerged from Los Angeles at a time of incredible artistic creativity. A network of troubadours (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons) and harmony groups (the Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash, the Mamas and Papas) were in the process of turning California into the centre of the pop world. Frey and Henley, together with the original bass player Randy Meisner and guitarist Bernie Leadon, began their professional association as members of Linda Ronstadt's backing band before the four of them broke away to form the Eagles in 1971. Signed immediately to David Geffen's label Asylum, they enjoyed success with their first two albums, Eagles (1972) and Desperado (1973), which painted an improbably glamorous picture of a laid-back lifestyle interwoven with a rock-star homage to the mythology of the old Wild West.

"Before cheap air travel and all that, the west coast of California was still some kind of Xanadu, only seen in cool movies such as Bullitt and The Long Goodbye," says Nick Stewart, a management consultant for the Eagles in London. "Original fans like me heard those records and fell in love with the whole cool American sound and image of the band."

New generations of fans may be surprised to discover that both those albums, with their iconic American sound and artwork, were recorded in London with the English producer Glyn Johns. When he first heard the group, Johns was not convinced. "I didn't see what all the fuss was about," he says. It was only when he heard them singing a cappella harmonies that the penny dropped. "An extraordinary blend of voices, a lovely harmony sound; that was it," he says.

Allied to this vocal talent was the instrumental brilliance of the group's several guitarists. Frey and Leadon were joined by Don Felder on the albums On the Border (1974) and One of These Nights (1975) and Leadon was then replaced by Joe Walsh, formerly of the James Gang and already a fully qualified guitar hero in his own right.

The final piece of the artistic jigsaw that made the Eagles such a massive global success was their borderline-obsessive attention to the craft of songwriting and recording. "They never made a poor album," Stewart says. "Like the Beatles, their standards were, and still are, unbelievably high." Nowadays, when the Eagles do a 31-song concert, the audience know the lyrics to every song. And most people can probably even hum the guitar solos note for note.

"People told me they didn't just listen to the Eagles," Frey says. "They did things to the Eagles. They went to a fandango and drove across the country with their high school buddies. People broke up with their girlfriends, quit their jobs or changed their lives; they did things to [the music of] the Eagles."

The scale of the group's success is staggering. People often overlook the fact that their biggest non-compilation album Hotel California was released after Their Greatest Hits. Some of the group's most successful songs – "Life in the Fast Lane", "New Kid in Town" and "Hotel California" itself – are thus not even included on the best-selling disc of the 20th century that proudly sits on Azoff's wall.

As the group became megastars, a familiar tale of lifestyle excesses ensued. Copious quantities of liquor and cocaine were consumed at their notorious "third encores" (after-show parties). Walsh, who became the self-appointed "master of room trash", ended up an alcoholic. But it was the constant struggle to maintain such high artistic standards which produced a succession of epic personality clashes between various members of the band over the years, usually involving Frey.

Leadon owns up to pouring a bottle of beer over Frey's head in one dressing room fracas. "I wasn't proud of myself," he says. And there is an extraordinary recording of an onstage bust-up at a gig in Long Island in 1980 during which Frey and Felder squared up to one another in a string of increasingly aggressive exchanges captured for posterity in a "Troggs Tapes" moment. "Three more songs, asshole, and then I'm gonna kill you," Frey says. "I can't wait," Felder replies.

"In my experience, all rock'n'roll bands are on the verge of splitting up at all times," says Schmit, who took over on bass from Meisner for the aptly-named album The Long Run (1978), soon after which the band stopped. Henley's often repeated assertion that they would get back together again "when hell freezes over" provided the title for the reunion tour of 1994 and an ensuing live album. Now, nearly 20 years into their second act, the Eagles show no signs of slowing up; quite the reverse. Unusually for supergroups of their vintage, all seven members, past and present, are still alive. And as their Californian contemporary Jackson Browne succinctly observes: "The songs last."

'History of The Eagles' premieres at the Sundance Festival, The O2, London, Thursday at 9pm, followed by Q&A session with the Eagles (www.sundance-london.com). The film is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 29 April

Hotel California: What is the Eagles' most famous song about?

"The song has taken on a mythology of its own, like the Paul is dead thing or who was the Walrus," says Don Henley, referring to myths that grew up around the Beatles. "It's been denounced by evangelists. We've been accused of being members of the Church of Satan. People see images on the album cover which aren't there. Just lunatic stuff. The hotel itself could be taken as a metaphor not only for the myth-making of southern California but also the myth-making that is the American dream; because it's a fine line between the American dream and the American nightmare. It's a song about a journey from innocence to experience. That's all."

Glenn Frey says: "'Hotel California' was our reaction to what was happening to us. It became a theme for the album. Don and I are fans of hidden, deeper meanings. Maybe somewhere in that song there's some stuff that is just yours; that no one else is ever going to figure out."

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...