Hating the Eagles is taken as such a badge of honor that the New York Daily News proudly ran an article headlined "Glenn Frey's Death Is Sad, But The Eagles Were A Horrific Band" not less than 24 hours after the guitarist/songwriter's January 18 death. Never mind the questionable timing: the jab is simply too easy, a reflexive notion couched in four decades of the Eagles being the enemy of all that's pure and true in rock & roll.
Much of this distaste is a reaction to the band's public persona, specifically that of Frey and co-leader Don Henley, two rockers who never had much patience for music journalists who weren't Cameron Crowe. Frey and Henley took their massive success as vindication and who could blame them? Thirty million Eagles fans can't be wrong and that's roughly the number of people who have purchased the group's 1976 compilation Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) in the United States alone. That's a number that has only one rival: Michael Jackson's Thriller, which moved most of its copies while it rode the charts between 1982 and 1984. Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is the quintessential catalog item, the kind of record that keeps selling in spite of itself (even when bigger, more thorough compilations came, such as 2003's The Very Best Of The Eagles, it still moved units).
Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) performed a rare trick: it made the Eagles seem confident and assured, better than they were taken on an album-by-album basis. Distilling the band's first four albums into ten songs emphasized all the group's attributes--the candied country-rock colored by their harmonies, the blissed-out ballads tempered by the slight hint of speed--and excised all their odd detours and bad ideas, the things that weighed down each of the four while also giving them character. Frey had a strong presence on their eponymous 1972 debut, singing three of the 10 songs--a number rivaled not by Henley but bassist Randy Meisner, who sang Glenn's original "Most Of Us Are Sad"--including two of the hits: "Take It Easy" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling." His other number was "Chug All Night," an appealing straight-ahead rocker that the group would never attempt again. Instead, they wound up taking a Wild West detour on 1973's Desperado, a record as steeped in the old west as Elton John's 1970 LP Tumbleweed Connection but substituting blunt re-creation for Bernie Taupin's impressionism. On two of the album's best tracks, we get the Eagles as outlaws--the urban cowboy of the title track, the cartoon gunslinger of "Doolin-Dalton"--but Frey elevates the album with "Tequila Sunrise," which sounds more like a sunset but transcends the Disneyland gimmick of the rest of the record. On The Border, delivered a year later, might be the tightest record they ever made, kicking off with "Already Gone"--their finest attempt at a chugging Flying Burrito Brothers tune--and containing another good country rocker in "James Dean," plus the ballad "Best Of My Love," which gave the group their first genuine hit single since "Witchy Woman." After that came the FM rock move of One Of These Nights, containing their only stab at prog in "Journey Of The Sorcerer" and also a farewell to country rock on "Lyin' Eyes."
Frey sung "Lyin' Eyes" but One Of These Nights marks the point where his credits start to arrive primarily as songwriter and de facto arranger. Henley remained at the back of the stage, singing as he drummed, but he moved to the forefront of the band, steering the band toward weightier material as he pushed the pretension. He's partially responsible for giving Hotel California the illusion of a concept album, one where Frey's gorgeous bit of soul "New Kid In Town" doesn't quite fit. It's the only lead Glenn takes on the 1977 album and he fronts only one song on 1979's The Long Run, too: the stomping "Heartache Tonight," co-written with his old friend Bob Seger that functions as shorthand for how '80s arena rock sounds. Often dismissed in comparison to the mega-blockbuster Hotel California, The Long Run in some respects is a better album or at least a more honest one, letting the inherent nastiness of the Eagles surface while also capturing the blown-out aftermath of excess. And while Frey shares lead vocals with Henley a few times, he provides a greater stamp in its arrangements, a move that lets the album be a collection of loosely connected songs; it's the White Album, where each member gets to pursue their own whims.
As it turned out, Frey was kind of spent as a songwriter. He collaborated, helping to articulate the ideas of Henley and Timothy B. Schmit, but once he was freed from the Eagles, he turned to Jack Tempchin to create No Fun Aloud, a record that balanced the smooth smarm of "The One You Love" with the proud inanity of "Partytown." No big idea here--he just wanted to have a good time, so that's what he did for the rest of the '80s. Henley may have tried to tackle the big issues of the Reagan era--he sniped at the news industry on "Dirty Laundry," brooded on "The Boys Of Summer" and closed out the decade mourning "The End of the Innocence"--but Frey wallowed in the shallow surfaces. For those that thought "Partytown" was too glib, Frey revealed how low he could go on 1984's The Allnighter (a title soon borrowed for the Susanna Hoffs vehicle, a film that was equally forgotten), writing odes to a siren of a neighbor (a "Sexy Girl," who "moved in next door to me/and showed me her world," beating Dave Matthews to a sleazy metaphor by more than a decade) and providing the patriotic anthem so many listeners wished Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA" with "Better In The USA" ("It's getting so hip to knock the USA/If we're so awful, if we're so bad/You oughta check the nightlife in Leningrad"). By 1992, he'd be writing a blues for Ronald Reagan ("He Took Advantage") but first he had to go through a period of "Livin' Right," channeling the squareness of Huey Lewis and the soul of Steve Winwood into midlife health panic but that too followed the purple period of Miami Vice and Beverly Hills Cop, when he was tossing off hits on soundtracks: "The Heat Is On," giving Eddie Murphy some crossover swagger, and "Smuggler's Blues" and "You Belong To The City" providing the neon chill in Miami Vice.
After that, it seemed like Frey dropped from the radar because he did. The Eagles reunited for Hell Freezes Over in 1994, then they kept touring, eventually knocking out a double-album in 2007 that's almost a major statement but 2012's After Hours may be a more appropriate coda to his career. Easing into standards, both from the rock era and earlier, he's happy to just lay back and play, sometimes favoring jazz and R&B, sometimes just vamping on familiar chords. It's not flashy and it certainly doesn't possess the swagger Frey had in the Eagles but it hearkens back to the guy who loved Motown in the '60s and couldn't wait to pick up his guitar and play.