This past week marked the deaths of two important figures in popular music, Glenn Frey and David Bowie. Of the two, David Bowie is likely the more important musician. Bowie was a chameleon of popular music; no two hits of his were ever alike, many startlingly different from each other. An endless innovator with an inimitable voice, Bowie was always distinct, always strange. An artist's artist.
Glenn Frey, best known as one of the founders of the Eagles, was the opposite. The Eagles were always consummate pop. In their time they sold records by the metric ton; their music was in every jukebox, back in the day when that meant something. But the Eagles weren't simply a popular group, they were a popular group of quality, whose albums were anticipated, who never recorded a bad song or an album not worth buying. Their "Greatest Hits" album, a phenomenon in music history, is 29x platinum, and the second best-selling record in music history. The Eagles rewarded loyalty, because their music was always listenable, always buoyant, even when it was trying to be dark.
Between Frey and Bowie, I find myself thinking about Frey more. Bowie was an innovator, and one never knew what he was going to come up with next. With Frey, one knew. But not in a bad way. Bowie was steak tartare and Frey was cupcake dessert, but there is certainly no shame in being the best cupcake chef in town; cupcakes, done right, are a marvelous thing.
In their day, the Eagles were mainline pop music. Not at all edge seekers, but good songwriters and musicians just the same. I for one do not demand that rock music always be avant-garde. Compared to classical and jazz music, rock is comparatively simple and musically safe -- one can listen to a rock station for quite some time and never hear a 13th chord, or change of key within the song, let alone a chromatic scale (music that does not conform to standard musical keys). These are regular features of jazz and classical music, which means that even rock songs that are considered innovative and sophisticated are, compared to classical and jazz, technically basic.
So I don't put sophisticated rock music much above the popular variety. Indie rock is just the Eagles with more distortion.
But sometimes straightforward turns out to be something more. The Eagles's style of music was a blend of country and pop music, long before country went big time. Many Eagles tunes used slide guitar accompaniments, and "Take it Easy" even features a good ol' fashioned, finger-pickin' banjo. The classic Eagles sound is the dubbed guitar -- a guitar backup that stacks guitar on guitar on guitar, giving the music a jangly, almost infinite depth. Some songs, like "Hotel California" seem to have at least 4 overdubbed guitars, an illusion complicated by the use of a 12 stringed guitar, which by itself sounds like two. Thus the Eagles, while sticking to standard country and blues accompaniment, sound much deeper and more complicated than they really are.
What is interesting about the Eagles is that, while their musical technique is not complex, their sound is never imitated. Even former Eagles, such as Glenn Frey in his solo efforts, sound nothing like the Eagles. It is a truism that talent makes the difficult seem easy, but whatever it was about the Eagles' sound, no one afterward attempted the deep overdubbed country polyguitar sound that characterized the Eagles. Rock went in another direction -- loud, throbbing, arena anthems and overproduced dance music -- but abandoned the open, placid, groovy style of the Eagles.
Perhaps no one imitated the Eagles because no one wanted to sound like Eagles imitators, but that is the hallmark of a good musical idea -- something that sounds so much like you that no one can approach it again without coming off as a cheap knockoff.
In that sense, the Eagles were innovators. Innovators in plain pop music sight.
As a guitarist, I find myself in a paradox that many musicians are familiar with -- I like to play music I don't like to listen to. Country music is a prime example. I like the bright, bluesy style of country guitar, the use of the blues pentatonic scale in broad, smooth strokes. I love to play it, that slinky, smooth, sliding sound. But I don't like to listen to it. Most country music is too simple and syrupy for my taste. But it is easy and enjoyable to play.
This is one of appeals the Eagles have for me -- they made country music listenable. The Eagles are country with the bounce of pop music, a clever blend of Country-Western, the folk rock of the 1960s, and the more progressive, polished studio rock of the late 70s and early 80s. This country-LA blend is a style of music that I liked to play when I was younger, and liked to listen to as well. This sets the Eagles apart from any other country music band I know.
One of the first serious attempts I made to learn a song on the radio was "Hotel California." My guitar teacher transcribed the whole song out for me in tablature on a yellow legal tablet, including the great Joe Walsh-Don Felder guitar solo in the coda that I learned by heart, every note, every bend, vibrato, and snap off. That solo was the piece I played as a teenager when people asked to see how good I was.
After "Hotel California," I learned "Try and Love Again," a filler song on the "Hotel California" album with a Joe Walsh guitar solo that remains one of my favorites even to this day. I love its cool, laid back style, complete with a couple of phrase inversions that for me is the epitome of tuneful, unpretentious pop music. Glenn Frey sung the lead.
This is why I will miss Glenn Frey. The Eagles's recording days are long gone and would have been even if its band members were all still living. But Frey's presence in the music scene always reminded me that there was a time when popular music wasn't trying to invent the next cool thing, create an internet viral sensation, or start the next dance craze. A time when the only goal of music recording was to sound good. And the Eagles always sounded good.
Photo courtesy of Steve Alexander.