With the death of Glenn Frey earlier this year, it's only appropriate that I begin this series on my favorite albums by spotlighting this album.
My first album in this series is Desperado by the Eagles.
Yes, that's right. You can have that Hotel California album. I really only like side two of that album, plus "Wasted Time" from side one. I'm more of an "early era" Eagles fan. It's not that I think they "sold out" when they became megastars (oy, do I hate that argument: when a band suddenly breaks into the mainstream fans start yelling "they sold out" just because they have a hit), but there's something about those earlier albums. Maybe it's that they're less polished and less fussed over (it took three years between Hotel California and The Long Run, and was that "Wasted Time" [to steal a song title]) that makes them sound more "real." (Going back to The Long Run, that album seems so forced it's not funny.)
For my money, Desperado is the Eagles at their best in all respects: songwriting, singing, and playing. It's definitely on my "desert island discs" list, and even after over 40 years since its 1973 release it still sounds fresh.
A Masterful Concept Album
The Eagles' second album, Desperado, was not only "less polished," it was an amazing concept album. It's hard enough to string together a group of songs about a topic, but imagine doing a group of songs that tell two stories simultaneously: an outlaw gang and a rock band!
Superficially, the historic content of the album tells the story of the Dalton Gang, a real-life outlaw gang who met their end in Coffeyville, Kansas when they attempted to rob two banks simultaneously on October 5, 1892. Although not as notorious or well-remembered as Jesse James, they were as ruthless as any band. (Interestingly enough, the Daltons were cousins of James, Cole, and Bob Younger, members of Jesse James' gang: their mother was the sister of the Younger Brothers' father!) The Eagles took the Dalton gang's story and spotlighted it.
The opening song, "Doolin-Dalton," details "two brothers lying dead in Coffeyville," a reference to Bob and Grat Dalton, who were killed in the shootout. In the song they commanded to Bill Dalton to "lay down your law books now, they're no damn good" reflecting the fact that Bill Dalton, the brother of Bob and Grat who was not at the Coffeyville shootout, had studied law before turning to a life of crime.
The historical accuracy was reflected in the photo on the back of the album: it depicted the Eagles, along with J.D. Souther and Jackson Browne, lying on a dusty street, hands tied together, with a group of "lawmen" (played by album producer Glyn Johns, road manager Tom Nixon, and other members of the Eagles' road crew) standing over them, mimicking the famous photo of the Dalton gang's corpses put on display after the Coffeyville shootout. The song "Bitter Creek" is named after George "Bitter Creek" Newcomb, who was a member of the Dalton gang.
However, this is also an album about the Eagles. It draws the analogy of a touring rock band to an outlaw gang, which, in the 70's, wasn't that far a stretch. This was best reflected in the David Blue song "Outlaw Man," which had the chorus of "A life upon the road is the life of an outlaw man." Another reference was in the Randy Meisner song "A Certain Kind of Fool," where the "it" in the verse, "He saw it in a window, the mark of a new kind of man / He kinda like the feeling so shiny and smooth in his hand / He took it to the country and practiced for days without rest," could be a gun or a guitar. The line, "It's a certain kind of fool that likes to hear the sound of his own name," implies it's a guitar.
It is that amazing mixture of messages -- the historical outlaws and the modern rock band just starting on their way to success -- that makes this album so legendary. It is an album that needs to be heard start to finish to hear the story in its entirety.
Glenn Frey said that the band was blasted by fans for making "a (blankety-blank) cowboy record," but in reality the music on the album is all over the map. Everyone knows the beauty of the title track, which is one of the classic songs of the 70's despite never being released as a single (it is one of the most-covered songs by the Eagles). "Tequila Sunrise" has a country flavor, and "Saturday Night" and "Twenty One" have a definite bluegrass feel to them. However, "Out of Control" is one of the hardest rocking songs the Eagles ever did, and "A Certain Kind of Fool" and "Outlaw Man" are straight-ahead rock songs.
The songs by themselves are great. Add the multiple layers of not one but two concept stories and the power of this album multiplies. While most of Frey's obituaries mentioned "Hotel California" they should have told everyone, "Glenn Frey helped give the world Desperado."
A 1973 live version of Doolan-Dalton, complete with a promotional film recreating the Dalton Brothers shootout
Desperado - Eagles
Song By Song
Doolin-Dalton (written by Glenn Frey/Don Henley/Jackson Browne/J.D. Souther; lead vocals: Don Henley/Glenn Frey): the opening song compares the two outlaws meeting with the start of the band leaving "that peaceful life behind."
Twenty One (written by and lead vocals by Bernie Leadon): the upbeat, bluegrassy song expresses the carefree nature of a rock star in his early days before the tensions arise.
Out of Control (written by Don Henley/Glenn Frey/Tom Nixon; lead vocals by Glenn Frey): a hard rocking story about an outlaw's (or band's) night in town ("the gamblers call her Flo, come on and set 'em up again, I've got me a friend, and I think I'm getting out of control").
Tequila Sunrise (written by Don Henley/Glenn Frey; lead vocals by Glenn Frey): the biggest hit from the Desperado album in terms of chart success is this country-rock classic that uses the clever word play of the drink to describe the sky on a lonely morning after a lover has flown.
Desperado (written by Don Henley/Glenn Frey; lead vocals by Don Henley): perhaps the quintessential Eagles song, and one of the great songs by anyone in the 70s, this Henley tour-de-force has been covered by countless acts (from Linda Ronstadt to Johnny Rodriguez), but no one sings the song about loneliness better than Henley.
Certain Kind of Fool (written by Randy Meisner/Don Henley/Glenn Frey; lead vocals: Randy Meisner): Meisner's only lead vocal on the album is the warning about infamy, whether it's a rock star or an outlaw.
Doolin-Dalton (Instrumental) (written by Glenn Frey/Don Henley/Jackson Browne/J.D. Souther): an instrumental banjo/acoustic guitar version of the album's opening song.
Outlaw Man (written by David Blue; lead vocals by Glenn Frey): the only song not written or co-written by a member of the band, this David Blue composition nevertheless fit the theme of the album well enough to be included. (Blue, who died in 1982, was a singer/songwriter also on Asylum Records, the same label as the Eagles.)
Saturday Night (written by Don Henley/Glenn Frey/Randy Meisner/Bernie Leadon; lead vocals: Don Henley): another haunting song enhanced by Henley's vocals, this remains one of my all-time favorite Eagles song.
Bitter Creek (written by and lead vocals by Bernie Leadon): another song with multiple levels. There is a Bitter Creek in Wyoming; and, as previously mentioned, "Bitter Creek" was the nickname of Dalton gang member George Newcomb. One of Leadon's best tunes.
Doolin-Dalton (Reprise)/Desperado (Reprise) (written by Glenn Frey/Don Henley/Jackson Browne/J.D. Souther; lead vocals by Don Henley): this song reprises and closes the story in a most unique way: while Frey and Henley sang on the opening version of "Doolan-Dalton," here Frey's voice is noticeably absent, highlighting the line "four men ride out and only three ride back." The second half of the song is a reprise of the song "Desperado," where Frey rejoins his bandmates singing a descant over Henley.