Eagles On the Border
Photo: Eagles' On the Border poster / Asylum Records

The Eagles Were ‘On the Border’ of Greatness 50 Years Ago

The Eagles’ On the Border (1974) signified the crossing of a musical boundary, as they progressed from country to rock, ensuring future mainstream success.

On the Border
22 March 1974

Although rock ambition eclipsed their country origins on later records, the Eagles, whose Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 is the best-selling album of all time, remained loyal to their beginnings in terms of image throughout their career. On the number-one hit, “Best of My Love”, which closes their third LP, On the Border, the Eagles‘ soothing harmonies console a narrator analyzing the breakdown of a relationship. “You see it your way / And I see it mine / But we both see it slippin’ away,” lead singer Don Henley confesses. Henley told journalist Cameron Crowe many Eagles songs are “double entendres”, applying to the personal life of the writer and symbolizing a truth about the music industry. In this case, “Best of My Love” predicted the breakup of the band, which rode a high of commercial and critical success until they became too close to the sun. 

The acoustic strum of “Best of My Love” allows Eagles’ harmonies to shine: a pristine capsule for their country-rock origins. Although not innovative, the self-contained nature of this track allows them to define its strengths. The restraint of the light acoustics and straightforward lyrics set up chances for innovation on future albums. For example, the title song of One of These Nights dabbles in rhythm and blues, with Henley’s vocals remaining the driving force. From On the Border forward, Eagles’ sonic transformations correlated directly with commercial success. Although this path may appear clear-cut, and the Eagles’ brand of Americana may seem as transparent, the group contains contradictions that undermine their laid-back image. When speaking of their first single, “Take It Easy,” Life magazine said, “[They] failed to follow their own advice.” 

Hotel California, the Eagles’ fifth album and most successful non-compilation, captures the breeziness of their early music as well as the dark side of Hollywood they became synonymous with. Using a hotel as the centerpiece – thematically and visually – allowed the Eagles to blend their own mythology with the mythology of America. Hotels, which the Eagles became famous for trashing on tour, became part of the band’s lore. Similarly, hotels represent a modern incarnation of Western expansionism as they allow travelers the freedom to roam across continental America. Through this association, the Eagles associated the latent colonialism of American culture with their quest for glory.

Aside from securing their place alongside existing iconography, the Eagles filled a gap in the music market. As the social tumult of the 1960s began to wind down, singer-songwriters became popular: contemplative stars who helped digest public upheaval. Jackson Browne, who co-wrote “Take It Easy”, was a member of a fabled group of musicians who populated Laurel Canyon during this time, including Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and the members of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The Eagles’ closeness with Browne – Glenn Frey was his upstairs neighbor in Echo Park – represents how they sprung from the singer-songwriter movement yet would serve as a vehicle to reintroduce the bands of the 1960s after a few years when lone troubadours dominated the market. “[Glenn] Frey and Henley were Amerirca’s answer to Lenon and McCartney,” said Life magazine. 

Desperado, the Eagles’ second album, closely emulates the singer-songwriter sound. Their least commercially successful, it uses the Wild West as an allegory for modern celebrity and spawned a song that would become synonymous with their persona: “Tequila Sunrise”. The title alone captures the recklessness of the Eagles’ notorious parties and the serene landscapes depicted on their record covers, such as the sun setting behind a lone cactus on their debut LP. On “Tequilla Sunrise”, lead vocalist Glenn Frey mentions, “another lonely boy in a Texas town.” Co-written by Frey and Henley, this line references Henley’s hometown of Liden, Texas. However, like Frey and Henley became symbols of California, their early music would grow to inhabit the persona they later created.  

Scrapped from Desperado, On the Border track “James Dean” allowed the Eagles to break from a consistent theme and explore different personas. The original concept for Desperado was broadly anti-heroes, and a song about a modern rebel allowed the Eagles to translate their angst into a contemporary context. However, the primary purpose of “James Dean”, alongside several other On the Border tracks, is to allow the Eagles to experiment with rock, an endeavor aided by a new producer, Bill Szymczyk, and a new band member, Don Felder, who played the guitar riff on “Good Day in Hell”. “James Dean” is an on-the-nose manifestation of the nostalgia they would portray with nuance on Hotel California – proving that the evolution of their persona would follow that of their music. 

On the Border also features country-pop gems: unadored, three-minute acoustic escapades that the Eagles wouldn’t emulate until “Heartache Tonight” on 1979’s The Long Run. The rueful “Is It True?” features a guitar riff that communicates the winsomeness of the narrator as Randy Meisner, on lead vocal, moans, “You’re really leavin’?” In the chorus, the word “true” receives an extra syllable. The higher note on the last syllable allows the line to function as a subtle pop hook. Although an electric guitar riff makes “Is It True?” a mellow cousin to the album’s rock-influenced tracks, its catchiness prevents it from becoming a slow song without bite. 

The Eagles would figure out how to integrate pop hooks into a variety of styles on future records, including the bluesy “Oooohs” of the chorus of “One of These Nights”. Despite their popularity, the Eagles aren’t known as a pop act. However, they use conventions of pop songwriting to their advantage. Although the banjo of “Midnight Flyer” situates the song on the country side of country rock, it features a strong hook. The opening “Ooooh” of the chorus, paired with a quick recitation of the song’s title, creates a mix of drawn-out and choppy syllables that create an enticing rhythm. The pop moments throughout On the Border act as an insurance policy on an album that seeks to break new ground. 

Glyn Johns had produced the Eagles’ self-titled debut and Desperado. However, by the recording of On the Border, the band had begun to chafe against his acoustic style and studio management. Speaking of his no-drugs-in-the-studio policy, Johns said, “You smoke grass, and then you don’t say what’s on your mind when it comes to mind.” However, the Eagles were often inspired by their own recklessness. “Oh well, it’s been a good day in hell / And tomorrow I’ll be glory bound,” they harmonize on “Good Day in Hell”. Although drugs may have posed a practical threat, Eagles recognized the trade-off between strong feeling, whether positive or negative, and creative output. 

The Eagles’ desire to pursue rock represented their goals as a group. The harsh and bombastic nature of the genre reflected their commercial ambition and penchant for throwing wild parties. The band’s association with the imagery of the American West, such as the Beverly Hills Hotel on the cover of Hotel California, provided a convenient touchstone for their reputation as a quintessentially American group. This imagery enhances the product being sold, while the ability to sell this product on such a massive scale makes the Eagles truly American. 

Like many music acts today, Eagles’ capitalist tendencies threaten to eclipse their musical ones. This inner drive explains why they were able to traverse genres. Their true constant is a sense of mythology, which reached its logical endpoint when the Eagles began to embody the Hollywood lore they had initially set out to chronicle. The consistency of their commodity allowed them to change styles without jeopardizing their ability to maintain an audience. Journalist Cameron Crowe said, “Crosby, Stills and Nash weren’t thinking about business… they were about the music. But the Eagles were about both.”

This founding principle of the Eagles mirrors that of the nation that birthed them. “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. Although the Eagles exhibited a willingness to put in hours – another stereotypically American characteristic – the stratospheric fame they achieved transcends traditional notions of success. Essentially, the “huge requirement” that forms the bedrock of their artistic freedom is more than just hours logged. Fame requires an entertainer’s personality to become a pillar of the product being sold, not just an agent of its completion. Sacrificing yourself at the altar of public adoration is necessary to maintain a career in the spotlight, and part of the bargain is that this labor must seem glamorous.

In the 21st century, even former members of the British royal family have cashed in on the profitability of a media spectacle. Reality TV is simply good business. In 2021, The Atlantic ran a headline that read: “Stars Now Understand Their Destruction Is Our Entertainment”. In the era of social media, when average consumers can reveal an infinite amount of personal information to an infinite amount of people, celebrities must at least posture the act of disclosure to remain relevant. The Eagles preempted this trend by writing about the trappings of “Life in the Fast Line”. However, whatever genuinely makes the car run can never be revealed. 

The idea that behind every fortune lies a crime, or, at least, a secret, not only sustains fame but America itself. Historically, the United States has been proud of the sacrifices of European settlers. However, racist idealogy justified the colonization of North and South America. Additionally, the borders of modern-day America became possible through the forced relocation of indigenous peoples, which resulted in millions of deaths. Oppression of indigenous peoples still occurs today, begging the question, will the perceived positive qualities of America ever be free of original sin? 

Similarly, the Eagles, as a brand, rest on shaky pillars. “Witchy Woman” exudes blatant misogyny, and the narrator of “Take It Easy” seeks to “look for a lover who won’t blow my cover”. The title On the Border evokes colonial mythology by implying adventure lurks on land that hasn’t been claimed for America yet. The rock formations on the cover remind listeners that the Eagles’ laid-back California aesthetic is a direct descendent of Western expansionism, which Desperado romanticizes. Don Henley said, “This is where Manifest Destiny ends — right here, in the middle of all these surfboards and volleyball nets and motor homes.” Although mundane, the traces of America’s crimes linger – and the Eagles’ greatest crime, perhaps, is their ability to make America’s history palatable. 

“Life in the Fast Lane”, a criticism of the music business and charting single from Hotel California, is not just about an exploitative industry: it is about the pursuit of excess for its own sake. Although underpinned by irredeemable qualities, American Western expansion can also be attributed to the human desire to explore. The Eagles are part of the cultural mechanism that channels this urge into capitalism now that the entire American continent has been conquered. 

The product of celebrity is self-reinforcing: when selling popularity itself, consumption inevitably breeds infinitely more consumption. Another negative aspect of this product is the suppliers can dictate the demand. Because fame as a product relies on selling the myth of a person, it is tethered to the negative aspects of human nature in two ways. Most products merely exist within capitalism, which reflects some negative aspects of human nature. However, fame embodies those negative qualities and exists in a system that uses them to ensure its survival in perpetuity. 

The title On the Border embodies the Eagles’ central conflict, tied to the self-sustaining engine of capitalism. Is such a system, which requires consistency of a product, inherently threatening to artists who seek to grow and change? “Leaving was an act of survival,” founding member Bernie Leadon recalled of his 1975 departure from the Eagles due to their relentlessly grueling schedule. Is it possible to truly achieve a dream, or is the closest possible thing the ability to keep striving towards it?

On the Border also signified the crossing of a musical boundary as Eagles progressed from country to rock. The mainstream success this change would bring, as well as continued stylistic evolution, proves that real life happens on the border of the poles humans singlemindedly pursue. “So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains / And we never even knew we had the keys,” Miesner concludes on On the Border’s opening track, “Already Gone”. 

In 1970, Glen Frey and Don Henley met at The Troubadour, the Los Angeles bar where James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Elton John played early in their careers. However, for every star produced by the bar, twice as many hopefuls lingered. Henley said, “The Troubadour…[is] infested with spiritual parasites who will rob you of your precious artistic energy.” This destination represents both sides of the American Dream: for every person who achieves their goals, more languish in purgatory so the success of the other is meaningful. Capitalism produces economic haves and have-nots and emotional ones. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” Henley warns on “Hotel California”. Americans know they are prisoners of capitalism, subjected to a lack of happiness in exchange for the pursuit of a far-off goal, which is usually just more consumption. 

The Eagles’ success became a self-replicating phenomenon, as their fame became an instrument for achieving more fame. Similarly, those who do not achieve their life goals may resort to destroying the goals of others as a means of their own self-actualization. Both success and failure are self-reinforcing. One must wonder if there is any border between them at all. 

The Eagles struck a careful balance between artistry and commercial viability. “You can’t always be a sensitive artiste. You have to fend for yourself,” Henley said. The ultimate sacrifice of the Eagles may have been their demise: When they broke up in 1980, they enshrined the ambitious legacy of their 1970s albums by living out the narrative of their songs. For something to take flight, weight must be shed. Failure to embrace a necessary sacrifice ensures an artist will forever remain on the border of greatness.

Eagles On the Border
Photo: Eagles’ On the Border poster / Asylum Records