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History of the Eagles: The Band, the Machine

The Eagles are flying again and they are coming at you from a few different angles (also known as revenue streams), giving fans, who are still filling arenas, plenty to absorb.

Since rejoining forces back in 1994, the core group of co-captains — singer/drummer Don Henley and singer/guitarist Glenn Frey — along with guitarist Joe Walsh and singer/bassist Timothy B. Schmit, have periodically gathered their considerable forces to hit the road and faithfully re-create their many hits augmented by several backing musicians, including longtime second lead guitarist Steuart Smith, who co-wrote six songs on the band’s 2007 album Long Road Out of Eden.

The Eagles’ estimable catalog, which surprisingly consists of only seven studio albums (the band has just as many compilations), includes classic-rock staples such as Hotel California, Take It Easy, Heartache Tonight and Life in the Fast Lane. It is surely reason enough to hit the (long) road, and the band did wrap up a tour leg in the spring. But the current jaunt, dubbed the History of the Eagles Tour, is tied to the April release of the acclaimed and extensive two-part documentary History of the Eagles directed by Alison Ellwood, who also directed Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.

History of the Eagles is available on DVD and Blu-ray and is in regular rotation on Showtime, where it earned the cable network its highest ratings for a music documentary in eight years.

While that network record may be splitting some pretty fine ratings hairs, it does show just how enduring the band’s music and the legends of infighting and tension among the various members throughout its career still are fascinating to its many fans.

The three-plus-hour documentary is split up into two parts, the first covering the band’s initial decade-long run from 1970 through 1980.

Part two covers core members’ solo careers, the members’ time apart and subsequent reunion in 1994, up through the recording of Long Road Out of Eden and until today. Part one will likely appeal most to fans and takes up two hours of total running time and is indeed revealing.

It opens with the band’s most successful lineup of Frey, Henley, Walsh, bassist Randy Meisner and guitarist Don Felder in the 1970s (so ... much ... hair) warming up backstage with their a cappella rendition of Seven Bridges Road displaying the band’s beloved and familiar five-part harmony, followed by a now ironic interview clip with the band from the same era where Henley talks about the future.

“It’s something that you can’t do forever,” an afro-wearing, bearded Henley says.

“This is not a lifetime’s career that we can do, you know?” he says before a long-haired, porn-stached Frey interjects “It’s not?” causing both men to laugh.

From there, viewers are taken to a 1977 concert at the Capital Centre in Washington, D.C., during the Hotel California Tour (more film from of the band’s two-night stand is available on the deluxe three-disc version of History of the Eagles). Then there is more interview footage from the era where the film seems to be immediately trying to debunk the prevalent nonstop party, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll mythos of life as a successful rock musician.

All the major band members, including original guitarist Bernie Leadon and Meisner along with twice-fired guitarist Felder, offer some interesting and revealing insights to the complex interpersonal and professional cogs that work together and clash in the Eagles Machine.

There are also plenty of talking-head moments from influences including Kenny Rogers and Bob Seger and many of the band members’ peers such as Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and longtime manager Irving Azoff, to name a few.

But Henley and Frey are the dominant figures throughout and their personal back stories and meeting are a focus. Also getting attention is their ambition to be a big, popular rock band. Ultimately the duo’s message is that the band and the music were bigger than its members’ egos, and the job is to serve the song.

Frey points out that he purposely contributed fewer lead vocals as time wore on because “we had Don Henley.”

There is plenty of archival film of the band backstage, having fun in hotel rooms and backstage, which is where the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll come in, and long-unseen performance footage of the band and insights to the inspirations of a few tunes including Lyin’ Eyes and Hotel California.

Part one ends with the band’s rancorous dissolution at the turn of the decade, including the infamous and long-bootlegged soundboard tape of Frey, mid-song telling guitarist Don Felder (who gets fired in both parts) he couldn’t wait to “kill” him after the show.

In Part Two, viewers see the mid-’90s reformation leading up to the wildly successful chart-topping comeback album Hell Freezes Over — by (who else) Frey and Henley. Viewers see the sad state Walsh was in, and once again, we’re taken through the process that ends with Frey rather gleefully firing Felder, who never seems to understand that the Eagles aren’t some scrappy, hippie-commune band of brothers but a song machine and a music business unto themselves.

As for the band’s current tour, if the set list remains similar to the last leg, fans will get a mix of Eagles tunes spanning the band’s initial 10 years plus a healthy heaping of solo songs from Walsh’s career, including the James Gang tunes Funk .49 and Walk Away, and a couple of Henley’s solo songs.

More importantly, as a live act, the Eagles are focused on delivering the songs the way they have been heard, beloved and internalized by fans. This ain’t the Allman Brothers stretching out for 50 extra choruses, or Phish spinning variations and reinterpreting its own tunes. They are the Eagles.

The Eagles don’t jam.