Which is the Eagles best album? Most would say, Hotel California, by far their most commercial album. It’s a definitely a classic. I will offer an alternative thought, On the Border, their 1974 release.
On the Border, their third album, might sound like an odd choice as a “best” selection, but of the albums preceding Hotel California, it is their most complete. Their previous album, Desperado, had the critics doing cartwheels based on the title song and “Tequila Sunrise”, both fine songs. So, expectations were high for what would follow.
As an album, Desperado is average, when factoring in the other songs. Certainly, “Desperado” and “Tequila Sunrise” show a maturity in Henley and Frey’s songwriting talent and their ability to communicate a strong lyrical vision.
The Eagles appealed to the rock and country crowds, a blue jean crowd that could appreciate sophisticated lyrics and grand imagery. From the dusty plains of Texas to the California surf, the Eagles spoke to free spirits, outlaws and adventurous women.
The Eagles defied categorization. Their songs imbibed Southern Cal rock, country rock, soft rock, and they had elements of other bands they played with like Poco, Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band, The Flying Burritos, Linda Ronstadt and various other influences like Tex-Mex and blue grass.
By the time Hotel California was released in 1976, the Eagles were a big deal. Their first greatest hits collection, released a year earlier, has sold more than 42 million copies since its release, and cruised to number one on the charts. I’d say that is a big deal. Hotel California has sold 26 million copies. Based on sales, does that make it their best album? Hotel California is their most polished and well-constructed album. It’s also a bit pretentious, and raised the bar so high that they would never reach it again.
Their first two albums were produced by Glyn Johns (Beatles, The Who) and recorded in London. The Eagles, beginning production on what would be On the Border, changed direction, parted ways with Johns, and hired Bill Szymczyk, who had worked with Joe Walsh. Recording also shifted to Los Angeles. The other change was bringing in Don Felder, who gave the group more guitar muscle. Two songs from the Johns sessions would be used on the new album.
On the Border was fun, and while it maybe didn’t build on the majesty of “Desperado”, it delivered more consistent songwriting and punch, than the Desperado album. Let’s take a look at On the Border.
- “Already Gone” writers: Jack Tempchin / Robb Strandlund. Lead vocalist, Glenn Frey 4:15 The Eagles had recorded a previous Tempchin tune, “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” This is an uptempo rocker, perfect to start off the album. It is one of two songs on the album where Felder appears, his meaty solos really make the record, and show the Eagles were more than mellow rockers.
- “You Never Cry Like a Lover” writers: Don Henley / J.D. Souther. Lead vocalist, Don Henley 4:00 One of two songs held over from the Johns sessions in London, it has a bigger production tone. It’s a finely crafted song, indicative of Johns’ ability as a producer. The Eagles were known for smooth harmony vocals and a tasteful guitar solo. This song has both.
- “Midnight Flyer” writer: Paul Craft. Lead vocalist, Randy Meisner 3:55 The Eagles were known for including a cover tune if it fit the vibe of the album. This is a country tune with banjo, an uptempo song with bass player Meisner on lead vocals. The song doesn’t really add much to the album but the band always had a country/rock following.
- “My Man” writer: Bernie Leadon. Lead vocalist, Bernie Leadon 3:29 Guitarist Leadon doesn’t get much time in the spotlight, this is a mellow rocker with a lot of acoustic guitar and steel guitar fills. It is a fine song with a bit of country/rock groove. Pure Prairie League or Poco would have been comfortable with a song like this. Leadon is not as dynamic a vocalist as Henley or Frey but competent. Nice guitar work on the chorus.
- “On the Border” writers: Henley / Leadon / Glenn Frey. Lead vocalists, Henley with Frey, Meisner, and Leadon 4:23 A hard rock tune with an R&B feel to it. The Eagles could get funky when they wanted to. This song would have been at home on The Long Run album. The final section of the song has a funky electric groove to it. This would be revisited on the next album with “One of These Nights.”
- “James Dean” writers: Henley / Frey / Souther / Jackson Browne. Lead vocalist, Frey 3:38 Like “Already Gone” this song is an uptempo rocker with a lot squealing guitars. From a jam by the writers, another of their songs about untamed spirits. The layers of guitars are quite impressive.
- “Ol’ ’55” writer: Tom Waits. Lead vocalists, Frey and Henley 4:21 Tom Waits had not yet hit the big time, but this song helped. Great vocal work and steel guitar work, make this a real sentimental treasure.
- “Is It True?” writer: Randy Meisner. Lead vocalist, Meisner 3:14 Meisner again, this time as writer and lead vocalist. A nice mid tempo ballad, with some nice guitar in the background, and harmony vocals on the choruses. A very pleasing effort.
- “Good Day in Hell” writers: Henley / Frey. Lead vocalists: Frey and Henley 4:25 Ragged guitar with a driving beat, another song highlighting free spirits and the perils of life in the fast lane. Frey and Henley had really good complimentary voices. Songs like this rock harder than most of the songs they would do later on. Felder on the solos.
- “Best of My Love” writers: Henley / Frey / Souther. Lead vocalist, Henley 4:34 One of the Eagles all-time classics. Recorded in London with Johns, it has exquisite production, a perfect song for radio. It reached number one, their first. Edited by the record company without the permission of the group. The vocal harmony and gentle steel guitar in the background became an Eagles’ trademark.
With On the Border, the Eagles was still a band. In the future, it would be Frey and Henley, and everyone else. Bringing Felder on board was a great addition, it toughened the band musically, but it would shift band dynamics beginning with the next album. From the first song on side one to the last song on side two, this is an album that grabs you and doesn’t let go even after the fade out on “Best of My Love.” When the Eagles were just a band and not a huge corporation, this is what rock in the mid 1970s was all about. Blue jeans, long hair and a tasty brew.