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‘Desperado’: How Eagles Reinvented Themselves As Rock’n’Roll Outlaws
In Depth

‘Desperado’: How Eagles Reinvented Themselves As Rock’n’Roll Outlaws

Inspired by stories about Wild West outlaws, Eagles recorded ‘Desperado’, a ‘brilliant move’ that gave the band ‘an identity’.

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Jackson Browne remembered that when he was living with Glenn Frey and JD Souther in a cheap apartment block in Echo Park, Los Angeles, in the early 70s, they would all leaf through a 50s coffee-table book called The Album Of Gunfighters, by J Marvin Hunter and Noah H Rose. The book contained photographs and stories about Wild West legends such as Jesse James, Billy The Kid and The Dalton Gang, a band of train robbers from the early 1890s. Frey said it inspired them to think of an album which “draws some parallels between rock’n’roll and being an outlaw”, and the result was Desperado, one of the best Eagles best albums, which was released on 17 April 1973.

Listen to Desperado here.

“We were taken with the idea of being outlaws”

One of the many idiosyncrasies about an album based on the myths of the Old West was that it was recorded during a cold February in London, at Island Records’ studio in Basing Street, Notting Hill, where the four main Eagles musicians (singer and guitarist Frey, drummer and singer Don Henley, guitarist and singer Bernie Leadon and bassist and singer Randy Meisner) were under the direction of producer Glyn Johns, who had also worked on the group’s 1972 eponymous debut album. The band stayed on the King’s Road, and with Johns and his family in Epsom, sometimes exploring the Surrey countryside in the producer’s expensive Lincoln Continental. “We all loved being in England,” said Leadon.

Desperado opens with Doolin-Dalton, co-written by Frey, Henley, Souther and Browne, which tells the story of how 23-year-old Bob Dalton met his bloody end during a gun fight in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1892. Johns also inserted a 48-second instrumental version of Doolin-Dalton that featured Leaden’s deft banjo and mandolin playing. “We were quite taken with the idea of being, or at least portraying, outlaws,” Souther said, in 2014. “It was a serviceable metaphor for our story.”

The album features a variety of styles of music, from the bluegrass-leaning Twenty-One, a song about youthful bravado written by Leadon, to the hard-rocking Out Of Control, which Frey and Henley wrote along with the late Eagles tour manager Tom Nixon.

One of Desperado’s highlights – and, indeed, one of the best Eagles songs of all time – was Tequila Sunrise, about a cocktail drink that was hugely popular at the time. Henley said that he and Frey used to call a swig of the drink “a shot of courage”, because it gave them the nerve to talk to women in bars, back in the days when they were young aspiring stars. Frey came up with the song’s distinctive guitar riff, which he described as “kinda Roy Orbison, kinda Mexican”.

“I was scared stiff”

The key song on the album was Desperado itself, a moving ballad written by Henley and Frey that was, according to Browne, “really the seed of the whole thing”. The poignant lyrics (“Desperado, oh, you ain’t getting’ no younger/Your pain and your hunger, they’re drivin’ you home”), mournful vocals from Henley and the sweeping string arrangements that featured the London Philharmonic Orchestra, provided the perfect mix for a classic song.

Though the strings were a triumph – a production flourish conducted by Jim Ed Norman – Henley had some quirky memories of the recording during a “freezing” day in London. “I sang the lead vocal to Desperado live in a huge studio with the London Philharmonic, several of them being crotchety old farts who were pissed off because they were required to play some whole notes,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Some of the violinists had actually brought chessboards with them, set them up between their chairs, and were playing chess between takes. Let’s just say that they were not enamoured with the lore of the American West, at least not in the form of pop balladry. They were bored shitless, and I was scared stiff. I had never sung in front of a large orchestra before, and I was only given about four or five takes to get it right.”

The only cover song on the album was a version of Outlaw Man, by Greenwich Village folk singer David Blue, which showcased the slick vocal harmonising of the band. That song, and Leadon’s Bitter Creek – based on the exploits of Dalton gang member George Newcomb – captured the Old West atmosphere the band wanted. Meisner, part of a multi-talented band, took lead vocals on Certain Kind Of Fool, a song that delved into the psychology of a wild youngster. Meisner also co-wrote the sweet ballad Saturday Night.

“Desperado gave the Eagles an identity”

Desperado’s striking artwork was in keeping with the cowboy theme. Artist Gard Burden drew the band as outlaws for what remains one of the best Eagles album covers, and photographer Henry Diltz created a re-enactment of the capture of The Dalton Gang for the back image. The photograph shows all four Eagles, along with Browne and Souther, posing dead and bound on the ground, as a posse stands over them. The posse included producer Johns (wearing a white hat), manager John Hartmann, road manager Nixon, artists Burden and Boyd Elder, and some roadies. The photo-shoot took place at the Paramount Ranch, once a film set for westerns.

The concept album took time to be accepted commercially, with Eagles manager Ron Stone calling it “ambitious” and a “leap creatively”, but it went on to achieve critical acclaim and eventually be certified double-platinum – just reward for an excellent country-rock album full of gorgeous harmonies, fine production, interesting lyrics and impeccable musicianship.

Desperado was a brilliant move, because it gave the Eagles an identity,” Browne later told Uncut. “There was something limited about the concept, but it was also very potent.”

‘Desperado’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

1: Doolin-Dalton

The atmospheric harmonica playing of Glenn Frey opens the sweeping cowboy ballad Doolin-Dalton, on which Frey also shared lead vocal duties with Don Henley. The pair co-wrote the song with JD Souther and Jackson Browne. It is the tale of how young Bob Dalton was gunned down in Coffeyville, Kansas, and the song works a storytelling triumph, because the band brought genuine enthusiasm to the project. Browne, who was a close friend of Eagles, showed his fellow musicians a book he had been given about the famous gunslingers of the Old West, and when they started singing “Doolin, Doolin and Dalton…” the seeds of the song were planted. The composition is full of evocative images, including the lyrics “Better keep on movin’, Doolin-Dalton/’Til your shadow sets you free/If you’re fast, and if you’re lucky/You will never see that hangin’ tree.”

2: Twenty-One

At only two minutes and nine seconds long, Twenty-One is the shortest song on the Desperado album, and was written by Bernie Leadon, the last original band member to join Eagles. Though Leadon self-deprecatingly described it as “a silly banjo song about youthful optimism”, Twenty-One’s fast pace, and energetic banjo picking and singing from the composer himself, captures the bravado and reckless energy of youth as Leadon sings, “I’m young and fast as I can be.”

3: Out Of Control

The guitar-driven rocker Out Of Control was written by Frey and Henley along with tour manager Tom Nixon, who died in 2017. Nixon, who was one of Frey’s closest friends for more than four decades, liked the idea of a song full of iconic Old West images. Out Of Control, which is about a lonesome cowboy’s yearning for a woman, cascades with frontier images, including the howlin’ wind, riders saddling up, card games, a smiling barmaid and silver dollars – and it’s rather incongruous to consider that Eagles recorded it at Island Studios, in London’s Notting Hill area, using British producer Glyn Johns.

4: Tequila Sunrise

Composers Henley and Frey debated long and hard about whether Tequila Sunrise – the popular 70s cocktail of tequila, orange and grenadine – was too much of a cliché to use as the title of a song and as the basis for lyrics about trying to raise the courage to find “the right words” to talk to women. Frey’s clever guitar riff anchors the song, which was a staple of Eagles’ concerts for decades. Frey would sometimes ad-lib new lyrics during live performances, and he said he considered Tequila Sunrise to be one of Eagles’ finest moments. “I love the song. I don’t think there’s a single chord out of place,” he remarked. Country singer Alan Jackson recorded a notable cover version.

5: Desperado

Jackson Browne is adamant that Desperado, penned by Frey and Henley, was central to the concept of creating an outlaw-themed album that resonated with the outsider life of rock musicians. Using a cowboy metaphor also allowed the songwriters to make astute comments about fame. Henley believed that the song’s success was down to blending “Southern Gothic and Western” in the lyrics, and then mixing his own mournful singing with sweeping string arrangements by Jim Ed Norman, which were performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The striking lyrics about decline and loss struck a real chord on an album that explores the myths of the outlaws, bandits and bounty hunters of the Old West. Desperado was a favourite song of movie director Sam Peckinpah, who reportedly considered making a film about the Doolin-Dalton gang, based on the Desperado album. Linda Ronstadt released her own superb version of the title track on her 1973 album, Don’t Cry Now.

6: Certain Kind Of Fool

Bass guitarist Randy Meisner took lead vocals on Certain Kind Of Fool, a song he co-wrote with Frey and Henley about a poor young man who is wanted by the authorities and is “now runnin’ every day” because of his criminal deeds. “The idea of musicians as outlaws was never intended to be the whole metaphor,” explained Browne. “It was more something you could hint at, and the song on that album that does that best is Certain Kind Of Fool. It could be about a gun, it could be about a guitar, and it’s not really about cowboys at all. There’s no Western motif.”

7: Doolin-Dalton (Instrumental)

At the suggestion of producer Glyn Johns, Eagles grabbed a change of pace with Desperado’s seventh track, a 48-second bluegrass-style instrumental version of the album’s opening song, Doolin-Dalton. This version showcased Leadon’s skilful banjo and mandolin playing.

8: Outlaw Man

Jim Ed Norman took a break from his arranging duties to play electric piano on Outlaw Man, a song written by folk singer David Blue, who was signed to Asylum Records’ roster by David Geffen. Blue recorded the song for his own 1973 album, Nice Baby And The Angel. “David was in the office almost every day,” says Leadon. “I think Frey picked up on it.” The song also explores the reality of life on the open plains and the damaging, peculiarly male kind of loneliness that is part of the mythology of the Old West. Frey’s powerful vocals suit lyrics such as “All of my friends are strangers/They quickly come and go”, and the blend of acoustic and electric guitars is potent.

9: Saturday Night

Saturday Night was another collaborative songwriting effort – this time from Meisner, Henley, Frey and Leadon – and is the only track on Desperado to feature a grand piano (courtesy of Norman). The song, a mordant slow waltz that is full of nostalgia about the end of innocence, captures the sense of a fading world in the frequent refrain, “Whatever happened to Saturday night?” Leadon’s mandolin playing is perfectly suited for the jaunty emotions of the song – and the band’s ability to weave wonderful vocal harmonies is again on display.

10: Bitter Creek

Bitter Creek, a solo composition from Leadon, was written about Dalton gangster George “Bitter Creek” Newcomb, who went on to form the Wild Bunch gang of fugitives. Leadon writes about the outlaw’s exploits – “We can walk right in and steal ’em blind/All that money (All that money, ooh….)” – in a lyrical way, accompanied by some fine harmony singing. Newcomb, who had a $5,000 wanted price on his head, met a violent end himself, gunned down at the age of 28, in 1895. At five minutes, Bitter Creek is the longest song on Desperado.

11: Doolin-Dalton/Desperado (Reprise)

The final track on an album that eventually went on to sell more than two million copies is Doolin-Dalton/Desperado (Reprise), a haunting acoustic coda to the opener, dealing specifically with the showdown that ended the lives of the gang while the evening sun is “sinkin’ low down”. The refined version of Desperado’s title track features Henley’s gorgeous high vocals, followed by some deft harmonies. It’s a fitting end to a moving album.

Find out which Desperado song made the cut for our best Eagles songs.

Original article: 17 April 2021

Updated: 17 April 2023

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