1972 The Eagles had had two big hits - Take
It Easy and Witchy Woman – but were aspiring to take things a
step further, and the idea of a concept album based around outlaws and
gunslingers gained traction among the members (at that time composed of Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner).
Additionally the band, according to Leadon, decided it was time to adopt what some might say was a more cynical approach to their career: “Frey said at the time, ‘We’ve had the hits, now what we want is critical acceptance as serious artists [so…] we defined our business plan: we wanted to be successful, world famous, acclaimed and rich. One of the first things Frey said was, ‘OK, let’s keep this simple. No Christmas cards.’ Did we go on holiday and call each other? No.”
To back this plan, the group sought inspiration from a book of gunfighters that was filled with pictures of recently captured and killed outlaws from the 1890s, including the Dalton gang. This idea was sold to the public as a metaphor of the individual group members who were “young adventurous dudes living by their talents and wits, seeking their fortunes.” However ‘honorary Eagle’ Jackson Browne, who co-wrote one of the most popular tracks Doolin-Dalton, had his reservations about the idea: “Generally, I thought there were limitations to the metaphor of musicians as gunslingers!” Leadon concurred: “It’s a little bit of a thin premise,” while Henley put it more bluntly: "The metaphor was […] bullshit. We were in L.A. staying up all night, smoking dope, living the California life.”
The result was initially received coldly by record executives, one of whom branded the album a ‘fucking cowboy record’. And following the initial enthusiasm, the band themselves had severe doubts about it after they returned to their California base. “Back home, the paranoia began,” says Leadon. “Second guessing everything: ‘Oh my God, it doesn’t sound like everyone else. The songs suck. We suck. We need to redo it.’” It was left to the producer Glyn Johns, to convince them to release it, by simply saying: ‘You’re wrong. You don’t know, but I know. I’m right, shut up!’.”
While time proved the producer right, when Desperado (17 April 1973; Asylum Records) was initially released it seemed to confirm the record company and the group’s worst fears, as the album initially sold poorly and produced ‘no hits’.
However, while the title track Desperado was not even released as a single, the ballad can now be hummed along to by a large part of the world’s population, and has been strummed along to by many seeking to imitate Frey on his Martins and Takamines. The song also marked the point at which Frey and Henley became the principal songwriters and de facto leaders of the band. “Democracy does not serve the creative impulse well,” explains Browne on that change: “In the end, Don and Glenn just took over the band.”
From that initial seed, the rest of the album came quickly. The only non-original song, Outlaw Man, written by David Blue, was included largely because it fitted with the album concept. On the other hand, Leadon wrote Bitter Creek, which contains some beautiful harmonies and guitar strumming. Both Twenty-One – “a silly banjo song about youthful optimism,” according to the man who penned it – and Out of Control are rather humdrum country and blues numbers, but Tequila Sunrise - which describes the emptiness of the itinerant life - is another classic. Saturday Night is a ballad that laments the end of innocence, while Certain Kind Of Fool, with its lovely acoustic guitar parts, is very popular among fans. Finally, an instrumental version of Desperado (Reprise) closes the album in gentle style.
The idea of solitude and being an outsider is an attractive idea, particularly to many men - as Clint Eastwood would surely attest -, and this album feeds off the associated cowboy fantasy beautifully. In the end that record executive who disparaged the album was made to eat his words, because Desperado provided The Eagles with an enourmously powerful identity that is likely to endure for as long as people listen to music.