Last week, The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) album overtook Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the greatest selling album in American history.
It’s disappointing news. While Thriller is a rare work of pop genius, The Eagles’ greatest hits collection is a slur of soothing sounds for baby boomers as they haze out on Xanax and Pinot Grigio. It’s also just confusing. It lacks the Eagles’ greatest hit, “Hotel California,” clearly making it a failure as a greatest hits album.
The Eagles’ Greatest Hits was released ten months before the album Hotel California, which helps explain why Hotel California is the third greatest selling album of all time.
Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) was rushed out on a wave of panic in the wake of a beer bottle dumped on Glenn Frey’s head.
Bernie Leadon, the man who formed and quit the Eagles, was the only cool member of the band. He created the Eagles after leaving Gram Parson’s band, The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Parsons was a member of The Byrds, Keith Richards’ drug buddy and the creator of four of the greatest rock albums of all time in pursuit of a rock/country/R&B hybrid he termed “cosmic American” music. He also hated The Eagles, calling their music a “plastic dry fuck.” While Parson’s “cosmic American” music flopped in his lifetime, the Eagles enjoyed immediate and immense commercial sales with a similar mix of musical ingredients, only minus all that pesky personality and soul.
Leadon’s initial vision for the Eagles hewed closer to The Burrito Brothers than the “Take it Easy” soft rock of The Eagles. He wrote a gem or two on the four Eagles albums when he was with the band, notably “Journey of the Sorcerer” (later featured as the theme in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio and television plays). His best known Eagles composition is “Witchy Woman,” which isn’t exactly 100 percent awful, I guess.
Leadon lost control of the band to Glenn Frey and Don Henley. Under their direction, the band strayed from their country rock roots and trail-blazed corporate soft rock.
Leadon wasn’t into it, so he quit, using a bottle of Bud as a resignation letter. As Eagles guitarist Don Felder recalled in his memoir Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001), Leadon got fed up with the band one night backstage and wordlessly poured a full bottle of Budweiser over Glenn Frey’s head. Frey reportedly remained silent as the beer spilled over his face. Then, Leadon calmly left the room and the band.
With Leadon out of the picture, the Eagles management worried that the band was done and hastily issued a hits album. While the album was a wild financial success, Henley and the other band members were initially upset by its release for artistic reasons. Licking their wounds, the band recruited ringers like Joe Walsh to record Hotel California.
Leadon mostly kept quiet after leaving The Eagles. We can assume that having his composition “Witchy Woman” on an album that’s sold over 42 million copies provided a reliable source of passive income.