I just found this on YouTube… The tune’s from Dylan and a touch ragged, but it’s still proof that, years before she exploded “When Will I Be Loved” from the inside, Linda Ronstadt had a special ear for things Everly….In a better world there would be at least an album’s worth…They brought out the best in each other.
In the days when harmony ruled, there was apparently a legal requirement that any harmony group aspiring to royalty have a resident asshole. In the Everlys, it was Don. In Simon & Garfunkel, it was Simon. In the Beach Boys, it was Mike Love. In the Beatles, it was John Lennon. In the Byrds it was David Crosby.
By most accounts, the Eagles, arriving late and assigned by history to close down the party, doubled down. In Glenn Frey and Don Henley, they offered two holes for the price of one. In a western, they’d have been the outliers, the surly cowpokes who would do the right thing or the wrong thing or simply ride away, depending on what was in it for them.
Like somebody from the actual west, I suppose.
It’s possible this is precisely what allowed them to embody some weird contradictions and, having aimed squarely for the middle of the road, where they dug a permanent groove in the asphalt right where the yellow stripe was supposed to be, elicit far stranger and more disruptive responses than most bands who craved disruption for its own sake.
Crosby repeatedly professed to find them boring, which, given the projects he’s proudly participated in since he left the Byrds, took more than mere chutzpah. Robert Christgau professed to find them misogynistic, which, given his life-long devotion to the Rolling Stones (not really waved away, I think, by his recently arrived at suspicion that Mick and Keith really aren’t the nicest people…and, get this, may never have been!), is a real knee-slapper. I’m guessing they would have both enjoyed having a beer with the weekend softball warrior I once heard saying he didn’t want his wife to drive if she was “just gonna play that goddam Eagles crap.”
Or maybe not.
On the occasion of Frey’s death, one website, reliably standing in for the rest, declared the Eagles “about as polarizing as any band in rock history,” before also declaring, de rigeuer, their personal indifference.
So it goes. So it’s gone for forty years.
From the interviews I heard on television last night, it seems Frey was the hard-driving perfectionist in a band that was often criticized, not without some justification, for prizing perfection above all else. If that kept the Eagles from being, say, the Byrds–imposed a certain set of limitations that meant there were few of the surprises that preclude indifference–then I guess he’ll have something to answer for at the next stage.
But that’s just one way of looking at it.
I can’t pretend the Eagles were ever my favorite band (happens the Byrds were/are, and have been since the first moment I heard them, which was also the first moment I realized indifference could be banished in such matters, and, coming in the spring of 1978, was long after I’d not only heard but absorbed the Eagles).
Like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, though, it seems like most of flak Frey’s band caught was really for appealing to the wrong people.
And, in my experience, mostly those people were/are women.
Also like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, I’ll take them, and their “misguided” fans, over most of those representing the alternative.
And while the half-dozen to a dozen of their records that I really love might be somewhat, or even completely, different than the same number the next casual Eagles fan you meet feels the same way about, I don’t gainsay anyone who loves it all. I lived through the seventies. Believe me, anyone who could pursue perfection to a useful end in that chaotic moment had real value, even if some fools were bound to mistake it for “boredom” or worse.
Glenn Frey was a solid guitar player, a first class singer/songwriter, and a harmony singer extraordinaire, never more sublime than when he was breath-to-breath between screaming matches with his asshole buddy Don Henley. And if their best records really were oh-so-perfect, nobody ever doubted it was the kind of perfection that only rests on the other side of hardcore professionalism. That means different things to different people, but all it ever meant in the suburbs and trailer parks where copies of the Eagles Greatest Hits became as ubiquitous as Budweiser and the Bible was that it was bought and paid for the hard way.
Nothing wrong with that.
First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.
With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.
So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):
The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.
That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.
Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)
If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.
As for a favorite?
Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.
You just have to think of a little test.
Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?
You, Carl. Only you.
I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.
[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]
Rock and roll reached a long way, never further than when somebody proved that the least likely of the tried-and-true source traditions–the brother duo singing mountain harmony–could fit right in.
The proof came courtesy of Phil Everly, who passed yesterday, and his brother Don. Groomed in the world of the Blue Sky Boys and the Stanley Brothers–a world that sounded even older, lonelier and more isolated from modernity than it was–they created a world where the possibilities reached as far and high as any American music ever has or ever will.
Hundreds came after, some obvious (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, much of the history of rock for a generation in other words) some not so obvious (Mary Weiss has said that the Shangri-Las found themselves by practicing to the Everlys records, Stevie Nicks assuaged the hurt of having “Silver Springs” rejected for Rumours by taking solace in the fact that the song which replaced it, “I Don’t Want to Know,” gave her and Lindsey Buckingham a chance to do what she termed “our Everly Brothers thing,” and, frankly, any two people who have ever put their heads next a microphone to sing either close or contrapuntal harmony since the late fifties could say some version of the same).
Considering that this list only scratches the surface and further considering how far those acts reached, it’s entirely possible that the Everlys, in purely direct and musical terms, influenced more great records than even the greatest and most visionary of their contemporaries.
That’s saying a mouthful and of course its a mouthful that’s not subject to mathematical proof. But if you listen to what came after with an open ear and an awareness that rock and roll is vocal music before and after it is anything else you certainly find them in as many places–expected and unexpected–as anyone, be it Elvis or Ray or Chuck or James or whoever.
Make no mistake though.
Legions came after, sure enough.
Nobody touched them.
(NOTE: On the day after a white southerner who changed the world infinitely for the better passed away, he still came second on my initial Google search among his Christian name-sakes to Phil Robertson, a man who has evidently never acknowledged the need for those changes and who could never have gotten anywhere near celebrity in the hidebound fifties. As I have been known to say: Goodbye us.)