The year is 1998, and Jeff Bridges is about to get thrown out of a cab. Not in real life, but in character as The Dude, the laconic and usually easy-going stoner at the centre of The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. It takes a lot to ruffle the feathers of a man who seems undaunted by paederast bowlers, German nihilists, car-smashing fathers, and lust-filled artists. What finally sends The Dude off his head: California soft rockers the Eagles.
It’s not like The Big Lebowski single-handedly made the Eagles America’s lamest band. In fact, only a few months after the film first hit theatres in America, the Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But at the very moment that The Dude was getting thrown out of that cab, the Eagles were likely out on tour, bringing nostalgia and ludicrous ticket prices to waves of baby boomers who could throw their money around like it was nothing.
The Eagles didn’t become a punching bag because they made terrible music. In fact, the band were some of the most consistent hitmakers of the 1970s, and even their deeper cuts tend to have their merits. No, the Eagles became a punching bag because of what they represented: smug, whitebread, unthreatening rock and roll. Whether it was accurate or not, a whole generation of listeners echoed The Dude when he says, “I hate the fucking Eagles, man!”
Perhaps The Dude should have taken some advice from another song he likely despises: the Eagles’ first hit and debut single, ‘Take It Easy’. The band had only been together for a little less than a year, but they had already been signed to David Geffen’s record label Asylum, the same label that housed acts like Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. For four seemingly-anonymous musicians, landing your first song at number 12 on the US pop charts was a major coup. But the truth was that young members of the Eagles had all logged time in the early country-rock scene of California.
Central to the band were Don Henley and Glenn Frey, two young singer-songwriters who were both transplants from other states. Henley was a Texan and had befriended Kenny Rogers to get his foot in the music business. Frey had done the same in Detroit, Michigan, where he had become friends with Motor City rocker Bob Seger. When the two eventually made it to California, they were separately recruited to become a part of Linda Ronstadt’s live backing band.
On the supporting tour for Ronstadt’s 1970 album Silk Purse, Henley and Frey decided that they wanted to start their own group. Former Poco bassist Randy Meisner was a part of Ronstadt’s band, while former Flying Burrito Brothers guitarist Bernie Leadon came and went as a hired gun with different performers. Henley and Frey recruited Meisner, while Ronstadt recommended Leadon. The quartet were part of the musicians who hung around The Troubadour in Los Angeles, along with songwriters like J.D. Souther and Jackson Browne.
It was Browne who was writing a song that piqued Frey’s interest. A free-flowing narrative incorporating girls, trucks, and classic Americana imagery, Browne composed almost the entirety of ‘Take It Easy’ himself with one minor exception: he was stuck at the line: “I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona”. Frey, a former neighbour, came in and finished off the verse with the lines “It’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford / Slowing down to take a look at me.”
With that, ‘Take It Easy’ was not only complete but also on the radar of Frey. The Eagles, meanwhile, had been sent to Denver, Colorado to hone their chemistry as a unit. Geffen brought in producer Glyn Johns to gauge whether he was interested in helping the band, but the Brit declined, seeing them as a below-average rock and roll band. It was only after the band started harmonising and leaning into their country roots that Johns agreed. Frey wanted the band to be a hybrid of rock and country, but Johns felt that the group had one of the best counter players in Leadon and would be wasting him if they got too loud and raucous.
‘Take It Easy’ was a sort of compromise. It featured the harmonies and Leadon’s banjo playing that Johns felt suited the group best, but it also retained the bouncy rhythms and drive that Frey wanted out of the band. Frey took the lead vocal, and the Eagles managed to beat Browne out it recording the song first, with Browne’s version appearing a year later on his 1973 album For Everyman.
The song proved to be the foundation on which the Eagles would build their entire career, but it also became exhausting for Frey, who began to tire of the song. Still, sold-out show after sold-out show continued to feature the song, and it quickly became a signature track for the band. Even after Meisner and Leadon left the fold, the Eagles were still playing ‘Take It Easy’ well into their Hotel California days.
‘Take It Easy’ also proved to be an important piece of reuniting the band after their acrimonious 1980 split. Country singer Travis Tritt recorded a version of ‘Take It Easy’ in 1993 and insisted that all five members of the band’s final incarnation, including bassist Timothy B. Schmidt and guitarists Joe Walsh and Don Felder, appear in the music video. The experience was a positive one, and only a few months later, the Eagles were officially reunited for their Hell Freezes Over special.
Even today, now that Frey has passed away, ‘Take It Easy’ is still being featured at every Eagles concert. Until his departure earlier this year, it was being sung by Frey’s son Deacon, who stepped in to fill his father’s shoes after he had passed away in 2016. ‘Take It Easy’ was the first time most fans had ever heard of the Eagles, and 50 years later, it remains one of the most emblematic songs of early 1970s California. The Dude might prefer CCR, but the general public still gravitates to the summery tones of the Eagles and ‘Take It Easy’.