In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Eagles were inevitable. The music of the ’70s was mellowing across the board, and someone was going to figure out how to combine the expansively chilled-out new forms of rock and country into one thing. The Eagles were in the perfect place, at the perfect time, to put it all together and sell it to America. The Eagles knew how to do that, combining shaggy rock ‘n’ roll outlaw imagery with sweetly slick studio-craft, surfing on the catastrophic wave of Laurel Canyon softness. And they sold so much of it. Their 1976 Greatest Hits collection has sold an astonishing 38 million copies in this country. It remains the biggest-selling album in the history of the American recording industry.
“Best Of My Love,” the Eagles’ first #1 single, isn’t the best Eagles song, and it isn’t the most iconic, either. But it’s representative of what the band brought to the table. It’s a starry-eyed ballad, once that does its very best to emit world-weary wisdom. It’s got rich and creamy harmonies, closer to the Beach Boys than to Buck Owens and Don Rich. But it’s full of nods to classic country, like the way Bernie Leadon’s pedal steel quietly murmurs throughout. And it all unfolds at a deliberate, unhurried plod, never trying to get anywhere too fast.
None of the Eagles were from California. They’d all descended upon Los Angeles from elsewhere, all hoping to make it as musicians — Don Henley from Texas, Glenn Frey from Michigan, Bernie Leadon from Minnesota, Randy Meisner from Nebraska. They came together in 1971, when Linda Ronstadt needed a backing band. Her producer John Boylan put them all together; Henley came at the recommendation of Frey, whom he’d met at the Troubadour the previous year. While on tour with Ronstadt, Henley and Frey hatched the idea to start their own band. It worked out.
The Eagles were connected. That whole Los Angeles studio-rock scene was a tight-knit community. Meisner had played in Poco and in Ricky Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band. Leadon had been in two different bands with three different ex-Byrds: Gene Clark’s Dillard & Clark and Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman’s great Flying Burrito Brothers. Kenny Rogers, who will appear in this column, had produced the one album that Shiloh, Henley’s old band, managed to record before they broke up. When the Eagles first got together, David Geffen started managing them and signed them to Asylum, the label he’d just started up. Frey and Jackson Browne, his old roomate, co-wrote 1972’s “Take It Easy,” the band’s first hit, which peaked at #12. Frey wrote the “Best Of My Love” riff while trying to figure out a tuning that Joni Mitchell, his girlfriend at the time, had shown him. The Eagles were set up to succeed.
By 1974, the Eagles had made a couple of albums, the second of which, the outlaw-themed concept album Desperado, had not sold too well. Henley and Frey were worried that they were getting too soft and country; Frey, in particular, wanted them to be more of a rock band. The Eagles had recorded their first two LPs with the Stones/Zeppelin producer Glyn Johns, and they started to make 1974’s On The Border with him, too. But Frey didn’t like the way those sessions went, so they finished the album with producer Bill Szymczyk instead. Only a few songs from the Johns sessions made it onto the album. “Best Of My Love” was one of those songs.
The lyrics of plenty of Eagles songs are viciously dickish to the women in their lives, but “Best Of My Love” isn’t one of those songs. Henley and Frey co-wrote it with Frey’s friend JD Souther, hashing it out in a Los Angeles restaurant one night. “Best Of My Love” is both a love song and a breakup song. The narrator — Henley singing lead, usually in harmony with Frey — can see the end of a relationship approaching. He feels like he’s done everything he can, and all he can do is watch it slip away with a sort of fond sadness. The song does what it can to blame the breakup on the party scene that surrounds the couple: “Beautiful faces and loud, empty places, look at the way that we live / Wasting our time on cheap talk and wine left us so little to give.”
There’s no real accountability there. The narrator never takes any real active role in attempting to save a relationship that doesn’t seem to be quite over yet. He sees forces acting on him, and all he can do is comment on them: “That same old crowd was like a cold, dark cloud that we could never rise above / But here in my heart, I gave you the best of my love.”
It’s a pretty-enough song, with that pedal steel murmuring comforting gibberish, doing what it can to console the narrator. But it’s almost maddeningly slow — a turgid, rhythmless plod. Henley and his bandmates never had the rigor or authority of real country singers, but they still mined the genre for pathos, turning it into a soft and halfway-pleasant fog. There’s no excitement to “Best Of My Love,” no urgency or purpose. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about presenting oncoming heartbreak as a soothing balm, misery as contentment. I wasn’t alive yet in 1975, so I don’t know why that particular feeling struck such a chord. But good lord, did it ever.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s UK pop-reggae trio Aswad’s 1991 cover of “Best Of My Love”: