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.
By the beginning of 1976, the Eagles had made four albums, and they’d cranked out enough big songs to warrant a greatest-hits compilation. Irving Azoff, the band’s manager, made the call to put the compilation out; the members of the band didn’t get any say in what songs made the cut or in what order they’d appear. (Azoff would go on to become a Ticketmaster/LiveNation baron; he is probably the single person most responsible for how expensive concert tickets are these days.) That Eagles compilation turned out to be a pretty big deal.
Soon after the Eagles’ Greatest Hits (1971-1975) hit stores, it ascended to #1 and stayed there for five weeks. In the years after its release, Greatest Hits kept selling and selling and selling, even though it didn’t include what would eventually become the band’s signature song. Right now, in the United States, Greatest Hits is the best-selling album of all time. It has moved an astonishing 38 million copies. It serves as confirmation, if anyone needed it, that the Eagles were, quite possibly, the biggest band in the world in 1976 — and that the 1976 version of the Eagles is among the biggest bands of all time.
At least judging by their recorded output, the Eagles weren’t especially happy about any of this. The famously miserable band — which had just lost multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon and replaced him with former James Gang leader and general all-around fun guy Joe Walsh — recorded their December-1976 album Hotel California in the shadow of that Greatest Hits success. And the new album’s first single, “New Kid In Town,” is a pessimistic meditation on the idea that some band, someday, would come along and knock the Eagles off of their perch. It’s a sad, dark, passive-aggressive song. It’s also really pretty.
JD Souther, the friend of the band who’d also helped write their 1975 chart-topper “Best Of My Love,” wrote the “New Kid In Town” chorus and brought it to the Eagles. Eventually, he, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey finished the song up together. In the liner notes of a later best-of collection, Henley wrote this about “New Kid In Town”: “It’s about the fleeting, fickle nature of love and romance. It’s also about the fleeting nature of fame, especially in the music business.” Souther put it more bluntly in a Songfacts interview: “We were just writing about our replacements.”
“New Kid In Town” is part of the grand lineage of bitching-about-fame songs. A lot of its lyrics are basically Drake before Drake: “People you meet, they all seem to know you / Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new.” Later on, Glenn Frey, singing lead, envisions the moment when all these fake friends forget about him and move onto the next thing: “They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes along.”
Sometimes, Frey sings about it in terms of a romantic relationship, but he doesn’t keep the metaphor going. Either way, the Eagles don’t seem especially happy at all the fake people who love them, and they also don’t seem happy at the prospect of all these fake people moving on when their own band starts to lose its luster. There have been rumors, denied by the songwriters, that the song is about Bruce Springsteen and about the perceived looming obsolescence that he represented. The Eagles spent their imperial phase worrying about when their imperial phase would end, which seems like the most Eagles thing ever.
But while the song’s fame-stress isn’t especially relatable, or even all that evocatively expressed, it’s a lovely piece of music, maybe the most pleasantly soothing of all the band’s pleasantly soothing big hits. The song takes its aesthetic cues from mariachi music; Randy Meisner even plays one of those six-string Mexican basses. You can hear that inspiration especially clearly in the Don Felder’s trilling guitar leads and in the slight hesitation in Frey and Henley’s harmonies as they come out of the first chorus: “You look in her eyes…”
Those influences mix nicely with the band’s regular stew of sounds, the creamy Beach Boys-esque vocal layering and murmuring country-derived warmth and prettied-up Laurel Canyon production. The Eagles were in the process of ditching their country influences and moving in a harder rock direction. That, theoretically, was at least part of the reason that the band recruited Joe Walsh, and other songs from the Hotel California album push a bit in that direction. But there is no rock intensity on “New Kid In Town” whatsoever. It’s just a self-pitying, discontented, beautifully realized sigh of a song.
If the Eagles were really worried about great expectations and everyone watching them, their fears were misplaced. The Hotel California album went on to sell 26 million copies in the US alone. Here, it’s the #3 biggest seller of all time — below Greatest Hits and Michael Jackson’s Thriller but above Led Zeppelin IV and Back In Black and Rumours and Appetite For Destruction and every other album in history. (On the 1977 Billboard year-end list, Hotel California was at #4, behind Rumours and Songs In The Key Of Life and the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, but we Americans evidently decided, over the years, that Hotel California was more deserving of our money. We’re odd people.) Globally, Greatest Hits is at #2 on the all-time list, while Hotel California is at #7. Still pretty good!
I guess what I’m saying is: The Eagles were doing just fine for themselves. We’ll see them in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “New Kid In Town” soundtracking a montage about a robot boy from the 2005 Halloween episode of The Simpsons: