The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight”

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.

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Eagles – “Heartache Tonight”

HIT #1: November 10, 1979

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

A week and a half after the Eagles hit #1 for the final time, a 16-year-old sex worker overdosed on cocaine and Quaaludes at Don Henley’s house. The night before, Henley had hosted a party for the Eagles’ road crew. Someone arranged to have some girls sent over, and when Henley found one of them the next morning, he called 911. (Since she was a minor, there’s no record on what happened to the girl afterwards, but she presumably didn’t die. Henley claims that he didn’t know her age and that he didn’t have sex with her.) Police arrested Henley, charging him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He got a fine and some probation, and that was that.

This was how the late ’70s looked for the Eagles: A whole lot of joyless hedonism pointing toward some inevitable reckoning. The band was road-weary and partied out. They were snorting legendary amounts of coke. They hated each other. They didn’t want to be a band anymore. But they’d also just recorded one of the biggest albums of all time in 1977’s Hotel California, and none of them were ready for things to end quite yet. So the Eagles’ demise was long and drawn-out, and they managed one last album.

That album, 1979’s The Long Run, sold millions of copies and spawned three top-10 singles, including that one final #1. It was still generally considered a disappointment after Hotel California. That’s the fucking Eagles for you. They couldn’t stand to keep making music, and yet even their death-rattle LP was still, by any standard except their own, a blockbuster.

Considering the general rich-asshole ennui that went into the band’s demise, “Heartache Tonight,” final Eagles #1 single, has a relatively drama-free story. One day, Glenn Frey was sitting around the house and listening to old Sam Cooke records with JD Souther, the longtime Eagles collaborator who’d co-written their previous #1 hits “Best Of My Love” and “New Kid In Town.” Frey and Souther came up with a couple of verses. Bob Seger, the Detroit rock star who’d been a bit of a mentor to Frey in his pre-Eagles days, wrote the chorus. At least according to Souther’s account, Seger made up the chorus on the spot and sang it to Frey over the phone. Frey and Henley finished the song up later, and Seger sang uncredited backup vocals on it. (Souther’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “You’re Only Lonely,” peaked at #7. It’s an 8. Bob Seger will eventually appear in this column.)

“Heartache Tonight” is a breakup song, but it’s not a sad one. Singing in his usual tight harmony with Henley, Frey considers the forthcoming end of a relationship as if it’s an inevitability: “Somebody’s going to hurt someone before the night is through.” Frey sounds surly and impatient, as if he would like this cataclysm to hurry up and happen. He also sounds vaguely horny: “We can beat around the bushes/ We can get down to the bone/ We can leave it in the parking lot.” He wants the breakup, and he wants the breakup sex.

Musically, “Heartache Tonight” has more to do with the breakup sex than with the actual breakup. The song is built around a big, rude, almost glam-rock drum-stomp. A DJ could’ve probably segued straight from “My Sharona” into “Heartache Tonight” without losing the groove. Guitars purr and snarl. Frey starts out in a high, clenched upper register and moves onto pseudo-blues shouting.

“Heartache Tonight” is a pretty decent groove, recorded expensively. At least for me, though, the drums overpower the rest of the song. The Eagles’ harmonies are too straightforwardly, conventionally pretty, too stuck in the same early-’70s rolling-stone loverman stasis that the passive-aggressive lyrics are. Those voices are not capable of getting nasty enough to compete with that fuck-off big beat. With a beat like that, you need to sneer-shout if you want to get anything done. The Eagles couldn’t carry that.

The Long Run would be the last Eagles album, at least until the inevitable reunion. Two other Long Run singles, the title track and “I Can’t Tell You Why,” would both peak at #8 after “Heartache Tonight” topped the charts. (“The Long Run” is a 4.” “I Can’t Tell You Why” is a 5.) Then that was it. During a 1980 benefit for California Senator Alan Cranston, Frey and Don Felder spent the band’s entire set threatening to beat each other’s asses. Frey quickly quit the band, and the rest of them had to finish the 1980 live LP Eagles Live without him. By the time it came out, the Eagles had broken up.

After Eagles went their separate directions, every member of the band went on to solo careers, finding varying levels of success. Amazingly, though, each member of the final-lineup Eagles managed at least one Hot 100 single. The former Poco member Timothy B. Schmidt, who’d only just joined Eagles in 1977, peaked at #25 with 1987’s “Boys Night Out.” Don Felder got to #43 with 1981’s “Heavy Metal (Takin’ A Ride).” Joe Walsh — who maintained a solo career before, during, and after his tenure with the Eagles — never got into the top 10, but he landed just outside it, hitting #12 with 1978’s “Life’s Been Good.”

The two Eagles leaders did considerably better. Don Henley became an icon of ’80s yuppie-rock, and he peaked at #3 with 1982’s “Dirty Laundry.” (It’s a 7.) Glenn Frey didn’t achieve Henley’s level of solo-career ubiquity, but he made a bigger impact on the pop charts, attaching himself to the twin ’80s phenomena of Beverly Hills Cop and Miami Vice and landing two singles — 1984’s “The Heat Is On” and 1985’s “You Belong To The City” — at #2. (“The Heat Is On” is a 6, and “You Belong To The City” is a 4.)

Eagles reunited in 1994 for an absurdly successful tour, and they kept getting back together for more tours and albums over the years. The whole Eagles enterprise stayed messy; Don Felder was fired from the band in 2001 amidst a storm of lawsuits. But it stayed lucrative, too. Even after Glenn Frey died of a whole host of health-related reasons in 2016, Eagles have remained an ongoing concern. They’ll tour together again this spring. They won’t appear in this column again, but they’ll be OK.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1983, country veteran Conway Twitty scored a country hit with a “Heartache Tonight” cover that featured the Osmonds on backing vocals. (Twitty and the Osmonds have both been in this column already, in radically different chart eras.) The recorded version doesn’t seem to be on YouTube, but here’s some exceedingly shitty video of Twitty performing it:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: HAIM arguably borrowed the drums and some of the riffage from “Heartache Tonight” on their way-better 2013 song “The Wire.” Here’s the video:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Donna Summer’s slow-building sex-jam “Dim All The Lights” peaked at #2 behind “Heartache Tonight.” It’s an 8.