Don Felder Looks Back on the Eagles: ‘There Were No Mistakes Allowed’
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Don Felder is undoubtedly best-known for his years with the Eagles, during which time he co-wrote such classic tracks as ‘Hotel California,’ ‘Victim of Love’ and ‘Those Shoes.’ His outro solo with Joe Walsh on ‘Hotel California’ is widely considered one of the most important guitar solos of the rock era.
Felder was fired from the group in 2001 after a number of disputes with Don Henley and Glenn Frey. He later sued the group and recounted his experiences with the Eagles in a best-selling autobiography. Last year he released a solo album titled ‘Road to Forever,’ which included an all-star cast of guest stars and saw the musician moving forward musically and personally.
After years of relative backstage secrecy, the Eagles officially sanctioned a documentary titled ‘The History of the Eagles‘ that premiered on Showtime over the weekend. Felder spoke to Ultimate Classic Rock last week about his career with the Eagles, his participation in the film, and his recent solo album in an exclusive interview that sees him recalling his time with the superstar rock group with fondness and humor — and a certain amount of regret.
‘The History of the Eagles’ documentary is about to debut. Have you seen the final edit?
I haven’t. I’ve seen pretty much all of the footage over the years. It goes back to a lot of Super 8 hand-held video stuff that we shot, just goofing around in hotel rooms, and some of the 16 mm footage that was shot while we were doing the ‘Hotel California’ tour and those promo videos that you see that still run now as ‘Hotel California.’ We filmed certain shows along the way, including about a half-dozen shows on the ‘Hell Freezes Over’ tour.
There’s been a massive amount of footage that’s been accumulated over the years. I’ve seen a lot of it. I have not seen it all compiled together. I did go in and do about a half day’s interview for it, where they wanted everybody who had been in the band to comment and be part of it, because we were all a part of the history of it. I hear they’ve used some of those clips out of there. I have not seen them yet. I’m looking forward to it.
What was the time line of your interview? How long ago did that take place?
My interview was probably three months ago. Maybe four months ago.
Were you surprised to be included, since there’s been some negative interaction — a lawsuit and so on?
No. I was contacted through my attorney’s office, who deals with the Eagles’ attorneys. They had requested to find out if I would be part of this documentary, and I felt this would really be a good thing for me to do, since it was a huge part of my history, as well as me being a large part of the Eagles’ history after 27 years in that band. So I was more than happy to do it. There’s no real hard feelings or grudges being held by me toward anyone, so I was very happy to go in and be interviewed for it.
One of the trailers has Henley and Frey, and they said it’s important for everyone to have their say, no matter what they say. That’s a little bit surprising, since oftentimes when you see bands who have had member changes, they take the opportunity to re-write their history.
You know, the ultimate outcome of all of that is that seven of us — including Bernie and Randy — created some really great music together. We wrote some amazing songs, and produced some great albums. We kind of hit a peak in the ’70s with ‘Hotel California’ that none of us ever anticipated arriving at. There’s a great deal of pride on being held in what we were able to accomplish together.
Yes, it was difficult. Yes, it was a lot of years of working 10, 10 1/2, sometimes 11 months out of the year that you’d be on the road to make that happen. And anytime you work that hard, that long, under that kind of pressure, with so many people and under such intimate conditions, there’s gonna be friction and tension.
The one thing Bernie Leadon proposed — which no one listened to — was he suggested that we take about a two or three month break. Everyone go to Hawaii, go skiing, take a vacation, re-charge your batteries, get some sun. Step out of the pressure cooker for a short while, rejuvenate yourself, and then get back together and resume.
No one wanted to do that, and so Bernie actually got on a plane himself and flew to Hawaii himself, just as we were getting to go on the ‘One of These Nights’ tour. And finally we had to plead with him to come back and finish those dates. He really felt that the pace and intensity of all that work was eroding his health, physically, mentally and emotionally. And he valued that more than anything. And there was a great deal of wisdom in that perspective; yet we were young and enthusiastic and bulletproof in those years and so no one wanted to heed his advice. And he eventually left, that being one of the main reasons.
You’re right — how do you have that kind of stress daily and not eventually internalize that in a band?
Your nerve coatings are only so thick. When they get worn really thin and frayed, that’s when people say things, do things, misbehave. Especially when you add fuel to the fire with drugs and alcohol. It just becomes a very volatile situation. I think if we had heeded more of Bernie’s advice, we would have wound up in the long run having less strife and more longevity. But there’s no animosity. It was what it is. We created some amazing pieces of music, songs, and created a lovely historical setting setting for ourselves.
It’s one of the great recorded legacies in American rock music. It’s almost impossible to find any fault with those records. They’re just such absolutely perfect studio documents.
There were a couple of guys in the group — Henley, myself and a couple of others had very close to perfect pitch, and when something goes by and it’s a little bit out of tune, you just can’t stand it. You have to fix it. Whether it’s a vocal, or a guitar line, or the intonation on guitars — if we put multiple guitars on, they all had to be perfectly in tune. The amount of detail we spent on those records — in vocal arrangements, lyric composition, vocal performances, guitar arrangements, guitar solos — was really intense. We wanted to do the absolute best we possibly could. My personal philosophy was, “Whatever it takes.”
For instance, Glenn I think took three days in the studio on the word “city” at the beginning of ‘Lyin’ Eyes.’ It would either be a little early, or a little late, or the “T” would be too sharp. It literally took a long tome to get that word perfect — maybe to an extreme. But every time that word goes by now and I hear it, I can appreciate the time and dedication and perseverance that it took to get it perfect.
But there was a lot of greatness lost in perfection, in my opinion, as well. Some of the shot-from-the-hip solos that were later refined because they were a little out of tune, and we re-played them to make them perfect, lost a lot of their fire and energy, in my opinion. But the band wasn’t a band that was based on fire, as far as fiery performances. It was based more on perfection.
It wasn’t like Led Zeppelin at the BBC.
[Laughs] It wasn’t like seeing Jimi Hendrix, like, “Oh my God!” It was a totally different animal. And well-respected, well-written, well-produced, great quality music. But I always favored the fire.
Stick Davis from the Amazing Rhythm Aces always says that when they toured with the Eagles, he never remembers hearing a single clam or note out of place from anyone in the band, ever. He said it was crazy how great the band were live in terms of the sheer perfection of their performance.
There were no mistakes allowed. [Laughs]. That was just the way it was. If I had a pull on ‘One of These Nights,’ on the first high note on ‘One of These Nights,’ that was just a tiny hair flat or something, I could just feel Henley’s eyes scouring into the back of my head. [Laughs]. No mistakes were allowed, and it really kept the quality at a high level. People get sloppy when you play the same show two or three hundred times, but you really don’t want to do that with the art that you’ve written and recorded. You want to present it at its absolute highest performance. So there were no mistakes allowed.
There seems to be quite a bit of retrospective material on the Eagles in the past few years — several books, and now this documentary. How do you want your role in the group to be perceived and remembered?
They brought me in with the assignment to toughen up the band, and that was my mission — just to make it stronger and more of a rock and roll band. As well as, I think I wrote more song ideas, basic track ideas for every album than anyone else. I was constantly in the studio at my home writing ideas that would later become ‘Hotel California’ or ‘Victim of Love.’
One of the songs we recorded for ‘The Long Run’ was called ‘You’re Really High, Aren’t You?’ [Laughs]. Which never really made it onto a record, but later on, it became ‘Heavy Metal.’ I took that track that wasn’t used, and when I was invited to write a song for that movie, I took that track and recorded that song for that movie.
I was always trying to produce as much music for Don and Glenn to write lyrics to as possible. And I also had the daunting task of writing for a cast of characters, kind of like in a sitcom. I knew how Joe played, and I knew how Randy — and later Timothy — played. I knew how Don played and he had to sing. So I had to write pieces that were musically comfortable for those people to play, and yet weren’t so sophisticated that they technically couldn’t play them, but also fit the character of the band. That was my job, was to write and bring rock and roll to the Eagles records. And I think I did a fair job at that.
You’ve done a lot of work outside of the Eagles. What’s some of your favorite work outside of the band?
I worked on some Bee Gees records, and had a really great time working with Barry Gibb and Albhy Galuten. Technically, they were probably the most sophisticated record production team in the business. They were using 48-track and slaves [sync tracks], where everybody else was still using 24. They were the first people I saw who had developed a 2-inch tape loop in their control room. I learned an amazing amount from working with them.
Bob Seger, I worked with Bob. Just an inspiring, phenomenal, unbelievable, energetic voice. When he came in, the track would sound good, but when he stepped up to the mic, it took on a completely different character. It was all Bob Seger. No matter what anybody else played, it sounded unbelievably great when Bob sang.
I worked with Diana Ross, I worked with Michael Jackson . . . I’ve worked with a lot of people in the course of my life. I really learned a great deal from a lot of them about how different people go about envisioning and producing records in totally different ways. So many different ways. There is no ultimate formula for making hit records.
Which is great that I had learned all of that when I went and made this last solo record, ‘Road to Forever.’ I used a lot of old friends, like Crosby Stills & Nash to sing background on a song with me. I used some of the modern technology and Pro Tools and stuff, but I also used a lot of old gear — old Fender amps, old Gibson guitars — to get a really authentic, recognizable tone that most people know, when they hear me on Eagles records, when they hear this new record, it’s the same. It’s very similar. It’s like my voice.
And then I had the opportunity to co-write with some great people, like Tommy Shaw from Styx. Really, really marvelous guy. Great singer, good writer. And it was a really fluke situation, because I think they’re on the road 150 or 160 dates a year. And when he was in town, I happened to call him, and I said, “I’m really stuck on these lyrics; you’ve got to come over and help me.” So he came over and brought a guitar, and we wrote lyrics for two songs on that record of mine; ‘Wash Away’ and ‘Heal Me.’
And then he and I wrote another acoustic song together that sounds almost like Crosby, Still & Nash. [Laughs]. Where did that come from? But he was working on kind of a country record, and he wanted something along those lines, and I had that palette well in hand. And so we kind of produced something for that.
It was really a lot of fun having people in the studio — which in the past had been so stressful, making Eagles records — to go in the studio this time and have so much fun, and so many laughs. A lot of people that made it very fun, and yet we were all extremely meticulous about the quality of what we were doing — but without the drama. It was a no-drama production. [Laughs]. I was very happy with how it all came out, and it’s been very critically well-received, so I’m delighted with the whole effort.
One thing I noticed — I think maybe people think of you primarily as a guitarist, but this is a great vocal record, as well as a guitar record and writing record.
Well, I was the worst singer in the band, in the Eagles. Henley could sing the New York yellow pages and I’d buy it. His phrasing, tone and timbre is just spectacular. So if you’ve got a great song, and five guys to sing it, is it gonna be Henley, maybe Glenn, Joe, maybe Timothy — well, you guys go ahead. [Laughs]. My concern about making the best record had a higher priority to me than my ego having to be on the record as a singer. It was more important, when we did ‘Hotel California,’ that when Henley sang it, it sounded magical. If I sang it, it would have sounded okay. It may not have been as successful.
Like I said, there were some tracks on ‘The Long Run’ that I took a solo and it was pretty good. Joe took a shot at the solo, it was all right. Glen took a shot at the solo, and that was it. It wasn’t a matter of, “I’ve got to play lead guitar on this.” It was more about what made the best record.
And that’s kind of the attitude we took in making my solo record as well, is whatever it took to make the best record. Whatever it takes to make it great — but this time we were doing it without friction and tension, and words, and all sorts of stuff like that.
You said earlier there’s no hard feelings earlier on your part in regard to the Eagles. After all is said and done, do you have any relationship with the other band members at all?
You know, I was married for 29 years. I went through a separation and divorce from my wife, and after three or four months of just going back and forth through lawyers and being stupid about it, I just called her up and said, “Look, let’s just sit down and figure out what our assets are. You take what you want, I’ll take the other half, and we’ll be friends.”
We’re great friends to this day. We have grandkids, we have hundreds of friends together, we see each other at weddings and at parties. She’s got another guy, and she’s completely happy. I’m re-connected with another woman, and I’m completely happy. We maintain that relationship of 29 years of being married, and didn’t just let it whither on the vine and die. I’m a firm believer that people that have been such a substantial part of your life should not be slashed out. People that are good people, I like to keep in my life.
I have reached out numerous times to the Eagles, directly and indirectly, with a warm handshake — not asking for anything, just conciliatory well-wishes — and the only response I’ve ever heard is from their lawyers. So I would say that’s a place they’ll have to arrive to on their own, if ever.