Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Poco versus Eagles: 'To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven'*



*Title quote taken from Ecclesiastes 3:1, also familiar from the Byrds song ‘Turn, Turn,Turn’, written by Pete Seeger. Richie Furay got together with Chris Hillman from the Byrds and J. D. Souther to form the imaginatively named Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Well, it worked for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Early days
So, this blog is really about why the Eagles made it and Poco didn’t.It's pure speculation of course.

‘What’s in a name?’
Well, Shakespeare thought nothing but I’m so glad that they changed the name from Pogo. Who could have taken them seriously? Poco was really a complete accident name-wise but you know, to the uninitiated, it could mean anything, peace in Arapahoe, for instance, river in Sioux. It has connotations of depth. I don't think there’s much to choose between the names Eagles and Poco though.

Could they look any more louche?
Genre-bending
Don Henley:
Even now the Eagles are thought of as a country-rock band. The music industry and the media saddled us with that label at the very beginning, and, no matter how diverse our musical palate, it has been impossible to shake that stereotype. At the end of the day, we’re an American band. We’re a musical mutt with influences from every genre of American popular music. It’s all in there.
[‘Saddled with’ seems like an apt term when we consider the cowboy-themed Desperado but the implication is that this is something you would want to avoid but I don't believe Poco ever felt the need to disassociate themselves from this category and I’m with them – in the 70s, surely it was the best thing to be? Or perhaps it shows foresight on Don’s part that he realised they had to transcend this label to achieve world domination.]
Despite this quote, it isn’t really true. The Eagles have crossed over. And everyone knows it. They straddle a number of genres, like musical giants. In doing this successfully, they also attract criticism from purists along with accusations of selling out. As if to sell records and to sell out were synonymous. Poco never sold out but neither did they ever sell as well as the Eagles.

So how did this band of talented musicians and songwriters, with a great pedigree, proven track record, manage to escape fame and fortune in the 70s? How did they do that usually quintessentially English thing – snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

They could!
Naked ambition
We know that the Eagles had this in spades along with tons of confidence.
David Geffen:
The Eagles weren’t going to fail. It was a group that was put together with clear intentions.
Glenn Frey:
This was our best shot. Everyone had to look good, sing good, play good and write good. We wanted it all. Peer respect. AM and FM success. Number one singles and albums, great music and a lot of money.
Bernie Leadon:
We had lofty goals …Here we are, you want us or not?
They sound so single-minded. Then again, it might have been mere bravado. Glenn Frey:
There was a certain intensity … perhaps a lot of it was bluff.

But I’m sure Poco were also driven, just more carefully. Timothy B. Schmit:
But I had a vision – I just wanted to write songs and travel and be on stage.  I wanted that adoration from being a musician.

Maybe Poco were too much of their time, too laidback and easy-going. No doubt they had ambition but it wasn’t the vaunting hubris that launches careers (for instance, a band who call themselves America – that’s a bold statement). They probably thought they could leave all that behind with Stills and Young. But they fit perfectly into the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter culture. Folk/country rock was up and coming, the latest rage. It was surely the right time and place for them.

Bitter Blue
Perhaps they didn’t rate themselves highly or take themselves seriously enough. Perhaps they looked like they were having too good a time, that nothing more was needed. The template in a way for the early Eagles, a vocal harmony group (the essence that the Eagles wanted to recapture when they reformed in 1994), as mentioned in my first Poco blog, they watched that band soar (forgive the pun) into the stratosphere while they languished on the ground, performing, releasing records, garnering admirers but never really ‘making it’.

They’re like a diamond in the rough. If you polish it, you gain something but you also lose something: the spontaneity, the freshness. I still love Eagles harmonies and loved it when they sang No More Walks in the Wood on the Long Road out of Eden tour but it was almost too perfect, too pristine.

Why did the people who walked away – Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Randy Meisner, Timothy B. Schmit – go on to greater things? It surely wasn't just talent.

Irving Azoff
The Eagles of course had a ruthless, devoted and feisty manager in Irving Azoff. They were his cause and he never lost sight of the big picture. Loyal to them above all. My favourite quote from the Hotel California book is from J. D. Souther:
Irving’s 15% of everybody turned out to be worth more than everyone’s 85% of themselves.

But did he really alter the course of their history? And I don’t want to suggest that Poco’s management was less effective although someone on the Border has just reminded me that Poco's management turned down an offer to play Woodstock - possibly not the greatest decision. As with everything though, it’s probably a combination of all of the above.
 
Wow! Joe looks gorgeous
Then there’s Joe Walsh. He attracted a whole raft of rock fans (and still does) and although I think he’s a crazy and entertaining character with a great sense of humour, the well-brought-up, un-rock-and-roll side of me doesn’t approve of all those destructive rampages. I just don’t see the point and can't help but feel sorry for the people who had to clean up after him. He brings rock credibility, at no. 54 in Rolling Stone magazine's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. And his onstage guitar duels with Don Felder were something else.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
I tend to believe this is simply serendipity rather than strictly meritorious. Even given that taste is subjective, we all know bands/singers whose work has never received the recognition it deserves while lesser talents are lauded (not that I’m in any way implying the Eagles were lesser talents). People seem to like what they hear most often and these days that tends to be rap, hip-hop and fey, affected girl singers. See my first ever music blog for my thoughts on this.

Path less travelled
Poco followed the country route, unlike the Eagles, who made a transition, became a bonafide country-rock hybrid and didn’t lose anything, only seemed to gain. It was no accident that  Bernie Leadon fell by the wayside. He wanted to stay closer to their country roots. Poco have stayed more grounded in this way. They appear in the Country Music Hall of Fame (with their own exhibit) rather than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But, even if we accept that the Eagles’ huge success was down to their ability to cross the divide, it doesn’t explain the popularity of tracks from early in their career, such as Peaceful Easy Feeling, Witchy Woman and Take It Easy, a time when they were more country-orientated. These all made the Top 40.

Rose of Cimarron
'I write the songs' 
Rusty Young highlights the importance of being able to write songs in this entertaining interview. David Geffen, speaking to Rusty, after convincing Richie Furay to leave Poco: 
You don’t write and you don’t sing.  You’re in big trouble.
Rusty Young:
That’s the day I became a songwriter.  Whether he knew it or not, David Geffen gave me the best advice I have ever heard.

There’s been much discussion on the Poconut forum lately about which band has the best writers and I have to admit to 'Sitting on a Fence’. I can see that Henley’s lyrics chimed with the Zeitgeist in a way that Poco’s didn’t (while prefiguring its eventual disillusion/dissolution - Henley's always been prescient that way) and that, at the same time, they were incredibly evocative and alluring to people who were only aware of the 70s, the Californian scene, after the fact and from a great distance. The Eagles became a soundtrack to the era. I love both Frey and Henley’s songs (and the contributions of Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Don Felder, Joe Walsh, Jack Tempchin and Jackson Browne) equally. But Poco had as many talented writers as the Eagles, with Richie Furay, Rusty Young, Paul Cotton, Timothy B. Schmit, Jim Messina all writing. They just couldn’t seem to translate critical acclaim into commercial success. This simple fact led to a series of line-up changes as members became disenchanted or were poached by record companies, but Poco still endured, with the core altering a little each time.

In my last blog, I mentioned a few Poco songs that I think are on a par with Eagles songs but there are more: Furay’s What If I Should Say I Love You (the passion and fervour bring tears to my eyes every time); Schmit’s Find Out in Time; Cotton’s Angel; Young’s magical Spellbound.

And I’m only a newcomer to Poco whereas I know Eagles albums like the back of my hand. I’m probably only scraping the surface of their material. All taste is subjective so I’m certain there are plenty of Poconuts who would choose completely different tracks to these or those in my last blog.
But perhaps they were mere featherweights in a heavyweight field. Their gossamer-fine songs lacked the punch of the best of the Eagles material.

Exposure
I suspect though that radio play was a significant factor. I can't speak for the States but in the UK, it was hard not to hear the Eagles, whereas you would only ever hear Rose of Cimarron by Poco. It’s not that their songs did not resonate as strongly, more that they never reached the same market and never got a chance to become standards in the way of Desperado or New Kid in Town. It might be a question of how they were promoted or how they were perceived.

Go, Don!
It's all about sex, really (to quote my former English Lit teacher)
But I think what really did it, what made the difference, is something I can actually trace in my own experience. One of These Nights was simply the sexiest thing I’d ever heard on late-night radio and the first time I heard the Eagles. Its intro sent a thrill through me. Rose of Cimarron I believed pleasant but unmemorable although my first Schmitten blog confirms it had entered my consciousness and I did remember it years later.


Don Felder came up with the opening bass line of One of These Nights (and let's not forget his other vital contribution: Hotel California). Don Henley:
With Don Felder, we can really rock. He's made us nastier and he's done a great guitar solo on One of These Nights.

The very act of listening to One of These Nights (and Witchy Woman which has the same ‘satanic country-rock’ vibe) seemed illicit and exhilarating (well, I did live in Sidcup and we got real excited about a chicken the other day – it was a magnificent chicken though). You felt complicit in a crime.

Languid, mysterious
Glenn and Don, in particular, Glenn, let’s face it, the cascading hair, the droopy moustache, those molten blue (I admit I always thought they were brown), come-to-bed eyes, looked and sounded dangerous. Poco seemed like safe, down-home country boys nextdoor, the Eagles like bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks. But I can't even say this had anything to do with looks because I'd never seen young Timothy B. Schmit.  Then there were those straightforward lyrics ‘I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight’ (Peaceful Easy Feeling) or ‘It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me’ which leads to ‘Open up, I’m climbing in’, so compelling, direct and honest.

Of course, the Eagles played up the outlaw image with the Desperado album but we were already convinced. More West Coast than Wild West, it was all the same to those of us in the London suburbs. Something out in the Wild Blue Yonder.

Anyway, these are just a few of my thoughts. Be interested to hear what any readers think.



Now, if I'd seen this ...






4 comments:

  1. I had been a huge Poco fan in the 70's & as a live band, they were just amazing,. They sold out every show I saw & they played in NYC a lot. I don't see how you can even begin to speculate on this topic without ever even seeing this band. I believe the bottom line is that Poco was poorly managed, & that was the reason they never made it huge. For that idiot of a manger to tell them not to do Woodstock because it was going to rain & nobody would show up, was only one of the poor decisions made by their management. Poco was the prototype for the Eagles & I believe they have even admitted that to some extent. Don't forget Poco was formed in 1968, the Eagles didn't come along until '71. It was a combination of many things, but when Poco opened at the Troubador, they were the talk of LA, & slotted as the next big thing, I think if Jim Messina had stayed longer, it would have happened, but that's just my opinion. I never saw them with Jim, but he went on to huge success with Kenny Loggins with Loggins & Messina.

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    1. Hi Topkat,

      Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading the blog.

      Many people have told me how great Poco were live and I can see that the footage on YT doesn’t do them justice but, without a time machine, I can't really do anything about it. If it makes you feel better, remember that I never saw the Eagles live in their heyday either – could have gone in 1994 but I was interested in other things and missed them. I don't think this means that I’m not qualified to have an opinion and express it though. I’m just seeing things from a different perspective. It’s ok if you disagree with me. That’s your prerogative. You were lucky to get to see them so many times. I think I said in two earlier blogs (http://sshh-sshh.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/some-called-it-country-some-called-it.html and http://sshh-sshh.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/schmitten-part-two-sweet-talking-guy_25.html) (and didn’t even realise I’d repeated myself) that I believed Poco were the prototype for the Eagles so we do agree about something. Appreciate hearing your views. SS

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  2. Just FYI..........Glenn's eyes were not brown...they were blue!

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