Why ‘Take It Easy’ Was Glenn Frey’s Best Eagles Song
The late singer/songwriter's first single with the world-conquering group was his finest
Even as an Eagles fan, I could never muster too much of a defense for Glenn Frey. My preferred Eagles brand is Don Henley’s (soulful, sinister, pretentious) rather than Frey’s (country, smug, practical). Both were undoubtedly necessary to the Eagles’ success: Henley’s self-serious introspection and ham-fisted attempts at social commentary would surely have become (even more) overbearing without Frey’s melodic, careerist instincts for balance. But it couldn’t have been hugely surprising to anyone when Henley went on to a couple of Grammy wins and multi-platinum solo albums in the ’80s, while Frey had a bunch of largely forgotten solo singles whose quality was directly proportional to their sax hooks.
Frey had his moments, though, and a large number of them occurred when he took the lead on the band’s first-ever single: “Take It Easy,” a No. 12 hit in 1972 and a classic rock perennial that will endure as long as the radio form exists. Largely penned by Frey’s then-upstairs neighbor Jackson Browne (when Browne struggled to complete the song’s second verse, Frey topped it off), it’s a low-key masterpiece of writing, phrasing, and performance, and probably the song most associated with the band’s early country-rock days. If you had to explain the Eagles to someone in two songs, it’d probably be “Hotel California” and “Take It Easy.” Here are the ten reasons why “Take It Easy” is worthy of being included in that binary.
1. The tension of the intro. Beginning with Frey and Bernie Leadon’s guitars chiming across stereo channels, and Randy Meisner’s bass bubbling excitedly from the bottom, the song’s first ten seconds pave the runway for the song to take flight from — which it does with Don Henley’s first three drum hits. You can basically hear the four members exchanging looks, psyching one another up for the jam to follow.
2. “I’ve got seven women on my mind.” Probably the maximum number of women one man could have on his mind simultaneously without being implausible. (It helps with the realism that Frey goes on to break the seven down into their proper subcategories in the next line.)
3. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy.” The road-trip qualifications of “Take It Easy” are unquestionable from the opening line (“Well I’ma runnin’ down the road, tryin’ to loosen my load”), but nothing encapsulates the feeling of trying to get a grip on your life as tight as the one you have on the steering wheel like this lyric. (It was a good warm up for five years later, when Browne would write the definitive text on the subject.)
4. The double-time banjo underneath. Played by Bernie Leadon, but the moment of inspiration came courtesy of producer Glyn Johns: “They all thought it was a bonkers idea but it worked. It was already a great song, but that one little thing made it different.”
5. The “ooo”s. Soothing in the choruses, triumphant in the outro — few bands got a larger range of emotion out of their non-verbals than the Eagles. In fact, one of the all-time Glenn Frey quotes came in this 1975 Cameron Crowe profile of the Eagles, when an obnoxious radio DJ asks him a bizarre question about the band having the “best ‘ooo’s in the business.” Frey, ever unflappable, answers: “‘Oooo’s for bucks, Larry. That’s our motto…. the only difference between boring and laid back is a million dollars.” Cocky, self-aware, and slightly unintelligible; peak Frey.
6. Changing “Flagstaff, Arizona” to “Winslow, Arizona.” The real-life auto-breakdown incident that inspired the second verse in “Take It Easy” actually happened to Browne in Flagstaff, but it was changed to Winslow. Why? Because songwriting. The line has understandably taken on mythic proportions in the Navajo County city of Winslow, where they even named a friggin’ park after it.
7. “It’s a girl, my lord! / In a flatbed Ford / Slowing down to take a look at me.” Frey’s primary songwriting contribution to “Easy” came when he closed Browne’s Winslow-set scene with this exultant interruption of being saved by a girl in a flatbed Ford. Worth noting that for all the accusations of misogyny levied against the Eagles over the years — the overwhelming majority justified — their breakthrough hit climaxes with a trucker girl slowing down to leer at Frey, then giving him a lift. That might not make the band feminists, exactly, but how many classic rock standards where the male singer allows himself to be both objectified and physically rescued by a woman can you name?
8. Trading backing vocals from verse to chorus. The Eagles were so stacked with pro singers that the second verse begins with bassist Meisner’s reedy vocal providing the harmony to Frey’s plaintive twang, but by the end of the chorus, he’s been replaced with drummer Henley’s sturdier drawl providing counterpoint. It’s a subtle thing that you might not notice the first 100 times you hear it, but it keeps “Easy” varied and limber and moving.
9. “It’s so-o-o hard to find” in the final verse. The only line in the song’s verses that isn’t plowed through with maximal efficiency, Frey really sells the final lyric by stretching it out, audibly exhausted by the song’s first two verses.
10. The the song’s not about taking it easy at all. As much as the song may have come to define the Eagles as paragons of early ’70s California cool — even in the History of the Eagles documentary, Leadon suggested that its titular message particularly resounded with listeners after the societal chaos of the Nixon era — the song couldn’t be much less casual. Frey is a neurotic mess throughout, overthinking everything and all but collapsing in mental exhaustion by song’s end: The double-time banjo is the sound of his subconscious, speeding way faster than his vehicle. “Take it easy” isn’t advice he’s giving his listeners — it’s a mantra he’s desperately trying to internalize himself.
It might not have helped that the Eagles’ next Frey-sung single was a country ballad called “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” whose vibe actually was just as easy-listening and simple-minded as its title implied. But “Take It Easy” showcase a band far more complex than they were often given credit for, and it’s a worthy pillar of Frey’s rock legacy.