Lord knows we don’t have a lot to thank the Eagles for. Single-handedly responsible for the dumbing down of contemporary country radio, which has turned into little more than the slick ’70s California pop/rock Henley, Frey, and company churned out, the band has little to be proud of. Of course it wasn’t exactly their idea to screw up an entire genre, but if you need a whipping group for screwing up C&W music, you’d be hard pressed to find a better candidate.
And then there’s the matter of Their Greatest Hits 1971-’75, the biggest selling album in HISTORY. I mean, what’s with that? Not Hendrix, not Led Zep, not even the damn Beatles or Stones have sold more of a single disc than those droopy California schlumps. What’s all this got to do with Cleveland’s rocking James Gang and the reissue of their early catalog, plus one snazzy hits package? Well, when the Eagles’ producer/engineer, one Bill Szymczyk (say that five times fast), set off on a mission last year to restore the Eagles’ Greatest Hits by hunting down the original studio masters to replace the crappy second-generation work tapes used to sell those millions of discs, he also revisited some of his other projects and decided to clean them up too. Enter the first hat trick of albums by a Joe Walsh-fueled Cleveland power trio, the James Gang. Of course the world wasn’t clamoring for the reissue of these oldies 30 years after they were recorded, but this was clearly a labor of love on Szymczyk’s behalf.
Although not essential to an understanding of rock and roll, Walsh — along with drummer Jim Fox and bassist Dale Peters — churned out some incredibly powerful, melodic if not quite influential music on their three studio and one live album recorded between 1969 and 1971. Pete Townshend was also an early and vocal supporter, and provided the band with an enormous boost by having them open Who shows. Thanks to Szymczyk, though, all three of their studio discs, Yer’ Album (1969), Rides Again (1970), and Thirds (1971) have now been given the classy reissue treatment.
Remastered from the original tapes, and reissued with restored graphics, detailed liner notes, and even recent interviews with the musicians, this is better than any of the Eagles albums either look or sound. All three of the James Gang’s discs contain highlights, but Rides Again is the only one that can be considered essential. It not only includes the band’s best songs, but divides them into louder and softer “sides” (used to be a two-sided record, remember?), and no less than six of its nine tracks were plucked for inclusion in Greatest Hits. In the gripping seven minute “Bomber” medley, finally restored with the “Ravel’s Bolero” section, which had to be snipped out of the original due to copyright problems, the band arguably hits their creative peak as they shift effortlessly into different suites, all led by Walsh’s quicksilver guitar lines.
Unless you grew up with these albums, as I have, clearly the way to go is the sixteen-track Greatest Hits compilation. Replacing the almost 20-year old 15 Greatest Hits, which sported thin sound and no liner notes, the freshly-released collection not only uses the newly restored original master tapes, but adds two heretofore rare tracks from the soundtrack of the movie Zachariah, the only instance where the band worked with an outside vocalist. The set also includes two cuts from James Gang Live, a long out-of-print final Walsh disc, which although not necessarily a first-rate indication of how imaginative they were, still gives a fairly adequate picture of the trio’s live attack. It also exhibits their blues roots in a ragged version of Albert King’s “You’re Gonna Need Me.” Additionally, the package includes a lovingly assembled 16-page booklet with track-by-track analysis and some informative, well written essays. After Joe Walsh split for a solo career, and then his Eagles days (he only joined for Hotel California and The Long Run, so he’s not entirely responsible for all that crap), the band soldiered on for a while, releasing a few more records with substitute guitarists and vocalists (Tommy Bolin did a stint in the band) which never captured the magic, creativity and songwriting prowess of these.
Now a shadow of his former self, Joe Walsh can be justifiably proud of the work he did with the James Gang, and he still tosses “Walk Away” and “Funk #49,” two of the band’s most incisive singles, into his live sets. It doesn’t atone for the Eagles, but neither Frey nor Henley has three albums as solid and imaginative as these in their closets.
Universal Recods, 1755 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10019