Friday 13 December 2019

How the Eagles' best-of changed the game

Taking it easy: The Eagles, left to right, Don Henley, Don Felder, Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner.
Taking it easy: The Eagles, left to right, Don Henley, Don Felder, Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Forty years ago this week saw the release of one of the most significant albums in rock history - although it probably didn't feel like that at the time. It wasn't an album that broke ground musically, nor did it deliver any new songs at all. Plainly titled Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), it collected four years of the Eagles' best known songs, some 10 tracks in total.

The reason for its significance was the extraordinary popularity it enjoyed - and the cash cow it helped create for a music industry that would enjoy a further quarter-century of unbridled profits.

The Eagles were solid sellers in the early Seventies, but few could have predicted just how popular Their Greatest Hits would be. Within a year, it had shifted four times the sales their previous four albums combined had achieved. Globally, it's shifted 40 million copies to date, making it one of the 10 bestsellers ever. Its performance in the US make it even more noteworthy: it's the second biggest seller in album chart history there - bested only by Michael Jackson's Thriller.

In a world of seemingly unlimited song choice on the likes of Apple Music and Spotify, the notion of a bit of black vinyl collecting a bunch of hit songs seems very quaint, and yet - for many - it was their access point to owning material from a singer or band they might have enjoyed on the radio.

For all the talk of the 1970s being the high point of the studio album as a work of art, it was also the period where existing music first started to get repackaged and anthologised and sold to people who might have bought a few singles but probably hadn't bought Hunky Dory or Exile on Main Street or any other significant album from the era you care to mention. While the rock purists scoffed at the idea of such collections, the buoyant sales showed the public couldn't get enough of them.

The best-of had already been a thing by the time the Eagles leapt on board. Three years earlier, in 1973, the Beatles' so-called Red and Blue albums - officially known as 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 - sold in huge numbers. They came into being partly as a result of a bootleg four-LP anthology, Alpha Omega, that had been on sale the previous year and was selling in the sort of figures to alarm everyone at the record company.

The Blue album was my entry to the Beatles as a teen and I still reckon there isn't a greater 100 minutes of recorded music collected anywhere. Let's be honest here: if you aren't snared by its opening pair of tracks, 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane', you need to check if you have a pulse.

But 1976 really was the year the industry got to see how big a deal a judiciously chosen, aggressively marketed best-of could be. In April of that year, Abba's Greatest Hits was released. The Swedes had only released two albums in the UK and Ireland up to that point and had only come to prominence in this part of the world at Eurovision less than two years before. And yet, thanks to already popular songs, such as the peerless 'SOS' and the inclusion of a newbie 'Fernando' - which would become one of just 40-odd singles ever to sell more than 10 million physical copies - the album swept all before it and stayed in the UK chart for 130 weeks. By the end of the 1970s, it would be the second best-selling album in Britain that decade (beaten, not by Dark Side of the Moon as one might intelligently guess, but Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water).

Years later, another best-of would essentially kick-start an Abba revival. 1992's Abba Gold has sold 30 million copies and is about a strong a collection of pop songs as you'll ever hear. For a quartet whose best studio albums invariably contained a couple of duds (at the very least), it's tempting to suggest that Abba Gold was the best album they ever released. It's one of the few best-ofs to warrant its own book in Bloomsbury's acclaimed 33º series. Another best-of that definitely deserves its own tome happens to be the bestselling album ever in the UK chart: Queen's Greatest Hits, from 1981. Opening with 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and concluding with 'We are the Champions', it's an impeccably sequenced album released at a time when Mercury et al were at their artistic and commercial pomp. Their Greatest Hits II, released 10 years later, is also one of the all-time bestsellers in the UK.

And speaking of bestsellers, a best-of is neck and neck with Adele's 21 and Eminem's The Marshal Mathers LP for the accolade of bestselling album in the world this century to date. No prizes for guessing it's the Beatles' 1 album: released in 2000, and collecting the band's UK and US number one singles, it demonstrated both the enduring power of the Merseysiders - and the best-of format.

But it would be something of a last hurrah as download culture was kicking off in earnest around the same time. And Spotify would turn the experience of 'consuming' music on its head by the end of the decade when it normalised the business of listening to any song you wanted for a monthly fee.

Such technology would have been unthinkable in 1976 when the Eagles were gathering together their sun-kissed Cali tunes or when Abba were repackaging their then slim back catalogue for an album that would turn them into the world's biggest pop band. For an industry that was already doing exceptionally well in the fiscal stakes, the best-of album would ensure that the money kept pouring in in the Eighties and Nineties.

The Eagles, meanwhile, didn't take long to capitalise on the success of Their Greatest Hits - which, legend has it, was brought out by Asylum Records to boost first quarter revenue. A fifth studio album, Hotel California, would be released before the end of 1976. To date, this most emblematic of Eagles albums has sold north of 32 million copies - a figure that spiked when founder Glenn Frey died last month.

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