Latest release: American Rock N Roll (BMG)
It’s a story that Don Felder has no doubt told and retold hundreds of times, but he has no hesitation in telling it once more. Holding off their record company’s demands for a new release, the Eagles had issued a greatest hits compilation as they worked on another album. With the record done, the band had the label in for a listening session when Don Henley dropped a bombshell on everyone.
“We came off of One of These Nights and we put out Eagles Greatest Hits Vol 1 to forestall the release of what was going to be the Hotel California record, and they were just banging the door down,” Felder recalls pleasantly, after playfully admonishing me for calling in three minutes late. “So we had a playback party for them when it was finally done, and we were sitting in the control room playing one song after another after another and finally ‘Hotel’ comes by and Henley reaches over and turns around to the guys from the record company and says, ‘That’s gonna be our next single’.”
Don Felder had his doubts about that, to say the very least. In the US in the 1970s, the AM radio format that the Eagles ruled wasn’t given to air non-conventional epic-length album tracks. For a song to make the singles chart, it had to be short enough for AM airplay: three minutes thirty seconds, or less, on average.
“‘Hotel California’ is six and a half minutes long!” Felder says. “You can’t really dance to it. It’s not like a really slow dance, and it’s not really a rock track and it stops in the middle, the drums stop and it breaks down and there’s a two minute guitar solo at the end – it was the absolute wrong format! So I said, ‘Don, I think that’s an FM cut’.”
Asylum Records wanted to cut the song down to an appropriate single length, but the band refused. Henley got his wish, and ‘Hotel California’ became the Eagles’ fourth US #1, won the Grammy for Record of the Year and ranks as one of the defining moments of American rock music.
“It reminded me, when I just saw Bohemian Rhapsody just recently,” says Felder, “of them demanding that that was the single they were going to put out, and the record company finally conceding and saying, ‘Just remember, I told you so’. So as I said that to Don, I’ve never been so happy to have been so wrong in my entire life!”
“You just never know,” he continues. “Nobody thought that ‘Best of My Love’ from On the Border would be the biggest hit the Eagles had up to that date. Who would have thought of a ballad when everybody was listening to ‘Already Gone’ and ‘Take it Easy’ and all these uptempo driving songs? It’s a beautiful track, but it was a bit of a surprise. So, you never know.”
You won’t find any six-and-a-half-minute songs on Felder’s new album American Rock N Roll. It was a very deliberate move by the guitarist and songwriter to keep people’s attention on the song.
“The longest song on there is four minutes and thirty seconds,” he admits, “mainly because I think the general public has a limited attention span. I think people are constantly changing. Styles are changing, songs are changing, TV channels… it’s a very limited attention span. So if you want to hold someone’s attention, don’t make it six and a half minutes long. Don’t have these long, rambling verses… at least, that was my philosophy on this last record.”
To help him make his album, Felder put the call out to his many friends and contemporaries, ending up with a laundry list of guests from across the rock music world from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rush to Bon Jovi and the Grateful Dead.
“All these great players, and all the different drummers that came in – Steve Gadd, Jim Keltner… just tons of people! A couple of guys from Toto played keyboards on it with me. Everybody who stepped up was just fantastically enthusiastic about it,” Felder says with pleasant Southern tones. “I was so happy to realise, you know, you really find out who your friends are. When you turn around and ask somebody, ‘Hey I’ve gotta move outta my house’ – the people who show up are really your actual true friends. When I reached out to these people, not a single one of them turned me down.”
With so much talent accrued, the hardest part for Don Felder was deciding who he should use on which track. The music on American Rock n Roll stays well within the framework of mainstream rock, but covers a lot of ground, from softer ballads to funk-flavoured numbers and arena-style hard rockers. The trick was to match the players with the song. On the title track, the choice was obvious. Others came together serendipitously.
“Slash plays on the title track, ‘American Rock n Roll’. He’s perfect for that. It’s right up his alley. And yet, if I’d tried to put him on something like ‘Little Latin Lover’ or ‘The Way Things Have to Be’, it’s the wrong format for him.”
Peter Frampton, as it turned out, was the right guy for the second of those songs.
“Peter has this sound that, when he plays his Les Paul through his Leslie speaker, it just sounds beautiful – angelic,” Felder says reverentially. “And I wrote that song, ‘The Way Things Have to Be’, on piano, not on guitar. It’s probably the only song I’ve ever written on piano. And I kept hearing Peter’s guitars as part of the texture and colouration of the track. So I called him and I flew back to Nashville and he jumped on it literally an hour later.”
For the big stadium rocker ‘Rock You’, the former Eagles guitarist sought out his old friend Sammy Hagar. In the end, the track became something of an all-star jam when Joe Satriani and Bob Weir turned up at the studio during the recording.
“We’ve known each other for decades,” Felder says of Hagar. “We both wrote heavy metal songs for the soundtrack of Heavy Metal, we’ve done shows together, we were on a TV show together a year or so back… So I flew up to his studio in San Francisco and we’re around the mic together doing vocals and an hour later Satriani comes in so we’re getting him to do the guitar parts that we make up on the spot, right there in the studio. Bob Weir has a studio a couple of blocks away, and he wandered in to grab a cup of coffee so we got him on the mic to shout ‘rock you!’”
Of all the collaborations that made up the album, Felder speaks most warmly of the “fun accident” that led to the entwining solos of Orianthi and Richie Sambora on ‘Limelight’.
“I called up Sambora,” he begins. “He lives about thirty, forty-five minutes from me and I went out there one morning and he came out, plugged in a guitar, I plugged in a guitar and we start playing off of each other, and then Orianthi’s walking down the staircase. I completely forgot that Richie and Orianthi were together as a couple at that time. So I told her to grab a guitar. She had a baseball hat on and a t-shirt, cut off shorts – she just woke up! She plugged in and just absolutely cuts this thing down like a chainsaw. It’s one of my favourite solos on this record. I think she’s the best female rock guitarist alive today.”
Felder’s deep love of music comes across in the warmth of his language as he talks about the creative process involved in both his new album and the other recordings he has played on.
“It has been my deepest passion,” he says, “my most glorious lover that has never abandoned me, never betrayed me and has brought me so much love and joy throughout my life. Other than my children, there’s nothing I love more than playing and performing music. I will continue to do this as long as this human body is able to continue, and I love it!”
At 71, from playing in bands since he was 15 to joining one of the biggest bands in America at 26, he still finds his greatest inspiration simply in creating music. He talks briefly about some ideas he has started on for his next album, which he says “will be outside the normal commercial song format” and could well be a double CD. “Artistically,” he says, “I need to do that.” In the end, Don Felder is very much an artist at heart.
“I’m always inspired by the process of going out and playing live, or walking into an empty studio that’s totally dark, turning on all the gear and standing there with nothing. No music, no sounds, no nothing. And by the end of the day, you’ve grasped an idea and created the bones and flesh of this creature that comes up out of these speakers and if it’s a roaring beast you walk out excited and if it’s not, you can put it into digital heaven. Hit erase and it’s goodbye! It’s a fun, exciting, challenging thing every time you walk into the studio.”