James Dean has always held a particular fascination for rockers, perhaps because his death took place just as rock n' roll was making its way across America. For the Eagles, he became a namesake Aug, 14, 1974, single that helped them progress sonically.

Dean was 24 and had only made three movies when he died in a car crash on Sept. 30, 1955; his definitive role, playing the misunderstood teenager Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, came out a month later. Yet he and Elvis Presley came to define the moody charisma that generations of rockers would fashion for themselves. Dean also was the embodiment of the "live fast, die young" ethos that eventually befell far too many musicians and fans alike.

The Eagles certainly recognized the connection. The galloping "James Dean" was written as they were working up material for what would become the Eagles' second LP, Desperado. Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther went to see Tim Hardin one night at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, returned home and picked up their guitars.

"That's when the idea came together about us doing an album of all the angst-meisters," Frey told Cameron Crowe in the liner notes for The Very Best of the Eagles, with a laugh. "It was going to be all of the antiheroes. 'James Dean' was going to be one song, and the Doolin-Dalton gang was going to be another."

Henley added: "I sat there and listened to the guys talk about James Dean. They had evidently studied him and knew much more about him than I did. I had seen most of Dean's movies, but I somehow missed the whole icon thing. The mythology never quite reached my part of East Texas, but I pitched in and ended up with a writing credit — although the song was mostly Jackson's, I think."

After the song "Desperado" was completed, however, they decided to turn their attention exclusively to rootsy songs about the Old West, and "James Dean" was put on the back burner. "When it came time to do On the Border," Frey added, "we got 'James Dean' right off the shelf and said, 'Let's finish this.'"

Listen to the Eagles Perform 'James Dean'

The Eagles went to London to work with producer Glyn Johns, as they had done with their first two records. But this time, they were looking to move away from country sounds into harder territory represented by songs like "James Dean." "We just didn't want to make another limp-wristed L.A. country-rock record," Frey told Rolling Stone in 1975. "They were all too smooth and glassy. We wanted a tougher sound.”

It didn't help that public never bought the notion that they were outlaws, Henley later admitted. "The metaphor was probably a little bullshit," he said. "We were in L.A. staying up all night, smoking dope, living the California life, and I suppose we thought it was as radical as cowboys in the Old West."

Johns, on the other hand, thought they should stay the course, and it led to issues in the studio as the producer cited his decade of experience shaping the sound of acts like the Rolling Stones and the Who. "Glyn thought we were a nice, country-rock, semi-acoustic band," Henley told Crawdaddy in 1974, "and every time we wanted to rock 'n' roll, he could name a thousand British bands that could do it better."

After six weeks, they'd only completed definitive versions of "Best of My Love" and "You Never Cry Like a Lover." So Johns was fired and replaced by Bill Szymczyk, who was able to give them what Henley called the "raw and funky presence" the Eagles were after.

Johns may have felt some sense of vindication when the ballad "Best of My Love" became the Eagles' first No. 1, while "James Dean" stalled at No. 77. But their musical shift was already underway: "Already Gone," the first single from On the Border and a showcase for edgier new guitarist Don Felder, broke into the Top 40.

Szymczyk went on to produce the Eagles' next three albums, all of which topped the charts.
 

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