Looking back on the Eagles drummer’s debut LP
In 1980, the Eagles broke up after a nine-year stint that brought forth six studio albums, a Greatest Hits compilation that is still the biggest selling album in U.S. history, plus a live album.
In fact, Eagles Live was still quite fresh on the shelves of record stores when Don Henley got to work on his debut solo album, I Can’t Stand Still in 1982.
Debut solo albums from artists who were previously with a band tend to serve a specific purpose: saying things the artist didn’t get the chance to express before, and experimenting with styles that wouldn’t have fit their group’s sound. I Can’t Stand Still does this and more. Each track seems to reflect the facets of Don Henley’s creative personality; there’s romance, cynicism, and nostalgia. This album also poses many issues that we are still dealing with forty years later – sensationalized coverage of violent news, the American education system, and gun control.
Henley produced the album alongside Danny Kortchmar (known for his work with the 1970s singer-songwriter scene of Laurel Canyon) and Greg Ladanyi (producer of Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Toto). Don also pulled together a band of rock royalty to fill out his sound, such as Russ Kunkel, JD Souther, Steve Porcaro and many others – even fellow Eagles Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmitt showed up. With this group, Henley immersed himself in the synth sounds of the 1980s, but the Eagles’ country-tinged rock style still lingered.
The first side of the album shows Don Henley as a first-person narrator, telling the stories of when he’s been unlucky in love. The title track of the album, “I Can’t Stand Still,” is slow-moving and electronic, announcing that Henley has arrived as an artist with new tricks up his sleeve. The lyrics, however, remain pretty standard as they describe a breakup over suspected infidelity. “You Better Hang Up,” is a song that we would expect of Don Henley by way of the Eagles’ The Long Run album. It’s a straightforward rocker that’s driven by a blues-rock guitar, and includes more lyrics about woman who’s caught in a position of cheating…Henley must have experienced plenty of lyin’ eyes in his day.
With its prominent piano motif to carry the ballad through, “Long Way Home” slows down the pacing of the album. Although it’s another breakup song, it’s handled a lot more delicately, with poignant lyrics like: “There’s three sides to every story: / Yours and mine and the cold, hard truth.” Toward the end of this song, he shades the bleakness of the subject matter with a light poptimism as he adds some classic 1960s “sha-la-la”s. “Nobody’s Business” portrays a staunch stance on independence and privacy, and was co-written by a power-trio of long-time collaborators: Don Henley, Bob Seger, and JD Souther. The way the guitar builds at the beginning of the song is reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar work on the intro to Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News.”
When two Texans sit down together, what do they bond over? In my experience, it’s typically the heat of the Texas sun. Co-written by Don Henley (of Linden, TX) and JD Souther (of Amarillo, TX), “Talking to the Moon” begins with a gentle croon, “When the hot September sun down in Texas / has sucked the streams bone dry.” The piano ballad unfolds into a dreamy vignette of a lovelorn Texan whose heartbreak is echoed through a barren town, and reflected back to him in the light of the moon. There’s a warmth and sensitivity to this song that perfectly captures the Romantic side of Henley; the nature poet who longs for not only his lost love, but also expresses a nostalgia for a simpler time. When you turn the album over, however, it’s a whole other story.
The second side of the album is much more harsh, and feels like Don Henley genuinely has something to say. It opens strongly with the lead single, “Dirty Laundry.” Steve Porcaro of Toto propels the song with his cyclical synth tracks, while Henley’s lyrics drip with acidity: “I make my livin’ off the evening news / just give me something – something I can use.” The Farfisa organ was programmed to run, rather than played live on the track, which creates a completely hypnotic sound that was accompanied by typewriter ticking. Overall, the music creates a feeling of repetition that reflects the monotony of the workforce – specifically, that of television journalism which Henley was critiquing in his lyrics: “She can tell you ‘bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye / It’s interesting when people die – / Give us dirty laundry.” In this song, he slams the tabloidization of local news media, and condemns its voyeuristic tendencies, especially when it comes to violent death. Forty years later, “fake news” is now in our popular lexicon, but it all boils down to “Dirty Laundry.”
It is no secret that Don Henley has a love for literature. In “Johnny Can’t Read,” he brings the issue of illiteracy to the fore with plenty of synths that create an arcade-like atmosphere. It tells the story of a young man who learned to do all the extracurriculars in school, but not how to read – “Johnny can’t read / he never learned nothin’ that he’ll ever need.” I’m not sure how Don Henley’s teachers would feel about his use of a double-negative in this chorus, but in the mode of a pop music lyric, they may let it slide.
VIDEO: Don Henley “Johnny Can’t Read”
While he’s critiquing this issue in his lyrics, he never explicitly points fingers at whose fault it is. In fact, he sings, “Is it teacher’s fault? Oh no / Is it mommie’s fault? Oh no,” etc. However, in the music video for the song, the camera zooms in on a student in a classroom who nods when Henley asks, “Is it the president’s fault?” making a smooth dig at Reagan. Another in-joke is made at the end of the song when you faintly hear Henley sing the line “There’s a new kid in town,” indicating that the “Johnny-come-lately” of the Eagles’ “New Kid in Town” has reprised his role in the Henley songbook as a Johnny who can’t read. This “John” character has frequently popped up in American music (“Johnny B. Goode,” “Big Bad John,” etc.), and he always seems to cause trouble.
Rather interestingly, the song provides a commentary on the educational outcast and gun violence: “Johnny got confused and he bought himself a gun / Well, he went and did something that he shouldn’t oughta done.” In America’s current climate with gun control (or a lack thereof), this line sticks out like a sore thumb. “Johnny Can’t Read,” then, becomes a cautionary tale, detailing the importance of reading and education, and how it has the power to save society.
Making another political statement, “Them and Us” describes the futility of nuclear war in the style of rhythm and blues, that is very reminiscent of his work with the Eagles. Completely shifting styles, he then features an instrumental track of Irish traditional music with “La Eile” (“Another Day” in Gaelic). This 52-second piece was arranged by Paddy Moloney of The Chieftans, and featured only tin whistle and harp. After three booming and heavily produced tracks, this feels a bit out of place – like going from a mechanical 1980s to a pre-industrial Renaissance – but it’s a welcome change of pace. It also serves a perfect transition into the ballad “Lilah,” which once again lyrically weaves a sense of nostalgia for a previous time into the song. “Lilah” also continues the Irish theme as it includes the hook to “Too-ra Loo-ra Loo-ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby).” According to Henley, his mother’s ancestors were originally from Scotland, and ended up somewhere in Northern Ireland, so this brief moment on the album indicates a biographical interest in his roots. To bring the album to a close, we travel from Ireland to the American south as Henley performs the gospel classic, “The Unclouded Day” with a reggae spin, which also happens to feature Bill Withers on harmony vocals.
One thing that is always said about Don Henley is that he’s so serious – I Can’t Stand Still proves otherwise. Two of the three lead singles, “Dirty Laundry” and “Johnny Can’t Read,” deal with very serious topics, but the lens through which he performs his critique is satire. Whether he’s parodying a news anchor who “could’ve been an actor,” or mimicking Fozzie Bear’s “Waka-Waka-Waka,” his album has many in-jokes, and takes astute jabs at both popular culture and the political climate.
This solo debut proved that he could be a success as a solo artist, and began to create the sound that would inform some of his bigger hits down the line – from the synth power behind “The Boys of Summer,” to the near-prophetic social critique on “In a New York Minute.”