|FORMED: 1971, Los Angeles, CA
The mere mention of the name The Eagles, for most of us, evokes the strains of Hotel California and laid-back '70s rock. But for a few listeners with long memories and an attraction to more exciting sounds, the mention of the Eagles calls to mind a British beat quartet of the early 1960's, and strangely soulful pop numbers like "Some People" and catchy instrumentals with a unique guitar sound. A dozen years before Don Henley, Randy Meisner and company were first stepping out of Linda Ronstadt's shadow, there was a band in England using the same name, and getting lots of exposure with a brand of instrumental rock heavily influenced by the Shadows. They also became something of the performing alter-ego of composer-arranger Ron Grainer, who is most famous for his film and television scores (The Prisoner, The Omega Man, Dr. Who). The Eagles were formed by Terry Clarke (lead guitar), Johnny Payne (rhythm guitar), Michael Brice (bass), and Rod Meacham (drums), all students at Connaught Road School in Bristol. Their name came from the youth organization, the Eagle House Youth Club, to which they all belonged. The quartet played local dances, parties, and bingo halls, performing during the intervals between the sessions at the latter, often for whatever was in the hat that was passed around.
The band managed to appear at Royal Festival Hall in 1962, as part of the final round of the Rhythm Group of the Year competition organized by the Duke of Edinborough. One of the people in the audience at this performance was composer Ron Grainer, who liked what he heard and sought the group out afterward, to no avail--they weren't professional and had no representation, and proved nearly impossible to trace. Grainer was not only impressed with the clean, steely rocking sound that he'd heard from the band--partly a unique product of lead guitarist Terry Clarke's home-built custom instrument--but had a particular project in mind for them. He'd been commissioned to write the music score for a movie built around the Duke of Edinborough's anti-juvenile delinquency youth club project, entitled Some People. The movie was to be set in Bristol, and already a Bristol girl named Valerie Mountain, with a great set of pipes, had been selected to sing two songs--there seemed nothing more perfect for the role of the youth club band from Bristol than . . . . a youth club band from Bristol. Grainer went so far as to organize a talent contest in Bristol, which the band failed to enter, believing they couldn't win. He finally located the Eagles by going club to club, and approached them. He then hooked them up with Valerie Mountain, and the combination seemed to work, and the group was signed--no one was more astonished than the members themselves that this barely semi-professional band without a recording to their credit was selected to play the soundtrack music for a full-length feature film, starring the hottest leading man in England at that time, Kenneth More, and featuring the most talked about up-and-coming young star, David Hemmings.
It was practically a Cinderella story, made even better by the fact that the band members even appeared as extras in the movie. And then lightning seemed to strike as Grainer got the Eagles a recording contract with Pye Records, then one of England's three biggest record labels. The company didn't waste time waiting for a proper 45 rpm single--an EP of the soundtrack to Some People was released in the spring of 1962, which reached No. 2 on the EP charts and remained on those listings for 21 weeks. And all of this had taken place in a matter of weeks in the early months of 1962. The movie Some People was a success in England, and made it over to America a year later, where it became a fixture on late-night television. [Note: The current writer's first exposure to the Eagles, which he never forgot, came watching Some People at 3 o'clock in the morning on a local television station, and falling in love with the bracing guitar on the soundtrack]. The band released their debut single, "Bristol Express" b/w "Johnny's Tune, " both from the soundtrack, in June of that year on Pye. It didn't sell exceptionally well and never charted, but the reaction was promising, and a follow-up disc, "Exodus (main theme)" b/w "March of the Eagles, " was issued in October of 1962. By the fall of that year, they were living in London, near Ron Grainer's residence, and eventually purchased their own house in the city. The group's future, at least in the near-term, seemed assured. Grainer, one of the busiest film and television composers in England of the period, was producing, composing, and arranging the group's work; and their record label, Pye, was enthusiastic about the band's prospects. The Eagles were on a bill at the London Paladium with Roy Orbison and Lonnie Donegan, and though they hadn't charted a single, the band was the most visible instrumental group in England other than the Shadows. In early 1963, they secured an eight-week showcase on the BBC's Radio Luxembourg, and also became regulars on Saturday Club, another radio program. Around this same time, their second EP, The Desperados, was released by Pye, consisting of the group's versions of Ron Grainer television music, including the record's title theme and their rendition of the Steptoe & Son theme (associated with a program that was later transformed into Sanford & Son on American television).
In 1963, they were on a major package tour of England, playing back-up to Johnny Tillotson and Del Shannon, and worked on a bill backing a young Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick. Finally, in August of 1963, they got out their first LP, Smash Hits From The Eagles, which included their covers of "Pipeline, " "Hava Nagila" and "Exodus." They even managed an incredibly obscure U.S.-only release on the Colpix label. Del Shannon was so taken with the group's sound, that he wanted them to remain as his permanent backing band. Part of the Eagles' secret lay in Rod Meacham's highly animated drumming, which managed to be busy and involved but never obtrusive. Another key element in those days was Terry Clarke's home-made guitar, which didn't sound like any other instrument. Although he later switched to a more conventional Fender instrument, Clarke was one of a handful of lead guitarists--Brian May of Queen also comes to mind--to achieve fame with a home-made instrument. The group seemed headed for another good year, despite the phenomenal growth in 1963 of the Liverpool sound. It seemed that the Eagles' brand of instrumental rock was fading away, except that they could also sing, and that went double for Terry Clarke--the group did release a handful of vocal numbers, which fared no better on the charts than their instrumentals but didn't detract from their image, either. The group had even begun writing their own material, and were showing ever-greater inspiration, on numbers like the dazzling instrumental "Moonstruck." Moreover, their sound was unusual enough, with some peculiar (and very lively) twists on the Shadows' style of playing, that they could've cut a niche for themselves.
The year 1964 looked to be a better one than ever, when Ron Grainer, who had guided their careers and their music for two years, was tragically struck blind. Although Grainer would continue to write excellent music for more than a decade after this, including many films scores--thus making him unique as a blind movie composer--his career as their producer was ended. The group played a very well-received winter engagement aboard the Queen Mary, and then recorded and released more singles, including a fine vocal rendition of "Wishin' And Hopin'" that failed to chart. Drummer Rod Meacham collapsed from nervous exhaustion at the end of a summer engagement, however, and was forced to leave the band and the music business permanently in the wake of a subsequent mental breakdown. Finding a replacement drummer wasn't difficult, but continuing to work proved to be impossible, as frustration past and present all piled up at once--despite the release of seven singles and several EPs, and an LP, they'd never had the hit single they needed to get the kinds of top bookings that would've made the strain and the work worthwhile. And without Ron Grainer looking out for them, they quickly found the rewards that were there in the kinds of gigs they were playing very meager, indeed, as what money there was started vanishing. The Eagles finally broke up in late 1964.
Terry Clarke remained a professional guitarist, undoubtedly playing on many hundreds of sessions uncredited, and turned up many years later playing on the Mike Cooper album Life and Death in Paradise, and also was a member of Pickettywitch. Johnny Payne retreated to the Bristol band scene, where he played with many local outfits, and similarly, Mike Brice performs in clubs in a duo with his wife. Ron Grainer, who was later responsible for the music in To Sir With Love and The Omega Man, among other films, passed away in 1981. On December 31, 1999, they played a millennium concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles that was recorded and included on the box-set retrospective Selected Works 1972-1999 in November 2000 ~ Bruce Eder, All Music Guide