Behind The Song: The Eagles, “Heartache Tonight”

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Written by Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bob Seger, and J.D. Souther

Heartache is one of the most universal experiences – and a great asset to some of popular music’s most well-known hits. The Eagles fully embrace heartache with their classic song “Heartache Tonight,” the lead offering to 1979’s The Long Run album.

“No one wants to go home now / There’s too much going on,” sings Glenn Frey with a bit of a snarl. As much as heartache serves as the lyrical backbone, it is much more about the mood and grinding of guitars and percussion into a romping radio track. The arrangement mixes classic rock with a sweltering, driving blues underpinning, which makes sense since songwriters JD Souther and Frey were spinning Sam Cooke records around the house.

“We were just walking around clapping our hands and snapping fingers and singing the verses to those songs. The melody sounds very much like those Sam Cooke shuffles,” Souther once told Rolling Stone. “There’s not much to it. I mean, it’s really just two long verses. But it felt really good. You can get a feel for how something’s going to come out sometimes.”

The song frees up later on the bridge, once the guitars fall away and all is left is rambling percussion. “Somebody’s gonna hurt someone / Before the night is through,” the vocals here are layered to intensify frisky liberation of midnight boozing and cruising. “Somebody’s going to come undone / Nothing we can do / Everybody wants to touch somebody / If it takes all night.”

The chorus, however, proved to be a bit trickier. It wasn’t until a phone conversation with Bob Seger that it came down like a lightning rod. “Glenn was on the phone with Seger, and he said, ‘I wanna run something by you,’ and sang it to him, and Seger just came right in with the chorus, just sang it and it was so good. Glen called me and said, ‘Is four writers okay on this?’ And I said, ‘Sure, if it’s good.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s great. Seger just sang this to me,’ and he sang it to me and I said, ‘That’s fantastic.’”

Then living in a house owned by the James Cagney Estate, Frey had quite the setup, at least as Seger remembers it. “He loved the house. It wasn’t very big. It had one bedroom and a huge living room. He would set up Don’s [Henley] drums in the living room. They would write there,” he told Song Facts.

Initially, Seger wasn’t sure where the song could go with the much-needed chorus. “I was singing the verse, singing the verse, and I suddenly popped into ‘It’s gonna be a heartache tonight’ and sang the whole chorus.” 

Henley and Joe Walsh came down later that evening to flesh out the romping musicality and put on any other finishing touches. “Joe was playing bass. Henley jumped on the drums, and we kept polishing. That was it.”

Sometimes, hit songs don’t need much fuss. “Heartache Tonight” is evidence enough. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned the band a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

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