This song tells the story of a drug deal gone bad, not uncommon in the smuggling trade. Frey wasn't a drug-runner, but he was closer to the action than most.
"You don't spend 15 years in rock and roll without coming in contact with entrepreneurs," he said in Behind The Hits. "I've wanted to write a song about drug smuggling for a long time, but I'm glad I waited for this one. It says everything I wanted to say on the subject. I'm proud of the lyrics - it's good journalism."
With Ronald Reagan in office and the drug trade a big political issue, America was fascinated with the dynamics of the industry. This song played to that fascination with lyrics peppered with guns, agents, and of course, drugs. The "War On Drugs" drummed up a lot of interest in the topic, which was exploited in movies and TV shows, but until "Smuggler's Blues," there was no hit song that took it on in such dramatic fashion.
When this song was released on Frey's second solo in 1984, it got the attention of Michael Mann, who was working on a TV series called Miami Vice about two undercover cops policing the drug trade in Miami. Mann had the writer Miguel Piñero adapt the song into an episode, then he asked Frey to guest star on the episode and use his song.
The episode, which first aired February 1, 1985 on the first season, was titled "Smuggler's Blues" and featured Frey as a drug-addled pilot who lived with his plane (Frey described him as "This pilot who was a wacko and loved hard rock"). The main characters, Crockett and Tubbs (Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas) go undercover as drug smugglers and hire him to fly the plane.
The song was used at various points in the episode, with some of the lyrics peppered into the dialogue. It was good timing for Frey, who wrote a song about drug smuggling at a time when Miami Vice was looking for ideas. The series ended up being a huge hit and gave Frey a nice career boost as both a musician and actor. In 1989, he appeared in seven episodes of the TV series Wiseguy. He got his own show, South of Sunset, in 1993, but it was quickly canceled.
This was one of several solo hits for Frey during the Eagles hiatus (1981-1993). Explaining the group's breakup, he said, "I started the band, I got tired of it, and I quit."
Frey's '80s output isn't as durable as that of his Eagles co-founder Don Henley, but he found a contemporary sound that served him well on tracks like this one.
This song got an additional boost when it was included on the Miami Vice soundtrack, released in October 1985. The album spent 11 weeks at #1 in the US and sold over 4 million copies.