Whether it was done intentionally or not, Hotel California came pretty close to being a true concept album by The Eagles. The songs each loosely share the themes of paradise lost or squandered and the album is bookmarked by geographical locations of such. As the band’s fifth album, it was transitional in several ways including music and personnel wise. Guitarist Bernie Leadon, a strong influence on the band’s country sound of the early years was replaced by funk-rock guitarist Joe Walsh, who had previously fronted the groups James Gang and Barnstorm. As a result, the band’s sound got a bit heavier while never abandoning its mainstream pop sensibilities.
The album was produced by Bill Szymczyk, who had produced the Eagles previous two albums as well as several albums by Joe Walsh and the James Gang. Szymczyk was noted for laboriously experimenting until he found the right “sound” in each artist, as the producer possessed no musical talent or training, just extraordinary listening skills. The band took 18 months between releases of their previous album One of These Night and Hotel California, with eight of those months in the studio recording.
Thematically, members of the Eagles have described the album as a metaphor for the perceived decline of America. The band’s lead singer, songwriter, and drummer Don Henley said that because it was the bicentennial year and the “Eagle” is the symbol of our country, they felt obliged to make some kind of artistic statement. He explained how they used California as a microcosm of the whole United States, with comments on the nature of success and the attraction of excess, and an extremely pessimistic history of America.
Hotel California by The Eagles
|Released: December 8, 1976 (Asylum)
Produced by: Bill Szymczyk
Recorded: Criteria Studios, Miami & Record Plant, L.A., March-October 1976
New Kid In Town
Life In the Fast Lane
|Wasted Time (Reprise)
Victim of Love
Pretty Maids All In the Row
Try and Love Again
The Last Resort
|Glenn Frey – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Joe Walsh – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Don Felder – Guitars, Vocals
Randy Meisner – Bass, Guitarron, Vocals
Don Henley – Drums, Vocals
While the lyrical content of the album is up for debate, the true beauty of Hotel California is the sound, much of which was unlike anything the Eagles had done before. The opening theme song starts with long acoustic/electric intro, which was originally introduced to the band by lead guitarist Don Felder as an instrumental piece. This acts as a dramatic overture before the song kicks in with a quasi-Caribbean rhythm and beat with the first verse and the cryptic, yet intriguing, storytelling lyrics. However, the real treat that makes this song a bonafide classic are the dual electric guitars by Walsh and Felder, which float above the lyric stinging electric melodies throughout the verse and chorus, and take center stage with the long, dual guitar lead to close the song.
To this day, many of the unique terms and phases used in the song’s lyric are debated as to their exact meaning or intent. These include “colitas”, “this could be Heaven or this could be Hell”, “wine” referred to as a “spirit” (which it is not), “steely knives”, and the key phase of the song – “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.
After this unique artistic masterpiece, the band serves up a couple of songs which both went on to be big hits, one in the country-rock style of the past, and one in the heavier rock style of the future. “New Kid In Town” is probably the greatest country rock song ever (if there ever really was such a genre) It has some great chord structure, a beautiful mix of instrumentation, and more great guitar by Don Felder, although much less subtle than on the title song. Co-written by J.D. Souther and sung by Glenn Frey, the song ascends keys in the third verse and then finds a smooth passage back before the outtro, in a piece of musical mastery. “Life In the Fast Lane” features a heavy guitar riff and lead by Joe Walsh, with lyrics that are a bit edgy. It uses the driving analogy for a drug and danger fueled lifestyle and contains a great hook with an almost-disco beat. The nice flanged section after last chorus gives the song an edgy, new-wave feel that makes the sound quite advanced for 1976.
The first side ends with “Wasted Time”, a song that may be the perfect barroom ballad speaking of broken relationships. The song is very slow and measured, with great vocals by Henley. However, the orchestral reprise of the song which opens up the second side of the album is, in fact, “wasted time” as it adds absolutely nothing to the album. This short foray is mercifully disrupted by the hard rocker “Victim of Love”, a song which proves that the Eagles can do more with two chords than any other band ever. This song was recorded live in the studio and contains a great descend into a slide solo by Joe Walsh.
Walsh’s only songwriting and lead vocal effort is “Pretty Maids All In a Row”, which is not a very strong representation of his talents. It is a piano ballad, surprising by Walsh with Felder playing the lead guitar role. “Try and Love Again” was written and sung by bassist Randy Meisner, who has that strange kind of voice which gives songs a cool edge, such on his “Take It To the Limit” on the previous album. Hotel California would be Meisner’s last album with the band, as he decided to return to his native Nebraska in order to be with his family.
The album concludes with Henley’s “The Last Resort”, which bookends the “Hotel California” theme nicely on one hand, but is kind of the anti-Hotel California on another hand. Where that classic song is poetic and leaves much room for interpretation, this one is preachy with lyrics that are a bit bigoted, racist, elitist, and yet self-loathing, taking away from the otherwise beautiful melody and score. All that being said, the song does include some profound lyrics;
“There is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
You call something paradise, kiss it goodbye…”
Hotel California would be the absolute pinnacle of the The Eagles’ career, selling more than any other of their multiple successes and being considered high up on several “all time” lists. The band went on to record one more studio album, The Long Run, which took even longer to create. Although that album was also a smash hit, it contributed greatly to the tensions that ultimately broke up the band in 1980.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.