The album Hotel California was released by The Eagles in 1976; it’s pure magic. Don Henley, leader of the band, once said about the work:
“This is a concept album, there’s no way to hide it, but [unlike the Eagles’ earlier concept album, Desperado] it’s not set in the old West, the cowboy thing, you know. It’s more urban this time … It’s our bicentennial year, you know, the country is two hundred years old, so we figured since we are the Eagles and the Eagle is our national symbol, that we were obliged to make some kind of a little bicentennial statement using California as a microcosm of the whole United States, or the whole world, if you will, and to try to wake people up and say “We’ve been okay so far, for two hundred years, but we’re gonna have to change if we’re gonna continue to be around.”
So, in short, this album—being released in America’s two hundredth year—was supposed to represent California, in turn representing the United States.
Hotel California was preceded by Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), which is interestingly part of a small group of albums that sold more than 40 million copies. This compilation record, which was the Eagles’ best-selling, represented an era of acoustically-driven, folk music. It featured soft ballads like “Take it Easy,” “Desperado,” and “Tequila Sunrise:” some of their most well-known songs. The addition of electric guitarist Joe Walsh to the band combined with the Eagles’ desire to get louder led to the end of that era and the beginning of grittier music. The Long Run (1979), the last album of the Eagles’ golden age, exemplified the departure from the classic Eagles ballad. In between Their Greatest Hits and The Long Run, the epic called Hotel California stands confidently, with a balance of acoustic and electric, silk and gravel, yin and yang.
Track 1: “Hotel California”
What is there to say? This is a song that everyone can recognize right from the first strum. Its guitar duel between the technically deft Don Felder and the spontaneously emotive Joe Walsh is legendary, and this battle is epitomized in a live version from 1977. (Go to 4:26 if you’re lazy; Felder has the beautiful hair, Walsh has the red bandana.) The majesty of the duo is concluded as soon as the two guitarists, initially duelling, begin to play together in harmony: a marriage of Felder’s scientific musical skill and Walsh’s raw improvisational innateness.
The lyrics follow a man driving across the desert who encounters a mysteriously glowing hotel. Metaphorically, the song is about the “dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something [the Eagles] knew a lot about,” according to Don Henley. In the Eagles recent Netflix documentary, Henley also said it’s a song about travelling from “innocence to experience.” The story of the song itself was inspired by trips Don Henley and Glenn Frey (founding Eagles) used to take across the desert and into the mountains around Los Angeles, packing only sleeping bags, to view the vapid vista of Los Angeles.
O, Hotel California, how I long to wander through your magical corridors and hear the music of love and ecstasy!
Track 2: “New Kid In Town”
“You may be hot now, but someone is always there to replace you,” an Eagle said of the piece. This is soft song with tough lyrics about “the fleeting nature of fame, especially in the music business.” Listen for subtle key changes and a nice tandem between electric piano and acoustic guitar.
Track 3: “Life In the Fast Lane”
One of the two hard-rock, riff-driven songs on this album. The lyrics follow a guy and a girl, two cold souls with fiery temperaments who are never satisfied. The tone of the guitar is fitting; it’s gritty as gravel.
The song’s name comes from a moment in an open car, burning down the highway. The driver, a drug dealer the Eagles called “The Count” (because he couldn’t count very well …) moved over to the left lane and started driving eighty miles an hour. When Eagle Glenn Frey said, “Hey, man, slow down,” the Count said, “Hey, man, it’s life in the fast lane.”
Track 4: “Wasted Time”
“Wasted Time” is a tender ballad that is musically opposite but lyrically similar to “Life in the Fast Lane.” I suppose one realizes he or she has wasted time after driving through life in the fast lane for so long.
Track 5: “Wasted Time” (Reprise)
You wouldn’t think this is an Eagles song, due to its orchestral magnificence. A few of the musical themes heard in the song before are repeated with different instruments. It’s quite special, and it caps off a three song story subtly placed in the album.
Track 6: “Victim of Love”
“Victim of Love” pulls you from orchestral paradise and throws you back into hard rock. The tune was recorded live without overdubs.
The description of this song is incomplete without the story of its recording. It was Don Felder’s baby: he wrote the song and wanted to be its lead vocalist. Unfortunately, all the Eagles weren’t believers in Felder’s vocal capabilities. One day, they were recording and the band decided to “break for lunch.” As Felder was eating, the band recorded the take of the song that one hears on the album, with Henley singing. As humorous as that occurrence is, it was a harbinger of the energy that tore the band apart: animosity between Frey and Felder.
Track 7: “Pretty Maids All In a Row”
Now that the Eagles have finished with the head-bangers, they lead us into a concluding trinity of pretty, floating songs. “Pretty Maids All In a Row” is about the one that got away and the inevitable loss of innocence. Discover its beautiful vocal harmonies.
Track 8: “Try and Love Again”
This one opens up with some harmony: an enchanting two-guitar Allman Brothers-like riff. An emotive and incredibly overlooked guitar solo at two minutes sixteen boasts a stunning tone.
Track 9: “The Last Resort”
This epic is the longest song on the album. As beautiful as it is, its potential was never achieved. I agree with Don Henley when he says this song was never fully realized. Its lyrics are hard to grasp and can be interpreted in a couple of ways, so you’ll just have to listen to it yourself. The song will take you away, and the final coda evokes a sailboat surging forth into the sunset.
There are trios on this record. Tracks three, four, and five follow a story about love, and the final three tracks all have an airy quality.
All in all, this album is something you can sit down and listen to. The splendid ballads and the edgy, riff-driven rock songs create a holistic piece of art that will stand the test of time. It represents Los Angeles, California in the ’70s, but also symbolizes the incredible beauty and unavoidable ugliness of America. I feel this when I go there: the raw, untamed energy as drive through its rural splendor, the reminder of heroic patriots from centuries ago fighting for liberty and happiness in my head. In a million years, people will listen to this album, and will know what the new “old” America was like. It’s historical and cultural gemstone.
For further reading, these liner notes are incredibly interesting, and where I got most of the quotes for this article. I would also suggest the movie History of the Eagles. It’s on Netflix
Ahh, isn’t it lovely?