CSFTD #23: The Eagles – Hotel California

The very first Classic Song for the Day was a tribute to Chris Squire of Yes and we return to the same theme in respect of The Eagles’ singer, songwriter, guitarist, keyboardist and founder member Glenn Frey, who recently left us.

The Eagles formed in Los Angeles in 1971 and were one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, winning six Grammys, gaining the same number of #1 albums, five #1 singles and numerous other awards. Hotel California the album is ranked at #37 in Rolling Stones’ ‘500 Greatest Hits of All Time.’ They’ve sold 150 million records and over 30 million of those were Hotel California. They remain the band with the greatest amount of total sales in US music history.

As with many other soloists and bands in this section of TMB things could have been different. The group’s self titled debut album sold well enough, and spawned three hit singles including Take It Easy, which remains their most listened-to track. The follow up, Desperado, was less successful though, only creeping to #41 on the charts. It was saved by the subsequent success of the title track and of Tequila Sunrise as singles. 1974’s On the Border carried on in much the same vein and 1975’s Take it to the Limit sold better still but it was in 1976 that the band hit their peak with Hotel California, which had two #1 singles, the other being New Kid in Town.


Hotel California was released as a single in February 1977 and was written by Don Felder (lead guitarist from 1974-2001 and musical writer), Don Henley (lead vocalist) and Glenn Frey, who was the main lyricist. The guitar interplay at the end is between Felder and Joe Walsh, who joined The Eagles in 1975 as the group’s keyboardist and guitarist following the departure of founding member Bernie Leadon and took three days to get right. Hotel California was Walsh’s first album. That guitar coda has several times been voted the best solo of all time. The song won the Grammy Award of Record of the Year in 1978.

Classic songs are often steeped in mystery; the previous one, American Pie, being a case in point (and Tom Petty’s American Girl, come to think of it). At various times the band has described Hotel California as “our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles  …and its dark underbelly of excess” (the first recording was at Malibu Beach – where else?), and “a journey from innocence to experience…and that’s all.”

Perhaps a little more can be gleaned from an interview with Felder in which he said “Henley and Frey wrote most of the words. All of us kind of drove into Los Angles at night. Nobody was from California, and if you drive into LA at night… you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights, and the images that start running through your head of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have, and so it was kind of about that… what we started writing the song about.”

In another interview Frey said that he and Henley “wanted to write a song that was sort of like an episode of the Twilight Zone. We decided to create something strange, just to see if we could do it.” There are many other stories about its creation; too many to mention here.

It took three attempts, in Malibu and Miami, to get the song right, with several problems cropping up along the way such as the key being too high for Henley’s voice and then it being played too quickly. Surprisingly the end result was actually a splicing of various different takes.

Many have queried the lyrics and their interpretation. The ‘spirit’ that Henley refers to (“we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”) apparently refers to Henley and Frey’s dislike of 1970s disco music and how pop music had changed from the spirit of social activism of the 1960s, which pretty much came to an end at Woodstock in 1969 (another parallel with Don McLean’s American Pie). In 2009 Henley shot down in flames a critic who dared to suggest it has something to do with the distillation of spirits and the fermentation of wine, informing him that he (Henley) had “consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made.”

Other interpretations include heroin addiction, marijuana use (“the warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air”, which can also be interpreted as sexual slang), that it is about a mental hospital, a San Francisco Hotel that was converted into a Church of Satan, and even cannibalism.  

The lyrics have become absorbed into wider culture around the world, and have been used by various writers and commentators to reflect on issues ranging from politics to social media, even as an example of a complex economic theory concerning the difficulty foreign investors have in getting their money out of China (“We are programmed to receive / You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave!”). Actually that prompts me to wonder if it they were the inspiration behind the 1990s BBC radio and TV comedy programme The League of Gentlemen. If I recall, Royston Vasey was a place you could ‘never leave’ as the sign on the village boundary informed you.

The chord progression of the song is known as a Spanish Progression, used in flamenco music and interspersed with consecutive fifths. It is not a commonly used once and it prompted Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson to query the similarity with his song We Used to Know. Tull supported The Eagles live at about the time the song was being written and suggested they would have heard Tull plying it live but Henley protested he joined the band years after that tour, had never heard We Used to Know and that all he knew about Tull was the front man played a flute.

The Eagles recorded another album, The Long Run, in 1979, then disbanded in 1980 but reunited in 1994 for the album Hell Freezes Over; partly live recordings mixed with new studio tracks. They’ve been through the traditional suing and counter-suing routine, mainly involving Don Felder’s firing from the band in 2001, which resulted in an out of court settlement in 2007.

They continued to tour and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 (playing guess what at the ceremony)? In 2007, The Eagles released Long Road out of Eden, their first full studio album in 28 years and their sixth number one album. Their last tour was the extended History of The Eagles tour in 2013, which was in conjunction a documentary film, History of the Eagles.

Throughout 2015 the band was in a protracted holding situation owing to Glenn Frey’s poor health. It now remains to be seen if they will attempt to carry on without him or call it a day.

Since Frey’s death a handful of pseudo intellectual revisionists have crawled out of the woodwork to label The Eagles ‘purveyors of pop pap,’ ‘horrific,’ ‘generically soul-less’ and ‘the worst rock and roll band.’ One describes Hotel California as “offering little for anyone but a small group of nerds trying to decode it,” adding “it’s the Eagles’ version of ‘American Pie,’ a solid song, but ultimately a novelty one.”

The main complaint seems to be that they epitomised ‘suburban conformity,’ being the sort of band your mum and dad would let you play on the living room hi-fi, but you’d have to go upstairs after dinner if you wanted to listen to The Clash. Oh, how droll.

One writer extends his portentous theory by comparing their output to that of Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols – all operating or forming during their era – and even with David Bowie.

TMB is a broad church, hence these comments are repeated. But for my money six number one albums over a period of 35 years alone tells its own story. And I’ll bet that if Frey and Bowie by chance bump into each other in that celestial Green Room there will be a lot of mutual love and respect flowing along with the tequilas.

©D J Bentley 2016