The story behind the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”
There are few songs as controversial as the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” You could be like Gipsy Kings and love the vastness of this track, or you could feel like “The Dude” Lebowski and say you hate “The Eagles”. But one thing is certain; they marked from their first album, coloring portraits of a wild America, carved in the center of gray Brittany.
The solos were tense, the harmonies tight and the lyrics drenched in thrill, as each note sung is felt like an object you can touch. Deeply cinematic, the band threw themselves into the perimeters of rock, rising from the chasm to produce a series of blinding licks that washed over listeners like a collection of clean, kaleidoscopic cuts.
Their first album was strong, their second album was better, but their output plummeted for much of the rest of the early 1970s. And then the band reemerged with the surprising Hotel Californiabrandishing a body of work that hailed and critiqued the American mythos in all its glory.
He came hot on the heels of The Godfather Part II, the formidable story of America by Francis Ford Coppola, which began with the prospect of a new land and a new territory, and ended with the sight of a first-generation Sicilian, lost in his thoughts with no one to share them with. America had undergone a reshuffle, as it moved away from the flippancy of its recent history, to drown in a cynicism and a funereal quality that only grew stronger as it moved away from the glories of the Second World War.
A US president was shot and another resigned in disgrace. Rock was becoming sourer to reflect the changing tides. Don McLean wrote the jaw-dropping “American Pie” to reflect the mosaic crashing across the great nation, warning listeners of the changing tide that awaited them.
Movies increasingly used rock tunes, and rock stars began to write tunes like the moving pictures they were determined to imitate. It wasn’t exclusive to America alone, as Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison began appearing in feature films, while art-pop group 10cc was home to not one but two rising filmmakers: Kevin Godley. and Lol Cream.
The Eagles managed to encapsulate cinema’s wildest properties in “Hotel California,” a liturgy of discontent and despair that recalled the fall of American civilization. Guitarist Don Felder came up with the opening riff, leaving bandmates Glenn Frey and Don Henley to fill in the blanks. The tune suited Henley’s vocals and the drummer recorded a deeply chilling vocal that took the band away from the changes that were happening in their personal lives and focused on the changes they were unlucky enough to experience.
“So we started throwing around ideas for that,” Felder recalls. “Glenn came up with the original concept of Hotel California, then Henley sat down and wrote these fantastic lyrics. His lyrics are like little photographs that, much like reading a book rather than watching a movie, allow you to draw pictures in your mind. “We have a dark desert highway”, that’s five words, but it already puts an image in your head: “Cold wind in my hair”, you can feel it, you can see it.”
The song is incredibly visceral, harboring an ominous tone that feels like it was cut straight from a horror movie. And no matter the cars, drinks, or staff that completed the central character’s existence, the melody seems fragmented, giving a sense of condemnation that only grows stronger with every lick.
What the tune offers is a portrait of a country divided by changing moods and politics. Yet the reason it lived on so long is that it ends with a shimmering guitar arpeggio that is considered by many, including this writer, to be one of rock’s most haunting.
Joe Walsh wrote the lick but oddly remains uncredited on the final part, despite retaining a guitar solo that makes up much of the song. It may have missed the money, but the arpeggio is rich in emotion, texture and timbre, a guitar riff that only sounded rounder on stage than in the studio.
He was joined by Felder, creating one of the first “guitar duels” in rock. This style of double soloing was designed for pop and soft rock, but was more freely accepted in the heavy metal world around the turn of the decade. Metal bands Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden used two disparate sounding guitarists in a central ensemble, creating a very different emotion than the Eagles were aiming for.
The melody happened to become something of an albatross for the band, especially since “Hotel California” wasn’t even the most powerful ballad on the album. “The Last Resort” embodied 1970s America’s innate sense of grief and plague far better than “Hotel California,” but it was destined to remain unknown outside of the hardcore fan base.
Of course, even with that explanation, there’s a good chance that this song will give you goosebumps. But for every guy, there’s a true “Hotel California” lover who acts as a balancing weight. In truth, it was these polarizing perspectives that the song aimed to capture in the first place.
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