General consensus among rock historians is that the 1970’s was a direct reaction against the excess and liberalism of the previous decade, musically and otherwise. After the last of the 60’s San Francisco musicians either died or disbanded, singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Jackson Browne filled the void. Browne would write “Take It Easy,” the lead single for the debut album of the band that would come to embody the best and worst of the laid-back West Coast ’70’s sound, the Eagles.
After a string of singles with similarly benign outlooks on life like “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Tequila Sunrise” came 1975’s “Hotel California.” Not only was the song an embodiment of 1970’s hitchhiking culture, but it was the last gasp of Dylanesque lyrical pretense that began with 1965’s “Eve of Destruction” and saw its death rattle with “Hotel California.”
Written with deliberately heavy-handed lyrics, the song would soon become open to interpretation by critics and fans alike. The band itself would identify the song as its perspective on the excesses of living in Los Angeles. However, similar to the other troubadour classics of the decade like “American Pie” or “Stairway to Heaven,” the song would become marred and dated by its time period due to its infuriatingly oblique and pseudo-mystical lyrics.
The song tells the story of a drifter who enters the titular hotel and is entreated to all manner of bad vibes and freaky scenes akin to a ’70’s version of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. The singer comes across dancers, pink champagne on ice and an enigmatic character named “the Captain.”
On paper the lyrics of these events and encounters are inventive for the most part, if somewhat foggy. What drags the song down is the Eagles’ bizarre decision to employ a faux-reggae beat and vocal rhythm to the mix. Don Henley’s self-important singing style also erases any possibility of genuine mystery or intrigue in lines like “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.”
Similar to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” there is self-conscious aggrandizement of the lines designed to be the song’s punchlines. “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget” sounds flowing and poetic on paper but Henley’s dramatic reading ironically sucks the drama out of the proceedings, as is his singing of the lynch-pin of the entire song that closes it out, “You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave.”
And like any bloated 70’s rock song, it comes complete with an extended guitar solo, interplay provided by Don Felder and Joe Walsh. Foreshadowing the self-masturbatory solos of the 80’s by bands like ZZ Top or Dire Straits, it is in this way that the song is strangely innovative.
The song was a commercial hit for the Eagles, and it won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1978; it would become the band’s signature tune and grow in acclaim over the years including appearing in several lists by Boomer-approved magazine Rolling Stone. It would soon be destined to the same fate as Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” or Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” “Hotel California” is, like those, a song that encapsulates the best and worst of a generation: the Baby Boomer who embraced the freewheeling imagery of the singer’s hitchhiking exploits through Los Angeles in 1977 and is now sycophantic for purchasing $300 V.I.P. concert tickets to see the same band perform the song for the thousandth time.