Classic Albums: “Hotel California” by the Eagles

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The Eagles have gotten a bad rap over the years. After years of blowout tours and mega-popular albums, It’s fair to say it was probably their ubiquitous popularity that landed them on the critic list of most-hated bands. You could also blame The Big Lebowski for this a bit, which made Eagles-hating as cool as White Russians and wearing a bathrobe out of the house.

Any band that’s popular will have to endure its fair share of criticism, but the Eagles seem to have gotten more than their fair share. The hatred continues to this day, with posts like this one popping up in the New York Daily News just after Glenn Frey’s death in 2016. 

More time lends more perspective to a situation, though. Despite all the flak they’ve gotten over the years, The Eagles aren’t a bad band. In fact, they’re a fantastic band; the poster boys for the Laurel Canyon, California sound taken to its limit (sorry, I couldn’t resist). They took an aesthetic that was birthed in the late 60s and launched it into dizzying, stadium-level heights of emotional power by the late 70s. What had started with the quiet harmonies and understated guitar of acts such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young had morphed into a California mythology of heartbreak, excess, and desperation.

The Eagles also had a hand in pushing forward the quality and power of recordings. Back in the mid 70s, the “picture-perfect”, high definition sound that we take for granted today had yet to be perfected. You can thank The Eagles for making huge leaps in how we mic and record drums as well as harmonies. Their efforts in the studio were groundbreaking at the time, inspiring leagues of bands and producers for years to come.

Their recording prowess came to full steam on “Hotel California,” their 1976 hit album that has become their signature statement. Yet to fully understand that album, we have to go back a few years.

“Desperado,” the Eagles second album, hit stores in 1973 on Asylum Records. Strangely enough, it’s iconic title track wasn’t one of its singles. The two singles from the album, “Tequila Sunrise” and “Outlaw Man,” barely made a ripple, landing somewhere around the middle of the Billboard chart. The same would go for the album, which only reached number 41.

Even with weak sales and a lukewarm reception, “Desperado” would prove to be a highly influential album. For many, it defined the country rock sound of the era, delicately balancing out a western cowboy ascetic with pop-ready harmonies. Still, something was lacking for the band. 

Two years later, The Eagles would finally have a smash hit album with “One Of These Nights,” which catapulted to number one on the charts and produced three top 10 singles. Shortly after, they would follow it up with their magnum opus “Hotel California,” cementing their reputation as a band with arena rock heft and power.

The sonic power of The Eagles truly came to fruition on “Hotel California. Its 9 songs brought us an Eagles that moved faster, rocked harder, and had more to say than in years past. They had officially graduated into being one of the biggest bands on the planet, and had matured their sound to meet that title. From the first few lines of the album, with Don Henley uttering “On a dark desert highway,” people were hooked, and the Eagles had become more than a band, they had become legends.

Even though it might be one of the most overplayed songs of all time, “Hotel California” is still a thrilling tour-de-force of a track. Ignore the fact that you’ve heard it a million times, and you might find yourself taken by its tight Spanish rhythm and mysterious, foreboding lyrics. The song is also bonafide proof that guitarist Joe Walsh made The Eagles a better band. His sizzling guitar solo lifts the song a couple degrees in power, cracking like heat lightning across the dark desert scene that Don Henley’s lyrics describe:

“Last thing I remember, I was

Running for the door

I had to find the passage back to the place I was before

‘Relax’ said the night man,

‘We are programmed to receive.

You can check out any time you like,

But you can never leave!’”

“Wasted Time” is Don Henley’s balladry at its best. The lyrics come right out of that confessional, singer-songwriter scene that the 70s brought to life: “I could have done so many things baby / If I could only stop my mind / From wonderin’ what I left behind / And from worrying ’bout this wasted time”. As a soft bed of strings soars underneath, Henley’s aching voice never sounded better as the song transitions into its thrilling coda. The song is as spacious as it is open-hearted, highlighting the Eagles’ harmonic power.

The Eagles are still soft and easy across most of “Hotel California,” like on the smooth “New Kid In Town” that depicts the way that social circles can pull us in and spit us out. The difference on this album is that when The Eagles decide to let loose, they actually rock out. “Life In The Fast Lane” is a full throttle depiction of all the excitement, thrills, and vapidity of Los Angeles, a lifestyle that seems miles away from the homegrown sounds of Laurel Canyon. It’s a reminder that as soon as you emerge out of that canyon road, you’re in the world capital of lies, deceit, and slander.

“Try and Love Again” is the only really lackluster track on the whole track, mostly because it sounds like a generic Eagles song. It rolls along on a blanket of warm harmonies without saying anything interesting, sort of like it was thrown in last minute to fill out the album. It’s pleasant enough to not detract from the rest of the tracks.

“The Last Resort” concludes Henley’s California epic. Here he narrates the dream that brought so many people to California, “where the pretty people play for power to light their neon way.” Its attitude towards people is weary as it spits in the face of the sort of manifest destiny that brought people to America in the first place. The last lines of the song “You call some place paradise / kiss it goodbye” illustrate how people search for then destroy the places they love, changing them irrevocably.

Earlier, Henley bemoans how humans have spread across the world, destroying the last wild places, leaving us with no where else to go:

“Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?

‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here

We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds

In the name of destiny and in the name of God”

Give “Hotel California” another listen and I promise you won’t regret it. You might hate the Eagles, but then again, you might be able to appreciate the reasons you hate them: They represent all the overblown aesthetics and soft-rock tomfoolery that California has come to represent. Henley, for one, seemed self-aware of that, even as he and the Eagles ascended into the dizzying heights of fame and rock ‘n’ roll immortality.

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