Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:19 February 2021 


The prosperous US state of California looms large in popular culture, especially in rock and roll. Way back in 1965, the Beach Boys wanted girls from all over the USA to migrate there. Joni Mitchell pined for “California” in the early seventies while English world conquerors Led Zeppelin were “Going To California” on their magnificent fourth album (also released in 1971, same year as Joni’s “Blue”). From “Ain’t no California” in the fifties to “California Zephyr” in the twenty-first Century, you can work through the entire alphabet finding inspirations mined from the Golden State on America’s West Coast. But until the Eagles recorded “Hotel California”, no-one told you where to stay when you visited.


Released late in 1976 after their first “Greatest Hits” volume topped the charts and sold truck-loads, “Hotel California” propelled the country rockers turned FM radio darlings into the stratosphere in terms of fame and record sales. It is estimated that over thirty-two million copies of “Hotel California” have sold, worldwide. That’s a lot of hotel bookings.


What is it that makes the Eagles fifth studio album a Classic Rock heavyweight? Perhaps the first clue is the important personnel change that occurred after “One Of These Nights”, the previous studio LP.  Bernie Leadon, one of the band’s founders and its strongest country influence, departed. His replacement was Joe Walsh, an all-together rockier presence whose high-energy guitar toughened up the Eagles sound immediately. Sure, the layered harmonies and carefully crafted melodies are still there, but listen to “Life in the fast lane” and you’ll hear more grit; more desperation and less Desperado. That’s Walsh: more Cleveland than California.


There is also a full banquet of Eagles song-styles on offer. Beginning with the dream-like story of the title track (more on that soon), we then get a wistful loss-of-innocence tale, “New Kid In Town”, followed by the V8 charge of “Life In The Fast Lane”. Hungry for country rock? “Wasted Time” is a classic slice. If side two of “Hotel California” isn’t quite as arresting as the first, that’s only because side one is gold. Yet flip the platter and you get a lot of fine music. “Victim of Love”—equal parts accusation and compassion—is strong, as is Randy Meisner’s ballad “Try and Love Again”. Particularly notable is the epic story-song closing of the album, “The Last Resort”.


The two long tracks opening and closing “Hotel California” are the key to understanding the album. Both are epics, twice the length of singles; both deal (in different ways) with American culture, loss of innocence, and the gap between the dream and reality.


Many have offered interpretations of the title song, whose dream-like imagery weaves a spell as mesmerising as the experience of the traveller who tells the tale. Despite numerous utterances from one or other of the co-writers (Felder, Henley, Frey), it is impossible not to see drugs and decadence as the central theme. Loss of direction, a loss of innocence, a desperate desire for escape; these are all on the menu and available via room service.


At the other end of the album, a different escape route beckons… the promise of redemption with “the Jesus people” on their plantation of “ugly boxes”. Joni Mitchell, in her 1972 song “Banquet” wrote of seekers, “Some turn to Jesus / some turn to heroin”. The Eagles seem to be having a bet each way.


Yet this is by no means a downbeat record. Part observation, part critique, part celebration of all that makes California (and by default, the US) the multi-faceted beast it is, “Hotel California” manages to be both picturesque and gritty. Both melodious and malodorous. After your visit you might find yourself thinking, Hotel California is a great place to stay but would I want to live there?


© Bruce Jenkins 2021

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