“The Biggest Band in the World” is an impossible thing to actually quantify, but it’s not hard to see who it is when it happens. Nobody could beat The Beatles sales and cultural influence throughout the 1960s, but when it came to chart hits and popularity, The Rolling Stones and even The Monkees could occasionally make strong claims of their own. Groups like The Police and Kiss liked to use the line for dramatic effect, while The Clash purposefully subverted the idol worship that came with the tag by calling themselves “The Only Band That Matters”.
But for roughly a two year period, it was almost inarguable that the biggest band in the world was the Eagles. Formed in Los Angeles in 1971, the band were originally a country-focused rock band, having nabbed Bernie Leadon from the Flying Burrito Brothers and Randy Meisner from Poco to augment relative unknowns Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Largely thanks to the domination of Henley and Frey, the group began turning away from country after the release of 1973’s Desperado, bringing in guitarist Don Felder to add an extra edge to the band.
Leadon’s distaste for the direction of the group and discomfort with his place in the band led to his departure in 1975. In his place came Joe Walsh, the Detroit-born guitarist who brought an even more wild rock and roll slant to the band. Now almost completely ridding themselves of their country rock past, the Eagles set about creating a new record that balanced their desire for rock and roll power with their signature blend of harmonies, ballads, and commentary on the excesses of the California lifestyle in the ’70s.
But the band couldn’t quite get away from their softer past just yet. In early 1976, right before the band were set to enter to the studio, their record company released Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975. Mostly made up of the band’s biggest ballads, including ‘Best of My Love’ and ‘Take It To the Limit’, the greatest hits album became one of the biggest selling albums of all time. In the documentary History of the Eagles, Frey claims there was an 18 month period where the band sold a million records a month.
With all three of the singles from the band’s previous LP One of These Nights hitting the top five of the Billboard Hot 100, there was a strong sense of pressure, both internal and external, on the next release from the band. This meant that Frey and Henley clamped down on their control, insisting that the group had no room for filler and no patience for anything but the best. With Walsh as the new guy and Meisner being non-confrontational, this meant that the main source of discord would occur between Frey, Henley, and Felder.
Felder had landed his first lead vocal on an Eagles song with ‘Visions’ on One of These Nights. The guitarist made it clear that he wanted more say in the band’s music, and that he wanted to sing more. Frey countered that even as one of the band’s leader, he himself was purposefully singing less in order to give the more commercial voice of Henley the lead. Felder helped compose the song ‘Victim of Love’ and began attempting it frequently during recordings. Frey and Henley decided that it wasn’t up to the band’s standards, and so they planned a distraction: the band’s manager, Irving Azoff, would take Felder to dinner while Henley would record the lead vocal. Felder was told it was what was “best for the Eagles”, and the division in power left lasting scars that would crop up decades later.
But Felder also provided the impetus for the crux of the entire album: the title track ‘Hotel California’. Originally an instrumental written by Felder, Henley and Frey divided a story line involving Twilight Zone-like characters representing the wild turbulence of the Los Angeles rock and roll scene. Once the story ended, Felder once again took the reins with a guitar solo, only for Walsh to enter as well as they dueled it out back and forth. As the track reached its climax, the two devised triplet figures that sent the song into overdrive. The band’s record company wanted to cut the song’s instrumental end for a single, but the band refused. The nearly seven minute ‘Hotel California’ reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977.
From there, the basic framework of the album had been laid out. A guitar riff from Walsh and a high-speed ride with a drug dealer from Frey inspired ‘Life In the Fast Lane’, a commentary on excess that brought the band as close to hard rock as they had ever come. ‘Victim of Love’ was devised for raw efficiency and was the only song recorded live with all members playing on the backing track at once. ‘New Kid in Town’ found Frey ruminating on how quickly the pop star machine built artists up and took them down, while ‘Pretty Maids All In a Row’ finds Walsh ruminating on lost love and painful realities of a life that always kept you from any sense of normalcy.
‘Try and Love Again’, much like ‘Take It Too The Limit’, frames Meisner’s difficulties balancing his life as a rock star with his desires to keep his family life together. The album’s two sweeping ballads both act as the final chapters of their respective sides, with the former, ‘Wasted Time’, reckoning with the fall of a romantic love and the latter, ‘The Last Resort’, focusing on the destruction of nature, a personal crusade of Henley’s. All in all, Hotel California is an album filled with anxiety, nervousness, despair, excess, and burnout.
But it never feels like a slog. Instead, producer Bill Szymczyk makes every instrument sound absolutely gigantic. Even the one country-adjacent song on the record, ‘New Kid In Town’, has a kind of polish that the group had never produced before. Hotel California was the Eagles’ statement of rock and roll that let in facets of mainstream pop as well.
In the immediate aftermath of its release, the band began to falter under its own weight. The Eagles had never been bigger, and yet their success only amplified the problems that were already in place before the album’s recording. Meisner left after the supporting tour, replaced by another high-singing easy-going former Poco member, Timothy B. Schmit. Felder and Walsh began pushing back at the leadership of Frey and Henley, while the two main songwriters began having their own differences as well. The band’s next LP, The Long Run, was so laborious and cocaine fueled that it took over a year and a half to complete. By the time the band hit the road, tensions were so high that onstage arguments began breaking out.
Hotel California was an apex not just for the Eagles but for all of ’70s rock and roll. In its wake, punk and disco were positioned to completely counteract the bloated, occasionally pretentious, intricately refined rock that the Eagles were emblematic of. And yet, Hotel California still holds up because of that impeccable craftsmanship.
The Eagles were never in danger of being cool, and their major success ensured that they would inevitably hit a point where pop culture actively rooted against them (see The Big Lebowski for the best example). But in a time where music of all generations is homogenized on streaming services, Hotel California feels like the Eagles at their most timeless. The ballads might be saccharine and nobody needs to hear the song ‘Hotel California’ for the millionth time, but Hotel California remains one of the best examples of a band recognizing their peak and taking advantage of it.