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The Story Behind The Song: The Eagles lament the changing America with 'Hotel California'

There are few songs as divisive as The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’. You might 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 for sure; they made an impression as early on as their first album, colouring portraits of a wild America, cut from the centre of grey Britain. 

The solos were taut, the harmonies were tight, and the lyrics were soaked in frisson, as every note is sung felt like an object that could be touched. Deeply cinematic, the band threw themselves into the perimeters of rock, coming out of the chasm to produce a series of blinding licks that washed over the listeners like a collection of crisp, kaleidoscopic cuts. 

Their first album was strong, their second album was better, but their output dipped for much of the rest of the early 1970s. And then the band re-emerged with the startling Hotel California, brandishing a work that hailed and slammed the American mythos for all its glory. 

It came hot on the heels of The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola‘s tremendous history of America, which began with the prospect of new land and territory, and ended with the sight of a first-generation Sicilian, lost in his thoughts with no one to share them with. America had gone under re-haul, as it distanced itself from the jauntiness of its recent history, to drown in cynicism and funereal quality that only grew stronger the more they distanced themselves from the glories of the Second World War. 

One American president was shot, and another resigned in disgrace. Rock was becoming more embittered to reflect the changing tides. Don McLean wrote the staggering ‘American Pie’ to reflect the mosaic that was crumbling across the great nation, cautioning listeners to the changing tide that lay ahead of them. 

Cinema was using greater amounts of rock tunes, and rock stars were beginning to write tunes like the moving pictures they were determined to emulate. This wasn’t exclusive to America alone, as Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison started appearing in features, while the art-pop band 10cc harboured not one but two burgeoning filmmakers: Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. 

The Eagles managed to encapsulate the wilder properties of cinema on ‘Hotel California’, a liturgy of discontentment and despair that recalled the fall of the American civilisation. Guitarist Don Felder came up with the opening riff, leaving bandmates Glenn Frey and Don Henley to fill in the blank spaces. The tune suited Henley’s voice, and the drummer recorded a deeply chilling vocal that distanced the band from the changes that were going on in their personal life and focused on the changes that they were unfortunate enough to experience. 

“So we started kicking around ideas for it,” Felder recalled. “Glenn came up with the original concept of Hotel California, and then Henley sat down and wrote those fantastic lyrics. His lyrics are like little photographs, which, much like reading a book rather than watching a movie, allows you to draw pictures in your mind. ‘On a dark desert highway’, that’s five words, but it already puts a picture in your head: ‘Cold wind in my hair’, you can feel it, you can see it.”

The song is incredibly visceral, harbouring an ominous tone that feels like it was cut directly from a horror movie. And no matter the cars, the drinks or the personnel that padded out the existence of the central character, the tune feels fragmented, giving a sense of condemnation that only grows stronger with every passing lick. 

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What the tune offers is a portrait of a country divided by changing moods and politics. Still, the reason it has lived so long is that it closes with a shimmering guitar arpeggio that is regarded by many, including this writer, to be one of the most haunting in rock. 

Joe Walsh wrote the lick but curiously remains uncredited on the final part, despite curating a guitar solo that makes up for much of the song. He may have missed the money, but the arpeggio is rich in emotion, texture and timbre, a guitar riff that only sounded more rounded onstage than it did in the studio. 

He was joined by Felder, creating one of the first “guitar duels” in rock. This style of dual soloing was crafted for pop and soft rock, but it was accepted more freely into the world of heavy metal by the turn of the decade. Metal bands Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden utilised two disparate guitarists chiming into one central whole, curating an emotion that was very different to the one The Eagles intended. 

As it happens, the tune became something of an albatross for the band, especially considering that ‘Hotel California’ wasn’t even the most powerful ballad on the album. ‘The Last Resort’ embodied the innate sense of grief and plague of 1970s America much better than ‘Hotel California’ did, but it was destined to remain unheard outside of the hardcore fanbase. 

Of course, even with this explanation, there’s a very good chance that this song makes your skin crawl. But for every Dude, there is a true lover of ‘Hotel California’ operating as the balancing weight. In truth, it is these polarising perspectives that the song was aiming to capture in the first place.