The Eagles were considered one of the top country-rock bands practically from the day the group came together. Certainly the consecutive No. 1 singles "Best of My Love" and "One of These Nights" and No. 2 "Lyin' Eyes" in 1974-75 made them mainstream rock fans' favorite country rockers by a wide margin. Extensive touring ensued, in the midst of which founding member Bernie Leadon (previously in the Flying Burrito Brothers) quit and the more rock-oriented Joe Walsh (ex-James Gang, and already with a moderately successful solo career) took his place after having opened for the Eagles on tour in 1974 thanks to sharing the same manager, the ruthless Irving Azoff.
The reconstituted quintet took its time recording its fifth album. Their eponymous debut had been laid down in two weeks; Hotel California took eight months. Asylum filled in the gap with the best-selling collection Greatest Hits 1971-1975., which, like One of These Nights, topped the album chart.
Released at the peak of the 1976 Christmas shopping season, Hotel California went platinum in one week. Its first single, "New Kid in Town," hit No. 1, as did the album on the chart of January 15. So did the title track, a now-iconic examination of L.A.'s dark side with a smart-ass conclusion, "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." Musically it was completely atypical, built on a faux-reggae riff of guitarist Don Felder's invention.
The group's newer, more rocking direction was shown on the next single, "Life in the Fast Lane," another ode to the cost of fame. It was sparked by a dirty riff and short alternating solos by Walsh and Felder. They similarly counterpoint blistering leads on the title track and "Victim of Love." Were they even country-rock anymore? Only bassist Randy Meisner's showcase, "Try and Love Again," recalls the band's old style, and that doesn't show up until the next-to-last track; there's also some juicy pedal steel by Felder on the closer, "The Last Resort." On many tracks, only the group's pretty harmony vocals look back to some aspect of its old sound.
One could say that an awful lot of the album is snarky whining from co-leaders Don Henley and Glenn Frey, two guys who didn't really seem like they had that much they could legitimately complain about. But the main blame for the most selfishly grouchy song, "New Kid in Town," lies with the band's friend John David Souther (former bandmate of Frey in Longbranch Pennywhistle), who wrote most of this bitchy lament on the fickleness of critics -- according to Barney Hoskins (who titled his book about the L.A. scene Hotel California), it was a jealous reaction to the accolades showered on Bruce Springsteen after he dazzled at the Roxy in October 1975.
The band's ballads, at least, showed a little emotional depth and maturity absent from earlier efforts, but only one of those was by Henley: the haunting "Wasted Time" (perhaps about his fling with Stevie Nicks?). The other two are highlights, though: the aforementioned Meisner track and Walsh's lovely "Pretty Maids All in a Row." (In 1978, Walsh, seriously underrated as a songwriter, would write a genuinely funny piss-take on rock star excess, "Life's Been Good," that would doom him forever after to be considered a sort of musical clown -- yet it's a more accurate and less bitter take on the same topic as "Life in the Fast Lane.")
The album's final track, "The Last Resort," again finds Henley critiquing the American Dream California-style, but in a somewhat more pensive and thoughtful way. Rather than lamenting his personal lack of satisfaction, he takes on the system that ultimately leaves everything it touches tarnished. He's rather smug and superior about it, but the beauty of the music saves the song.
In the final analysis, what makes "Hotel California" work lyrically is what's lacking in "New Kid in Town," "Life in the Fast Lane," and "The Last Resort": with one line, "We are all just prisoners here of our own device," it at least hints at admitting the authors' complicity in the situation.
"Hotel California" won the 1977 Grammy for Record of the Year. Though the Eagles would top the charts again in 1979, artistically it was all downhill after Hotel California, and the group broke up in 1982, reuniting several times for lucrative tours and one mediocre studio album, only to have acrimony resurface each time. Hotel California and the underrated concept album Desperado stand as the group's greatest statements. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo is finally complete at twelve songs. It is the most depressing set of songs since Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.