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I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

Or, truth to tell, any Stevie Wonder record. Not all the way through. I’ve heard large tracts of the one I’m most familiar with, Songs in the Key of Life (I have my mother’s old vinyl copy at home), but none of them in their entirety.

So I decided to pick one, and ended up with Talking Book, though it was almost Innervisions. But Talking Book has Superstition on it, so that was that.

Like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, the two bands I looked at last year for posts in this series, Stevie Wonder occupies such a huge place in the canon of English-language pop music that you (or, more specifically, I) can have heard none of his albums in their entirety yet still feel pretty au fait with the man’s oeuvre. I’ve known music by Stevie Wonder for almost literally as long as I can remember; I Just Called to Say I Love You came out when I was around three, and I remember hearing it in my parents’ house in Maldon, which we moved from when I was four and a half.

But as I got older, I began to find a lot about Wonder’s music that I didn’t like. The floridity of his vocal style was at odds with the much simpler approaches taken by my favourite singers. The maximalism of his sensibility was counter to my preference for more minimally arranged and produced music. I found myself irritated by his sometimes clumsy lyrics that messed with syntax or stress to force a rhyme. Too many of his songs, particularly those on Songs in the Key of Life, go on far too long.

So as I acquired many albums by his peers in 1970s soul and R&B – Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green – I picked up none by Stevie. I’d essentially decided that he was never going to be my guy, even as I had a couple of dozen songs by him, and listened to them and enjoyed them, and would never have argued with anyone proclaiming his greatness. Or even his genius.

So that’s my background with the great man. Let’s dive in.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life, which opens Talking Book, is a classic. There’ll be no contrarian take from me on this one. His inversion of the natural stress of the word “rescue” is an example of the kind of bone I find myself constantly picking with Wonder the lyricist (the clumsiness takes me out of the song as surely as an out-of-time backbeat, a bad edit or an egregiously flat note would do), but still, there’s so much to love here, from the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sounds to the buoyant congas, and the lovely, inclusive touch of having backing singers Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves sing the first two verses.

Maybe Your Baby is for me the weakest track on the album by a distance, so it’s a shame that it comes so early in the album. It’s not exactly bad – the verse groove is compelling enough, and the multitracked and varispeeded backing vocals are a creative arrangemental touch – but at nearly seven minutes, the track goes on far, far too long. Ray Parker’s soloing is a pretty major mark against for me, too. His tone, like an amplified bee buzzing around your head, is annoying, and without wishing to be cruel, he’s not the player you want pouring it out at this length. Wonder should have used Jeff Beck. But we’ll get back to him.

You and I moves back to ballad territory, with Wonder this time accompanying himself on piano, with a Theremin-like sound from TONTO (something else we’ll come back to). It’s a lovely performance, one of Wonder’s more restrained vocals, largely in the lower-middle of his wide range, where for me his voice sounds richest and most full. The use of delay on his voice gives it a slightly trippy, spacey touch that I think works brilliantly for the song.

Tuesday Heartbreak is a showcase for Wonder’s use of interweaving keyboards (Fender Rhodes and a prominent Clavinet), but something’s a bit off kilter about the vocal. It sounds nasal and pitchy, so much so that I wonder if something was awry with the tape speed when Wonder tracked his vocal. Whatever it is, something’s off, as I’ve never felt that Wonder was out of tune on any other other song. The backing vocals of Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer could have been a touch higher in the mix, and I’m seldom well disposed towards David Sanborn’s alto (always so bright and hard-sounding), but the extended voicings Wonder plays are cool, and I love that change to Bb diminished in the verse.

Side one ends with You’ve Got It Bad Girl, one of the record’s most attractive pieces, and a song that illustrates the creative potency of Wonder’s partnership with engineers and co-producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff.

Cecil and Margouleff were the owners-operators of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra). TONTO was, and still is, the largest analogue synthesiser ever constructed – a room-sized behemoth of old-school analogue synthesis. Its many, many modules allowed its operators to construct new instrumental textures in real time, or produce credible simulations of real-world instruments.

tonto

On the jazzy You’ve Got It Bad Girl, Wonder, Cecil and Margouleff created a layer cake of keyboard timbres: Moog bass, Fender Rhodes chords and TONTO melody lines, several of which are instantly recognisable to anyone as “Stevie Wonder” synth sounds. Electronic it may be, but it’s also a wonderfully human and lyrical sound, so it beautifully complements the record’s acoustic elements: Wonder’s impressive drum performance (not “and-a-1, and-a-2” swing, looser and more impressionistic than that, but still clearly drawing on jazz), his gentle and intimate lead vocal, and the backing vocals of Gilstrap and Groves. A singular creation, but it works amazingly well.

Before the sessions for Talking Book began, Jeff Beck’s people at CBS told Wonder that Beck was a big fan, and would be keen to work with him in some capacity. Wonder did not need a vast pool of players to call on, as he was capable of playing almost everything himself, but he did tend to call in lead guitarists, so was open to playing with Beck. An agreement was made that Beck would play on Talking Book and in return Wonder would write him a song.

Superstition was the result of a jam session between Beck and Wonder that took place before the album sessions. Beck, apparently, came up with the opening drum pattern and Wonder improvised the Clavinet riff over the top. The two tracked a demo there and then, which Wonder took away to finish. In some versions of the story, Wonder loved it too much to give it to Beck without cutting his own version too; others say Motown told Wonder it was too good to give away and insisted that Stevie’s version came out first. Whichever is true, we’re lucky that Wonder did record it*, as the Beck, Bogert and Appice version is a sludgy mess with no verve or bounce, whereas Wonder’s version is the finest thing he ever recorded. Bar nothing.

A final word about the Superstition drum track. It’s a little sketchy in a couple of places, but Wonder’s drum performance on Superstition can stand alongside literally anything in the funk canon. Even if Jeff Beck came up with it.

Superstition crossfades into Big Brother. Wonder’s use of his Clavinet to create an acoustic guitar-like tone, coupled with the African-style percussion (djembe, I think), give this song a different feel to anything else on the record. It’s really cool, as is his harmonica playing. Lyrically, it’s probably the angriest song on the record (“I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time”; “You’ve killed all our leaders”), and a little blunter and sharper than I was expecting. On this song at least, anger sharpened Wonder’s lyrics into something cold and hard, with no syllable wasted.

Blame it on the Sun repeats the acoustic-guitar keyboard trick even more credibly (I guess from the sleevenotes, it’s the instrument referred to as a “harpsichord”, but Wonder plays it like lead acoustic guitar). It’s the arrangement’s most notable feature, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the song itself, which may be my favourite of the Talking Book tracks I didn’t already know. Those diminished chords in the choruses (under “the wind and the trees”) are heartbreaking, and the backing vocals by Gilstrap and Groves are sumptuous

Looking for Another Pure Love features the twin guitars of Jeff Beck and Howard “Buzz” Feiten. Over another of Wonder’s one-man-band arrangements of drums, Moog bass and Fender Rhodes, the pair play harmonised scalar lines, shadowing Wonder’s vocal melody. It’s a gentle and intimate production, with every nuance of Beck’s lead playing audible in the mix. Once again, the backing vocals – this time by Debra Wilson, Shirley Brewer and Loris Harvin – lift every chorus.

Final track I Believe (When I Fall in Love) is the third of the album’s masterpieces. Another of Wonder’s one-man sonic fantasias, its dreamy verses (carried by keyboards and a vaguely threatening Moog bass) are paid off by a slowly rising bridge and a chorus of cautious optimism that only gives way to anything close of celebration at the very end of the song.

As a recap of many of the moods explored by the album’s other songs, it’s a fitting end to a record that’s very good indeed, if not always quite at the level of its three most famous songs. After familiarising myself thoroughly with Talking Book over the last couple of weeks, I feel like it’s obviously the classic it’s always held to be. It has a couple of weaker moments, but Wonder’s sense of quality control was pretty tight on this one. And anyway, one or two lightweight songs or failed sonic experiments are understandable when you factor in that Wonder was making one record a year in the first half of the seventies. I’ve learned things, too, about the craft that went into these records: the creativity of Stevie’s arrangements and his work layering keyboard textures and harmonic parts, as well as his partnership with Cecil and Margouleff, which led to the creation of wonderful new timbres and atmospheres. While I do prefer the low end sound of the Stevie Wonder records that feature a bass guitarist, I’ve also got more of an appreciation for how he built rhythm tracks from Moog bass and his own drum performances.

Stevie Wonder’s records are probably never going to be among my very favourites – I’ve come around to more decorative singers in the last five or 10 years, but his sensibility is still a long way from that of the artists I tend to love most – but getting to know his albums was probably overdue for me. Having got to grips with Talking Book, I’ve already got Innervisions on my iPod**, and who knows, one day I may even get through the whole of Songs in the Key of Life without skipping the codas.

talking_book

*The incident strained the realtionship between the two considerably, and Beck remains convinced that his version would have been a huge hit had it come out first. It wouldn’t. It’s not even a tenth of the record that Stevie’s is.

**Yes, I still use an iPod Classic. 120gb. I work a lot on my music and Mel’s, and projects for folks like James McKean and Yo Zushi, so I don’t want to have to listen to them as MP3s.

 

 

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I’ve Never Heard… The Wall by Pink Floyd

Here’s a new regular feature. I was a little surprised to look down a list of the biggest-selling albums ever and realise that there was a good number I’d never really heard. Most of these records are such a pervasive part of our culture, and their songs are on the radio so often, I’ve never felt the need to sit down and listen to the albums those songs originally came from.

Last time, we looked at the Eagles’ Hotel California. Let’s see what we quietly desperate Brits were up to while the heads on the West Coast were getting mellow.

While considering myself something of a Pink Floyd fan, I’ve always avoided the band’s last two albums with Roger Waters at the helm, The Wall and The Final Cut. The latter’s reputation for impenetrable bleakness proceeds it, while The Wall is a concept album with more than a hint of the theatrical about it, and that’s never really been my thing. Frankly even after having my opinion on Floyd turned around by hearing Dark Side of the Moon properly, I still scorned The Wall.

Presumably The Final Cut is a still more gruelling experience than The Wall, but I can’t imagine there’s a darker album that’s racked up anything like The Wall‘s sales. At 80 minutes long, it’s a punishing listen. I went been through it all four times in 48 hours, and frankly, it left me in a rather odd mood.

It begins with the band at its most aggressive. In the Flesh?, rather than beginning the story of Pink, the album’s anti-hero, seems to address the band’s audience, although whether the narrator is Pink or Waters (or whether there’s a meaningful distinction to be made at this point in the record), is up for debate:

Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise

Roger Waters’ strained, cracking voice (the dominant one on the album, with David Gilmour getting comparatively few lead vocals and Richard Wright none at all) is accompanied by a heavy riff in 6/8 time that sounds oddly like Queen – grandiose and stadium ready – but without Queen’s warmth or exuberance.

Let’s stop a minute to discuss sound. Dark Side of the Moon remains to this day a hi-fi buff’s demo record. Alan Parsons’ production and engineering work is among the most impressive accomplishments in popular music. The Wall is a very different sounding beast. By this time, the band was working with Bob Ezrin, who’d made his rep producing mainly hard rock and metal acts, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Aerosmith and the Babys among them. He gave Pink Floyd a bigger, colder and less intimate sound than they’d had before, with a huge, undamped kick drum. It’s an arena-sized sound for a band that knew they’d be recreating the songs in arenas. Some sources claim The Wall was one of the earliest digitally recorded albums, but this isn’t something I’ve been able to confirm. Either way, the sound of the record is an integral part of the experience, and given the enormous dynamic range of the material, its natural home would seem to be CD and other digital formats, even as it arrived in stores a couple of years too early for them.

The album continues with The Thin Ice. The song, split vocally between Gilmour and Waters, again sounds like a prelude to the main story. We’ve not yet met Pink’s overbearing mother, but what other persona could Waters be adopting?

At this point, we do finally meet our protagonist, Pink, and the rest of side one tells us the story of his early years: the death of his father during the war (Another Brick in the Wall Part 1), his schooling (The Happiest Days of Our Lives and Another Brick in the Wall Part 2) and his suffocating relationship with his mother (Mother). About Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, though I should say that I find it a more powerful experience in the context of The Wall than on the radio; I never really felt the depth of Waters’s fury when he and Gilmour yell in unison “Hey! Teacher!” – the anger is palpable.

Anger may be The Wall‘s defining emotion, but Mother ends the first side on a note on a note more of dread than rage. The knotty structure of shifting time signatures defeated Nick Mason, so Toto’s Jeff Porcaro was brought in as a sub, and he aced it, as you’d expect, but the complex rhythmic structures only work because they’re part of a composition that’s harmonically and linguistically simple; otherwise they’d just be showy. Here, as elsewhere on side one, Waters makes effective use of straightforward, childlike language to tell the child Pink’s story:

Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?
Mother, do you think they’ll like this song?
Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?
Oh, Mother, should I build a wall?

Mother seems to me to be the heart of side one, the song that really sets up the story, and it’s followed at the start of side two by another one of the album’s key texts. Goodbye Blue Sky, while very pretty, is also extremely ominous. At this point in the story, we assume, Pink is no longer a child, yet he’s unable to let go of his memories of the Blitz, of life under constant threat: “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on.”*

The rest of side two tells of Pink’s growing alienation and psychological disintegration, with One of My Turns and Don’t Leave Me Now the centrepieces of the suite. One of My Turns features Waters’ most ragged (deliberately so, I think) vocal performance, by turns darkly hilarious (“Would you like to learn to fly? Would you? Would you like to see me try?”) and profoundly despairing, as when his voice drops in pitch and intensity over the course of the final phrase “Why are you running away?”

This leads into one of the album’s most troubling songs, Don’t Leave Me Now. Over an extremely unconventional harmonic structure (Eaug |D♭maj7 | B♭7 |G Gaug), Waters’ strangulated vocal is that of a man at the end of his rope, while what he’s actually saying is horrifying. He gives two reasons for needing his departing wife: “to put through the shredder in front of my friends” and “to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”. Until this point, our sympathy has been with Pink, even as he turned into a macho swaggering cock on Young Lust. After Don’t Leave Me Now, whatever sympathy we have for him is tainted, even if we read the beating he alludes to as metaphorical rather than physical.

By the end of side two, Pink’s wall is complete (Goodbye Cruel World), and side three begins with the beautiful Hey You. The song is credited solely to Waters, but Hey You’s arrangement seems to have come mostly from Gilmour – the unconventional use of a modified Nashville tuning (in which the lowest four strings are replaced by strings an octave higher, and in this case a low E two octaves higher) suggests the input of a guitarist, while the sinuous fretless bass playing is credited to Gilmour. Gilmour takes the lead vocal for the first half of the song, too, with Waters taking over as the intensity increases when Pink realises he can’t escape the wall he’s built for himself. One of the song’s strongest musical touches is the way the opening four notes of the Another Brick in the Wall melody reappear two minutes in as a heavy riff under Gilmour’s lead guitar.

Nobody Home goes some way to humanising this new version of Pink. Alone and despondent, he produces an inventory of all the things his success has bought him, and how none of it matters as he’s still alone.

I’ve got the obligatory Hendrix perm
And the inevitable pinhole burns,
All down the front of my favorite satin shirt.
I’ve got nicotine stains on my fingers,
I’ve got a silver spoon on a chain.
Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains.
I’ve got wild staring eyes
And I’ve got a strong urge to fly,
But I got nowhere to fly to.
Ooh, babe, when I pick up the phone
There’s still nobody home.

Waters’ voice is a strange instrument, brittle and somewhat stiff, with a papery top end that sounded like that of an old man even when he was in his twenties, but on Nobody Home, singing near the bottom of his register until the end of the second verse, over a backing of piano and orchestra, his performance is hugely effective, and I can’t imagine any other singer, however accomplished, doing better.

Vera and Bring the Boys Home return us to the themes of side one. Pink (and, of course, Waters, whose father died at Anzio) remains haunted by the war, what it did to those who fought, and what it did to those left behind. In that context, Vera Lynn carries huge metaphorical weight, not just for Pink (and Waters) but for anyone of the same generation. Younger listeners, I suppose, cannot hear this song quite the same way as those for whom hearing Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again was part of a foundational shared cultural experience, but nonetheless I find it very moving.

Side three ends with Comfortably Numb, about which you probably don’t need to be told. More than just one of The Wall‘s most famous tracks (in the UK, the most well known is Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, which was a number-one single, but I can’t speak for other countries), it’s one of the band’s most iconic songs, with Gilmour’s guitar solos justly held up as some of the best in rock music history.

Side four sees Pink completely unravel and imagine himself as a fascist dictator and his concert as a huge rally. It begins with The Show Must Go On (the first line of which is “Must the show go on?”), the sense that something is wrong heightened by the incongruous Beach Boys-style backing vocals that are actually out of tune with the track. Then we get a horrifying reprise of In the Flesh (without its question mark), in which Pink is now an Oswald Mosley-like Blackshirt, railing against gays, Jews and black people and screaming how they should all be shot. It’s extremely unsettling.

Run Like Hell begins with one of Gilmour’s most exciting riffs, a series of triads with delay played over a D pedal tone. The song maybe never quite lives up to its riff, but it’s narratively essential, as it’s here that the crowd at the gig become a rioting mob, chasing after the “riff-raff” inventoried by Pink during In the Flesh. Waiting for the Worms switches back to Pink’s POV as he barks orders and hatred through a megaphone, while also restating the album’s most recognisable musical leitmotif: the grinding 4-note E minor riff from Hey You, itself the opening notes of the melody from Another Brick in the Wall.

At this point, Pink puts himself on trial, and is found guilty by the judge, who orders that the wall be torn down, and the album ends with a sprachgesang-ing Waters over the dance-band style melody we heard right at the start of the album, before the heavy riff of In the Flesh? crashed in.

So, what of the quality of the album itself? Of course, its sheer scale, musically and thematically, is impressive, and among concept albums it’s notable for its sheer dedication to its own premise. Everything here advances the story in some way, and the way it’s programmed into four suites, with its crossfades and segues, is both elegantly designed and technically accomplished.

Not all the music, though, is to my taste. While I’d concede its narrative importance, the track Young Lust is a low point – Pink Floyd were not a band made for louche Stonesy R&B, and Gilmour’s growled vocal is unintentionally comic, I think. He just doesn’t convince. The Happiest Days of Our Lives, while containing some cool bass playing from Waters, doesn’t add much to the album’s critique of the education system, and the dwelling on the beatings doled out by wives to their schoolmaster husbands is juvenile.

My bigger problem with the album, though, is that it seems to be telling two stories, both of which work well on their own terms, but don’t quite fit together. I find myself completely won over by the story of the young Pink, never quite able to process the loss of his father and brutalised by a harsh education system. I buy that an overprotective mother could damage her son still further trying to compensate for the loss of a husband and father from family life. As the child grows up and finds a void within him, it seems psychologically reasonable that he’d look to fill it with things, while finding it hard to relate to other people emotionally, eventually building a protective barrier around the parts of his psyche that are most damaged. All of that seems to me psychologically realistic, well handled by Waters’ songs and successfully brought to life by the band.

What doesn’t quite work for me (thematically, rather than musically), is the jump from that to Pink’s hallucinating that he’s a fascist dictator. It doesn’t seem outlandish that someone in Pink’s position might harbour a fascination with the enemy his father died fighting, but in terms of him imagining himself their leader, it feels like a chunk of the story has been missed out along the way. Side four feels cut off from the rest of the album’s themes, even as the music is successful on its own terms. Of course, it was Waters’ misgivings about his relationship to his fans, his profound estrangement from them on the 1977 In the Flesh tour, that led to the creation of The Wall in the first place, but it feels to me like in the process of writing The Wall the early-years material took on a life of its own, and ended up becoming the more compelling part of the story.

Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. The Wall is still a massive achievement. That it took me until the age of 36 to hear it is partly a reflection of my own taste, partly a function of the band’s unfashionability for much of my adult life, and partly to do with its reputation as dark and misanthropic in a way I didn’t feel like I wanted in my life. Now I’ve heard it, I can’t say I’ll come back to it often, but it’s pretty radically altered my perspective on the band and Waters in particular. Which is exactly what I was hoping for.

*I haven’t mentioned the Alan Parker movie adaptation of The Wall, as we already had enough to get through, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t say at this point that Gerald Scarfe’s animation work is extremely impressive throughout, and his visualisation of Goodbye Blue Sky is one of the most haunting moments in the film.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

 

I’ve never heard… Hotel California by the Eagles

Here’s a new regular feature. I was a little surprised to look down a list of the biggest-selling albums ever and realise that there was a good number I’d never really heard. Most of these records are such a pervasive part of our culture, and their songs are on the radio so often, I’ve never felt the need to sit down and listen to the albums those songs originally came from.

I decided I’d listen to some of these records, to hear those songs in their original context, and see what I made of them. I’ll be doing one of these posts every couple of weeks or so. They take a bit of putting together.

Let’s start with one of the big daddies of classic rock. Hotel California.

*

I’m British, so while I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea what place the Eagles hold in American music culture, it’s not my culture. I didn’t grow up hearing them on the radio every single day, so I don’t share the revulsion born of over-familiarity that a lot of US music fans have for the band. The Eagles were a familiar presence on my radio, but not an inescapable one.

Nevertheless, I’ve schooled myself in the history of LA rock ‘n’ roll as best I can from books, documentaries and hundreds (or probably thousands) of hours of listening, so I know what these guys are, who they were before they became the Eagles, what dues they paid and a fair bit about how they behaved once they attained success. I get why so many are so strongly anti-Eagles — and sure, they’re the perfect symbol of the gradual reduction in intensity of meaning and feeling in LA music in the second half of the 1970s — but I can’t share the hatred.

That’s because I remember hearing Hotel California, the song, on the radio for the first time in the car with my parents and my dad telling me there was a good guitar solo coming up, and bam! There it was: possibly the most exciting minute or so of music I’d ever heard, aged seven or eight. I still remember that feeling and I’ve never totally lost it, so you can, I hope, trust me to be even-handed here.

Let’s dive right in. By the time of 1976’s Hotel California, the Eagles had become genuine superstars off the back of their last studio album, One of these Nights, and, especially, their world-dominating best-of, Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975. The band must have known that everyone was watching, and so they began their new album with the strongest one-two punch they had: Hotel California and New Kid in Town.

I’ve already mentioned the title track’s famous guitar solo, but it deserves a bit more comment. Don Felder and Joe Walsh are both excellent technicians, but technique is not really what makes their playing on Hotel California so great. Many guitarists could play what they played, with a bit of practice. But before something is played, it has to be conceived, and that’s the hard part. What I find most impressive about the solo is the way the duo really listen to each other and answer each other’s phrases. They’re not having a contest to outdo each other; it’s a tag-team effort. They complement each other, pick up each other’s cues and ratchet up the tension until, of course, they hit that famous harmonised triplet melody. But note that bassist Randy Meisner chooses that moment to switch from his reggae-ish pattern to straight eights, boosting the tension still further. These guys had ears, all of them.

Their producer, Bill Szymczyk, had ears too. The album sounds glorious. There’s so much space around the wide-panned instruments. Lightly strummed acoustic guitars create a lush but not suffocating pad, the bass is thick without being overhyped and the drum sound is marvellous in its depth and woodiness. It’s not that the band’s pre-Szymczyk work sounds wimpy (for all Glenn Frey’s issues with Glyn Johns’s minimal miking technique for drums, the drum sound on, say, Take it Easy is still great), but Hotel California does perhaps have that extra bit of low end while retaining the crispness in the midrange.

The song? Oh, yeah. Well, it’s a classic, of course – I’m not going to be contrarian about it. An intriguing opening verse, an instantly memorable chorus, those vocal harmonies, that endlessly compelling cyclical chord sequence… Hotel California has endured for a reason. Its creators were smart and put the thing together with expert, practiced craft.

As to its meaning, here I may be a little bit dismissive. This is a case where we need to trust the tale, not the teller. “Hotel California” is not merely a symbol of the place the band found themselves by 1976, even if that’s what Frey and Henley thought it was. As author Barney Hoskyns put it, “they thought that maybe the one way we can be at peace with ourselves is to make clear we realise how obscene this [drug-fuelled music-biz hedonism] is, even while we are revelling in it. We’ll sing about Hotel California and then you won’t think we are living in Hotel California. But unfortunately they missed the whole point. They simply are Hotel California.”

Sung by Glenn Frey, in what’s surely his best recorded vocal, over a precision-tooled but pillow-soft backing of electric piano, acoustic guitar and unobtrusive drums, second track New Kid in Town is another allegory song. This time, as the song’s co-writer JD Souther said, they were singing about their own replacements: the younger, hipper bands on the Sunset Strip that may not have had the Eagles’ sales or money, but had the critical adoration that they could never attain, and appeared to be having more fun than them, too.

The song’s triumph is to sound like it has less to do with their it’s-tough-at-the-top insecurities and more to do with life as lived by the bulk of the band’s audience: the former athletes, star students and big men on campus who turned around one day to find some new boy in the year below had taken centre stage away from them, whose self-images never quite recovered and whose lives never quite measured up to the promise they showed in their late teens, before they’d had a chance to make any real mistakes. Frey does more than than simply acknowledge those lives, he sounds genuinely like he cares.

He could almost have had us fooled. Unfortunately, Life in the Fast Lane shows us the other side, possibly the true face, of the Eagles: the band that flew their groupies in by Lear jet and had even Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler amazed at the amount of coke they got through during a mix session at Criteria in Miami. Their arrogance* and self-satisfaction permeates every last bar of Life in the Fast Lane, and it’s pretty disgusting.** For all the use of the distancing pronoun “he”, it sure sounds like they’re singing about themselves.

The song also shows us the band’s big musical weakness. As much as they wanted to be taken seriously as a hard-rock act (and they did: they hired first guitarist Don Felder, then Bill Szymczyk and then Joe Walsh specifically for that reason) this band did not, could not, rock. It wasn’t in them. Don Henley was a pretty good drummer, but he wasn’t a rock drummer, and the song lacks propulsion and energy. It’s called Life in the Fast Lane but it drags. Walsh does his best, but it feels like he’s got to pull the whole band along with him. If it’s not their worst song, I can’t imagine what is.

Wasted Time, which ends side one, is a Henley-sung piano ballad, and a welcome change in tone and atmosphere after Life in the Fast Lane. It’s more proof of the Eagles’ adaptability as writers and performers that they could move into more overtly soul-influenced territory and make it work, and as ever it’s astutely arranged and well sung. The problem for me, and I appreciate this is a personal response, is it rings a bit hollow after Life in the Fast Lane.

Things get worse at the start of side two. The symphonic reprise of Wasted Time retains nothing of what worked about the vocal version, and replaces it with the bombast of Jim Ed Norman’s ghastly orchestral arrangement, misconceived in every imaginable way. The album then bottoms out with Victim of Love, credited to Frey, Henley, Felder and JD Souther, though initiated by Felder. The guitarist had expected to be singing the lead vocal, but, impatient at his inability to come up with a satisfactory take, Henley cut the vocal himself while manager Irving Azoff took Felder out to dinner. Relations between Felder and the rest of the band never recovered. The odd thing is, since the song’s in James Gang territory anyway, it would have been a better fit for Joe Walsh’s yowling style. The problem, once again, is the lack of authority from the rhythm section. What should be a brutal brontosaurus stomp is more a sort of petulant plod.

Speaking of Walsh, he pops up with Pretty Maids All in a Row, a slightly unexpected, Neil Young-ish piano ballad, though Walsh’s voice is more similar to Crazy Horse singer-guitarist Danny Whitten’s. It’s really nice, and for me it’s probably the best song on the album that’s not the title track or New Kid in Town.

Try and Love Again is the album’s showcase for Randy Meisner, the band’s bassist and the singer of stratospherically high harmonies. Meisner’s vocal on Take it to the Limit was a live crowd pleaser, and had taken the song to number one when it was released as a single, so it’s slightly surprising that his song appears so late in the album’s running order – especially since it’s a breezy slight return to the band’s early sound, with its chiming Take It Easy-like guitars. Perhaps, to be cynical, the difference is that Frey and Henley don’t have a cowriting credit on Try and Love Again, while they did on Take it to the Limit.

The album wraps up with The Last Resort, a divisive song in the band’s canon. Some find it preachy, mean spirited and hypocritical, while for others it’s profound and moving, the first flowering of the environmental concern and social conscience tbat Don Henley, if not Frey, would trade on during his successful 1980s solo records. I’m somewhere in the middle on The Last Resort. It’s not a total loss musically, though it could have done with a proper B section to break up the verse-after-verse song structure.

The problem is the lyric. As a critic of the material social history of California, Henley ain’t Mike Davis. Some of his punches land a little, but I do wonder whether Henley realised he wasn’t the first person ever to have doubts about the westward expansion of white America, or environmental damage, or organised religion, or even the efficacy of capitalism itself – he sure sang it like he’d come to some profound truths revealed to him alone. The less said about the strings and the key change, meanwhile, the better.

So we reach the end of Hotel California. Listening to it and thinking about it at length over three or four days hasn’t led me to change my opinion about the Eagles at all really, which surprises me a little. Their craft and skill as arrangers and vocal performers is unarguable. At their best, they wrote songs that stand up alongside anything else pop music has thrown up. The album probably deserved to sell in the numbers it did, just for its first two songs. This, though, is all stuff I already knew.

Yet, as an album (and remembering this is from the same milieu and era that gave us Younger than Yesterday, Tapestry, Forever Changes, Judee Sill, After the Goldrush, On the Beach, Blue, The Gilded Palace of Sin, Happy Sad and Small Change to name just the first 10 that come to mind), Hotel California is pretty spotty. The first two songs tower over everything else, and the only other songs that provided me any listening pleasure were Wasting Time and the songs by Walsh and Meisner. The inescapable conclusion for me is that they’re a band best experienced through a compilation or playlist, and that Hotel California sold on the strength of its first two singles rather than the quality of the album as a whole.

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*Even the band’s friend Ned Doheny said, “The whole scene just got a lot more desperate. You can hear a lot of it on those Eagles records. There’s a lot of bile in those records, a lot of arrogance.”

**Lest you think I’m being unfair to Henley, in November 1980, paramedics treated a naked 16-year-old girl for drug intoxication at his house. Henley was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine, quaaludes and marijuana, and for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Other than that, he’s a great guy.