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.
*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.