Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Hotel California," Eagles (1976)

I remember exactly what I was doing the night I bought Hotel California.  It was in December 1976, probably about a week after the album was released.  I’d gotten my driver’s license on the day before Thanksgiving, and if memory serves, that December night was one of the first times I’d driven the family car (1972 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate Station Wagon – a classic!) by myself.  My eventual destination was a meeting at the McDonald’s where I worked, a monthly meeting where the crew was invited to come in and air grievances (on a confidential basis) with the store manager – a meeting with the unlikely name of “crew rap.”  But on the way, I couldn’t resist a trip to Tower Records, where I picked up the album.  I can remember one of my crewmates, seeing the Tower Records bag, asking me what I’d bought, and being less than impressed when I showed her – or at least that was my impression.

Things like this are impossible to predict, but in retrospect it was probably inevitable that Hotel California would be a blockbuster.  Thanks to their Greatest Hits album, the Eagles had been riding high on the charts for well over a year, and given how long the new album was taking to record, one couldn’t help but think that they were determined to erase the perception that they were a singles band.  A great singles band, mind you, but a singles band nonetheless.  Guitarist Bernie Leadon was gone, and Joe Walsh was now an Eagle –I clearly remember most of my friends wondering how that was going to work.  But with the potential of a triple-electric guitar attack on the songs where Frey was playing the instrument, the stage was certainly set for a new kind of Eagles.

“…We knew we were heading down a long and twisted corridor and just stayed with it.  Songs from the dark side – the Eagles take a look at the seamy underbelly of L.A. – the flip side of fame and failure, love and money.” – Glenn Frey

Frey is spot on about the darkness; it certainly isn’t a fun album.  There are times when I respect Hotel California a lot more than I actively enjoy it, and there are also times when I wonder if what the Eagles were really doing on the record was celebrating the darkness and the decadence that ultimately brought them down – wallowing in it, even.  As a humanistic commentary of the times, this verse from “Life in the Fast Lane”…

They knew all the right people, they took all the right pills
They threw outrageous parties, they paid heavenly bills
There were lines on the mirror, lines on her face
She pretended not to notice, she was caught up in the race

…certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” released about a year later:

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

But there’s no questioning that the album is a musical triumph, particularly the songs with Don Henley singing lead.  By Hotel California he had clearly usurped the late Glenn Frey as the band’s strongest artistic force, and the qualitative difference in their work is never clearer than when listening to the album’s first two cuts – the title cut, which justifiably holds a place in the pantheon of classic Seventies songs, and “New Kid in Town,” a pleasant Frey ditty that never threatens to be anything more than that.  Also on Side One are the aforementioned “Life in the Fast Lane,” which if nothing else sounds really good when turned up loud in the car, and “Wasted Time,” a great song (and vocal from Henley), even if Frey’s description of it (in the liner notes for The Very Best of Eagles) as a “Philly-soul torch song…something like Thom Bell” are somewhat inexplicable.  The strongest songs on Side Two – “Victim of Love” and “The Last Resort” – are also Henley’s, although the contributions from Joe Walsh (“Pretty Maids All in a Row”) and Randy Meisner (“Try and Love Again”) aren’t bad (even if they feel somewhat out of place).

Given the quality of the album and the massive commercial success it enjoyed, it may seem strange that Hotel California didn’t even make a dent in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll.  Strange, that is, until you take into consideration that the Eagles were arrogant assholes (which they generally admitted as they grew older) who delighted in making fun of rock critics and rock criticism, and disparaging the type of music (Punk, New Wave) that was especially attractive to the critics of that time.  At one point, they even got into a ridiculous feud with Rolling Stone Magazine, which was “resolved” in a softball game in the Spring of 1978 (a game won easily by the Eagles’ team).  Thus, it seems likely that the band’s poor critical standing was at least in part due to the heap of scorn the band had dumped for years on the critical establishment.  Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that there are few albums in history that tell the story of their times as well as Hotel California does.  If you want to know what 1977 felt like, just listen to Hotel California.


Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

I think it's too easy to blame the lack of critical acclaim on the asshole-ish behavior of the band towards critics and the music critics favored. There are popular artists who connect more with the public than with the critics ... The Eagles are one of those artists.

Jeff Vaca said...

I don't dispute that, and generally I think you're right. Having said that, it does seem odd to me that whether you count Hotel California as a '76 or '77 album, in each of those years Pazz & Jop there deemed 30 albums deemed to be "better" than Hotel California. I don't think you can completely discount the New York slant of the poll that existed at that time.

Jeff Vaca said...

...there "WERE" 30 albums deemed to be "better"...

Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

In 1976, I see Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Warren Zevon, Boz Scaggs, and Linda Ronstadt, among others. In '77, there's Fleetwood Mac, Randy Newman, Browne again, Neil Young, and Ronstadt again. I don't think it's a New York slant. I think it's an anti-Eagles slant. I speak as someone who has spent 62 of my 63 years living in California ... and I'd take any track from Marquee Moon over anything the Eagles ever recorded. I am, admittedly, too influenced by critics :-).

Jeff Vaca said...

You and me both. There was a time when I bought every album that had gotten a good review from Christgau, Marcus, Marsh, Paul Nelson or Lester Bangs. Fortunately, it worked most of the time.