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).