We Are Programmed To Receive: Hotel California at 45
You didn’t think you were getting out of 2021 without the Eagles, did you? ;)
A five-man walking “Behind the Music” before such a show ever existed, the Eagles are pretty much the textbook example of the ‘70s rock star cliché.
The move to L.A., the behind-the-scenes guys forming the band, getting their break and winding up with more money than God (but less than Oprah). Then, of course, it all had to end in a flurry of egos and a blizzard of cocaine as the ‘80s began.
In the middle of it all was Hotel California, the Eagles’ biggest hit, which turned 45 this month.
I know some people who cringe at the very mention of this album. At this point, reflexively hating the Eagles is pretty much the “What’s the deal with airline food?” of rock criticism.
To be sure, the Eagles were never an easy band to love in some circles. They were unapologetically driven and commercial, at a point where both things were held in low regard by the critical establishment. They could come across as more than a little arrogant.
They didn’t want to be loved. They were craftsmen who wanted to be perfect– capitalists who wanted to move a shit ton of product, then move more.
Hotel California wasn’t the the product of a band desperate for a hit. They’d had enough success that their 1976 greatest hits compilation, released during Hotel California’s recording, is the top-selling album of all-time in the U.S. and second only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller in worldwide sales.
They were also coming off One Of These Nights, their best album artistically to that point. Artistic differences — the axis of Don Henley and Glenn Frey taking over the bulk of the songwriting and leading it away from the band’s more countryish origins — led to founding member Bernie Leadon’s departure after the One Of These Nights tour.
Leadon would go on to spend a lot of time out of the limelight as a session player, producer and member of other bands, releasing just two solo records.
To fill his spot, the band would add a highly talented guitarist who was both a terrific guitar player and more than capable on the substance-imbibing front — Joe Walsh, already successful from his days in the James Gang and as a solo artist.
As Frey said in the History of the Eagles documentary: “So, we got Joe Walsh in the band, That’s another adventure, because Joe is an interesting bunch of guys.”
The band, in a compromise, split recording between Los Angeles (their choice) and Miami (producer Bill Szymczyk’s).
Black Sabbath was also at Criteria Studios in Miami, working on Technical Ecstasy, at times loud enough that the Eagles weren’t able to record.
Between those two bands, 1976 was a good year for pharmaceutical entrepreneurs in South Florida.
The ubiquitous title track kicks off the album. California had beckoned Henley (from Texas) and Frey (from Michigan) to try to make it in the music business. The lyrics are Laurel Canyon recast in the Twilight Zone, where the protagonist finds himself in a gauzy decadent place where things continuously feel off until he tries to escape, only to be told in the song’s final and most well-known lines — “‘Relax, said the night man. We are programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
VIDEO: The Eagles “Hotel California”
The first half of the song might be the band setting its more familiar sounds over a vaguely reggae-ish beat, but it’s the second half that made the song the played-to-death staple it became. Walsh and Don Felder (whose acoustic intro on a cassette he’d sent to Frey and Henley kick-started the song) swap solos before soloing simultaneously. The extended coda made it the Eagles’ “Free Bird”, with somewhat fewer bar bands and touring acts hearing drunken requests to play it over the years.
The band knew what the coda meant, as they refused to do an edit for a single version. Released as is, it became a No. 1 hit.
The first song finished for the album, it served as a loose thematic guide for the rest of the album as it was written.
Walsh’s guitar is the first thing to define “Life in the Fast Lane”, a riff that came out as he was warming up before rehearsals at bassist Randy Meisner’s house. Frey took a liking to it immediately and knew it would go with a title that had popped into his head one night. He paired it with a title he’d had in his head for a few months after a night where he was riding shotgun with a drug dealer on the way to a poker game, going 90 mph on the freeway. Frey, who in his words was “holding. Big time,” turned to ask his buddy, “What are you doing, man?”
The dealer, looked at the white-knuckling Frey, grinned and said, “Life in the fast lane.”
Henley and Frey took the idea and turned into a would-be cautionary tale about a couple (“He was brutally handsome and she was terminally pretty”) spiraling deeper into indulgent, addictive excess, although the track sounds like they’re having a good time.
And it’s not as if the Eagles themselves were ready to heed any lessons from their observration perches.
AUDIO: The Eagles “Life In The Fast Lane”
Had their next album, 1980’s The Long Run, contained a co-production credit for cocaine, it would not have been inaccurate.
“New Kid in Town” was built together by Frey, Henley and songwriter pal (and Frey’s former duo partner in Longbranch Pennywhistle) J.D. Souther off a chorus that Souther had sitting around for a year. It was a continuation of the Eagles in their more slickly polished version of what the likes of the Flying Burito Brothers had done before them. The lyrics about being replaced in love (or perhaps by the next big thing in music) were carried along by multiple hooks throughout it and those harmonies. One of the peak sheer pop moments for the Eagles, it was an obvious choice as the first single, a wise decision as it topped the U.S. charts the following February.
Those were the single hits, but not the only ones to get airplay. “Victim of Love” a rocker that would be an album rock hit, was built around a Felder riff, with the idea (at least in Felder’s mind) that he would get to be singing the lead vocal on it.
A rarity on the album, the musical track (the lyrics weren’t finished) was recorded by all five members of the band live in L.A. In Miami, Felder repeatedly gave it a go, but neither he nor the band was happy with the result.
Thinking he would get another crack at it, Felder would be taken out by band manager Irving Azoff for dinner, a ploy to surreptiously allow Henley to record the lead vocals while Felder was out of the studio.
Felder would later admit that Henley’s vocals were better, which they definitely were. It’s easy to see why it became a radio staple, with that chorus and with Walsh’s slide playing.
Still, being the only band member not to get a lead vocal on the album did grate on him. His chafing at the benevolent dictatorship of Frey and Henley would be one of the factors in the band’s initial breakup and in his firing during the later reunion years.
The Eagles circa 1976 were more adept at using mirrors to hold lines rather than looking at themselves. As a result, the album holds up more as a snapshot of the life they were commenting on than they’d intended. The hippie Laurel Canyon faux cowboy vibe was replaced by Me Decade cynicism and detachment.
In “Victim of Love,” Henley sounds as much like he’s lecturing the woman in the song from a distance more than he is from a position of empathy. It’s a view that would later curdle in “Get Over It”, a 1994 reunion song which is basically Henley in his mid-40s, sounding like a guy in a black polo shirt at a rally 25 years later, yelling at people he considers “weak” to get off his lawn.
“Wasted Time” fares better lyrically — a breakup song in which the protagonist isn’t just an observer and, in fact, acknowledges his own greater role in the breakup — a rare bit of self-reflection.
Intended by Frey to be the band’s take on the soul coming from the likes of Gamble and Huff or Thom Bell in Philadelphia, it instead plays like a weeper in some half-empty bar before closing time, if that band playing the weeper somehow found room for a string section.
For no discernible reason, with that song to end Side 1 of the original album, the band chose to open Side 2 with an orchestral reprise of it.
It’s not the only filler on the album. “Pretty Maids All in a Row,” a piano-led ballad by Walsh, has a nice Felder solo, but it’s merely okay, not nearly as good as Walsh at his best on his solo albums of the ’70s.
Meisner, who’d leave the band less than a year ater the album’s release, fares better in his showcase with “Try and Love Again”, a lovely song (and the album’s most underrated) that wouldn’t have been out of place if he’d done it in Poco.
The album finishes with “The Last Resort”, a song that’s become more resonant in the decades since as gentrification and climate change have picked up pace.
If the title track opens the door in a nightmarish dream, the finale is rooted in history and it’s impact on the present — where the colonizers inevitably screw things up. It occasionally lapses into a paternalistic lecturing mindset, but looking around at how things have gotten worse environmentally in the 45 years since — the final lyrics ring truer now — “They call it paradise/I don’t know why/You call someplace paradise/Kiss it goodbye.”
The album was a massive hit — second only to Thriller among all-time sales for a studio album in U.S. history and one of only five to sell at least 20 million copies – joined by Back in Black, Zeppelin IV and Rumours.
Which brings us to overexposure. It’s easy to picture The Dude hating the fucking Eagles in the Big Lebowski because they were inescapable on the radio for decades, across multiple formats, as much as for any subjective musical considerations.
Still, even if one doesn’t like the Eagles that much or outright hates them, one can see why this was their biggest hit.
VIDEO: The Dude fuckin’ hates the Eagles
The band’s playing had improved to the point where they’d made an album they couldn’t have made in their early days. Walsh was a big addition, opening up the option of two lead rock guitars. Meisner and Henley were at their best as a rhythm section. The band had pushed themselves as writers and it paid off more often than not.
From there, the Eagles hitmaking efficiency slowed. Burnout and perfectionism are not a good combination, especially with drug-inflated egos.
“In the end, cocaine brought out the worst in everybody,” Frey said in the documentary.
Nobody had any songs ready enough to bring in when the band started work on the follow-up. In the end, The Long Run didn’t appear until three years after Hotel California.
Originally planned to be a double album, the band couldn’t come up with enough non-filler to fill one, even with three hit singles.
Less than a year after The Long Run’s release, the Eagles would be no more. Felder and Frey almost came to blows. More crucially, Frey and Henley’s partnership had fractured.
The members would have solo careers of varying success, with no shock, Henley and Frey faring the best.
But, never one to look a cash cow in the mouth, the Eagles reformed in 1994 and have remained a semi-regular touring oldies act ever since, repeatedly raking in money from hefty ticket prices without bothering much with new material.
Their only album since 1980 was 2008’s double-length The Long Road Out of Eden which had its moments, but was a reminder that maybe the Eagles shouldn’t try to do double albums.
They’re still going, past Felder’s acrimonious departure 20 years ago (he later settled out of court on suits related to his firing and royalties) and Frey’s unfortunate death in 2016.
It appears they can’t check out of that damn hotel, either.
There was a point, though, when the Eagles weren’t just a much richer version of an oldies act on the state fair circuit, but an ongoing band that was at its peak by the end of 1976 at the metaphorical intersection of Sunset, Beverly and Crescent.
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One thought on “We Are Programmed To Receive: Hotel California at 45”
An “oldies act”? The last time I saw them, (2019) there was a VERY healthy content of 20-30 year olds in the audience and they knew the words to the songs. The Eagles have been touring as constantly as Covid will allow since 2017 and I believe the age range of the audience extends well beyond (or below) the “oldies”.