I first got into the Eagles when I bought their 2003 double-disc compilation The Very Best Of, which is a really excellent way to hear all of their hits and some great album tracks if you’re looking to get into them. The Eagles formed in Los Angeles in 1971, but all of the members had migrated there from the Midwest, which their music reflects. The first disc of The Very Best Of begins with the country-rock classic “Take It Easy” and ends with “Hotel California,” and it’s pretty easy to trace their journey as an unassuming country-rock quartet to a full-blown rock & roll quintet with the addition of guitar hero Joe Walsh. Their sound changes in character from record to record, moving farther and farther west, from their country-like self-titled 1972 debut to the outlaw-themed Desperado (1973) to the Southwestern-tinged On the Border (1974).
The final single from On the Border, “The Best of My Love,” was their first number one hit, but One of These Nights (1975), their follow-up, still carried an outsider’s perspective of success. They were still just guests in the city of success at that point, but One of These Nights was a big hit, with the title track, “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “Take It to the Limit” peaking at number one, two and four, respectively. Hotel California, the Eagles’ follow-up to One of These Nights, is the exact opposite of its predecessor. It’s an insider’s view of success, with cryptic tales from dark side. The Eagles have always been cryptic to a degree — look no further than “A rich old man, and she won’t have to worry” in “Lyin’ Eyes,” a song Glenn Frey likes to dedicate to his first wife “Plaintiff” before performing it live — but with Hotel California (particularly the title track), the Eagles explore more mythic territory.
The narrative presented on The Very Best Of‘s first disc is one I immediately identified with, since I grew up in Maryland and always dreamed of moving to California when I got older. I didn’t know at the time, however, that I would settle in Los Angeles, specifically, just like the Eagles did, and in fact I have actually always favored Northern California, with its redwood trees, but it’s really expensive to live up there. But when I listened to that first disc of The Very Best Of, in my mind I would always move westward with the music, and that was really powerful to me. Whenever I listen to the narrator of “Hotel California” talk about driving on that dark desert highway, I think about everyone that has come to LA in search of fame and success.
As for The Very Best Of‘s second disc, it has a completely different character from the first. For one thing, it opens with “Life in the Fast Lane,” throwing you in the thick of the madness that is life in Los Angeles. The Very Best Of presented two worlds of the Eagles: their route to success on disc one and everything that came with that success on disc two, and for a long time, that was all I really needed from the Eagles. But eventually I ended up seeking out all of their LPs, and Hotel California was the logical starting point, since it’s the high point of their career and, along with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, it towered over the second half of the 1970s. The second half of the ’70s saw a sharp decline in the quality of rock & roll — and, not coincidentally, the rise of punk — as a result of so-called “corporate rock,” a blanket term for arena rock groups like Boston, Styx, Kiss, Journey, Van Halen, Foreigner and later Bon Jovi that benefited from the rapid consolidation of the media into large conglomerates.
Boston’s self-titled debut, which also was released in 1976, is more or less the flagship corporate rock album, having sold over seventeen million copies despite being nothing special at all. I’m not saying it’s terrible, but it’s the poster child of a kind of music I don’t like. It’s not hard to view Hotel California as something of a reaction to this growing trend, as “New Kid in Town” and “Life in the Fast Lane” are pretty overt meditations on fame. Of course, “Hotel California” and the harder rockers “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Victim of Love” became arena rock staples on their own, but it wasn’t forced through bad songwriting; it was a result of replacing Bernie Leadon with Joe Walsh. The guitar duo of Walsh and Don Felder is one of my all-time favorites, up there with Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. That “Hotel California” solo duel could have only happened with the two of them, and it’s pure rock & roll magic.
I have actually driven past the real Hotel California — the Beverly Hills Hotel, which graces the album’s cover — numerous times, but I’ve never been inside. I have a decent enough idea of what it’s like in there from listening to this album. Judging from the drugged out title track and Don Henley‘s merciless attack on manifest destiny on the state of the union-esque — 1976 was America’s bicentennial, after all — closer “The Last Resort,” I’d say I’m not missing out on much.