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“Hotel California” is the title track from the Eagles’ album of the same name and was released as a single in February 1977. Writing credits for the song are shared by Don Felder (music), Don Henley, and Glenn Frey (lyrics). The Eagles’ original recording of the song features Henley singing the lead vocals and concludes with an extended section of electric guitar interplay between Felder and Joe Walsh.
The song is considered the most famous recording by the band, and its long guitar coda has been voted the best guitar solo of all time by readers of Guitarist in 1998. The song was awarded the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1978. The lyrics of the song have been given various interpretations by fans and critics alike, the Eagles themselves described the song as their “interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles”. In the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles, Henley said that the song was about “a journey from innocence to experience… that’s all…”
Since its release, “Hotel California” has been covered by a number of artists and has become a part of international popular culture. Julia Phillips proposed adapting the song into a film, but the members of the Eagles disliked the idea and it never came to fruition. Commercially, “Hotel California” reached the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached the top ten of several international charts.
The melody of the song was composed by Don Felder in a rented house on Malibu Beach. He recorded the basic tracks with a Rhythm Ace drum machine and added a 12 string guitar on a four-track recording deck in his spare bedroom, then mixed in a bassline, and gave Don Henley and Glenn Frey each a copy of the recording. Felder, who met the Eagles through his high school bandmate Bernie Leadon, said that Leadon advised him to make tapes of songs he wrote for the band so that other band members like Henley, whose forte is in writing lyrics, might work with him on finishing the songs they like. The demos he made were always instrumental, and on every album project he would submit 15 or 16 ideas. The demo he made for “Hotel California” showed influences from Latin and reggae music, and it grabbed the attention of Henley who said he liked the song that “sounds like a Mexican reggae or Bolero”, which gave the song its first working title, “Mexican Reggae”.
Frey and Henley were both interested in the tune after hearing the demo, and discussed the concept for the lyrics. In 2008, Felder described the writing of the lyrics:
Don Henley and Glenn wrote most of the words. All of us kind of drove into L.A. at night. Nobody was from California, and if you drive into L.A. at night… you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights, and the images that start running through your head of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have, and so it was kind of about that… what we started writing the song about.
Henley decided on the theme of “Hotel California”, noting how The Beverly Hills Hotel had become a literal and symbolic focal point of their lives at that time. Henley said of their personal and professional experience in LA: “We were getting an extensive education, in life, in love, in business. Beverly Hills was still a mythical place to us. In that sense it became something of a symbol, and the ‘Hotel’ the locus of all that LA had come to mean for us. In a sentence, I’d sum it up as the end of the innocence, round one.”
Frey came up with a cinematic scenario of a person who, tired from driving a long distance in a desert, saw a place for a rest and pulled in for the night, but entered “a weird world peopled by freaky characters”, and became “quickly spooked by the claustrophobic feeling of being caught in a disturbing web from which he may never escape.” In an interview with Cameron Crowe, Frey said that he and Henley wanted the song “to open like an episode of the Twilight Zone”, and added: “We take this guy and make him like a character in The Magus, where every time he walks through a door there’s a new version of reality. We wanted to write a song just like it was a movie.” Frey described the song in an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas as a cinematic montage “just one shot to the next … a picture of a guy on the highway, a picture of the hotel, the guy walks in, the door opens, strange people.” Frey continued: “We decided to create something strange, just to see if we could do it.” Henley then wrote most of the lyrics based on Frey’s idea, and sought inspiration for the writing by driving out into the desert as well as from films and theater.
Part of the lyrics, such as “Her mind is Tiffany twisted, she got the Mercedes bends / She got a lot of pretty pretty boys she calls friends”, are based on Henley’s break-up with his girlfriend Loree Rodkin. According to Glenn Frey’s liner notes for The Very Best Of, the use of the word “steely” in the lyric, “They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast,” was a playful nod to the band Steely Dan, who had included the lyric “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” in their song “Everything You Did”. Frey had also said that the writing of the song was inspired by the boldness of Steely Dan’s lyrics and its willingness to go “out there”, and thought that the song they wrote had “achieved perfect ambiguity.”
The Eagles recorded the track with Don Henley on lead vocal three different times, twice at the Record Plant in Los Angeles and finally at the Criteria Studios in Miami. They first recorded a riff, but when it came to recording the vocal, it was found to be in too high a key for Henley’s voice, so Felder progressively lowered the key from E minor, eventually settling on B minor. The second recording however was judged too fast. In Miami, the band fine-tuned the instrumentation and the lyrics and recorded numerous takes. Five or six best ones were selected, and the best parts were then spliced together to create the released version. According to the producer Bill Szymczyk, there were 33 edits on the two‑inch master. The final section features a guitar battle between Joe Walsh (who had replaced Bernie Leadon after Leadon’s departure from the band in 1975) and Felder, which took the two of them sitting together working for around three days to achieve the necessary precision. Walsh and Felder initially started improvising but Henley insisted that the recording should follow the music as first recorded in Felder’s demo.
Henley decided that the song should be a single, although Felder had doubts and the record company was reluctant to release it because, at over six minutes, its duration far exceeded that of the songs generally played by radio stations. The band took a stand and refused the label’s request to shorten the song. The song was released as the second single from the album after “New Kid in Town”. The front cover art for some overseas editions of the 45rpm single released was a reworked version of the Hotel California LP cover art, which used a photograph of the Beverly Hills Hotel by David Alexander, with design and art direction by Kosh.
The song’s guitar solo was voted the best solo of all time by readers of Guitarist magazine in 1998, and was ranked 8th on Guitar Magazine’s Top 100 Guitar Solos. The song was also included in the music video game Guitar Hero World Tour. It was ranked the number 1 in the list of the best 12-string guitar songs of all times by Guitar World magazine in 2015.
Don Felder – 12- and 6-string electric guitars, backing vocals
Don Henley – lead and backing vocals, drums, percussion
Glenn Frey – 12-string acoustic guitar, backing vocals
Joe Walsh – electric guitar, backing vocals
Randy Meisner – bass, backing vocals