Hotel California – how The Eagles defined innovation

Hotel California was a watershed album, not just because it was immensely popular or because the title track was controversial. Here we look at how this album was one of the most innovative ever released by a mainstream band.

I recall a few years back, an online friend whose opinion I usually respect and who has a fondness for nostalgia, referred to Hotel California as the least innovative album ever (I think he used stronger words).  This totally shocked me at the time.

Just recently the Eagles came to town with their latest show, and of course all the radio stations played Eagles music for several days and there were reviews of the concert on the airwaves for a couple days after (and in the newspapers, too). The reports were that Joe Walsh stole the show, and you’ll find out in a moment why that’s relevant to this blog post. I missed the show due to prior commitments, but…

You might still be able to catch the Eagles
as they visit your town:
http://www.ticketstub.com/events/the-eagles/
 

After hearing so many of their songs played over the past few weeks, I thought it was high time I published a rebuttal to my respected (but incorrect) friend.  In fact, of all the albums I know recorded by mainstream bands, Hotel California is the most innovative, and here is why:

Very rarely does a mainstream, popular band have the guts to change its colors midstream.  But the Eagles did just that.  Take a look at their 1976 Greatest Hits album, which is essentially all their popular stuff before Hotel California, and you’ll see that it’s all country music: “Lyin’ Eyes”, “Best of My Love”, “Take it Easy”, “Desperado”, “Tequila Sunrise”, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, etc.  Only “Witchy Woman” could be considered to be more rocky.

But along comes Hotel California, a rock album.  Featuring a new band member, Joe Walsh (“I live in hotels, tear up the walls.  I have accountants pay for it all.”) with his electric rock guitar.  One could compare Joe Walsh more with George Thoroughgood or Ted Nugent than with Willy Nelson or Alan Jackson.

So that alone makes Hotel California an incredibly innovative album.  Now let’s look at what’s on the album. Of the eight songs, five are neither sappy love songs nor heartbreak songs, unlike 90 percent of popular songs.

 

The title track was one of the most talked-about hits of all time.  It is a ghost story of sorts, where the weary traveler checks into an alluring hotel only to find that he cannot leave.  The song is an allegory of hedonism, of modern materialism – and anything but conventional.

But what really makes “Hotel California” stand out as a unique song is the music.  Not only does it follow the most unconventional structure of:

  • instrumental verse
  • verse
  • refrain
  • verse
  • refrain
  • verse
  • instrumental verse

…but the first instrumental verse is acoustic, representing the bands country roots, and the final instrumental verse is electric, representing where the band is heading.  So the transition from acoustic to electric guitars in the song “Hotel California” is a metaphor for the change from country to rock that the album Hotel California brings to the band.  Brilliant!

The other really interesting song on the album is “The Last Resort”, which is the one I could talk about all day.  Epic in both music and lyrics, it tells the story of how the west was “won”…and how it was lost – how we destroy the very things we call paradise.  The song turns that also into an allegory for the hereafter, how we long for Heaven while destroying our chances of getting there.  The song explores our destructive nature and our hypocritical nature, and is a thinly veiled environmental theme song. Here is what Glen Frey had to say about the song.

“I have to give all the credit for “The Last Resort” to (Don) Henley. It was the first time that Don, on his own, took it upon himself to write an epic story. We were very much at that time, concerned about the environment and doing anti-nuclear benefit (concerts). It seemed the perfect way to wrap up all of the different topics we had explored on the Hotel California album. Don found himself as a lyricist with that song, kind of outdid himself…We’re constantly screwing up paradise and that was the point of the song and that at some point there is going to be no more new frontiers. I mean we’re putting junk, er, garbage into space now. There’s enough crap floating around the planet that we can’t even use so it just seems to be our way. It’s unfortunate but that is sort of what happens”.

The Eagles in Ottawa“Life in the Fast Lane” is a hard-rock, Joe Walsh style song that caries on the theme of the pitfalls of materialism and hedonism.  That three songs on the album explore meaningful life issues, not just affairs of the heart, speaks volumes about the relevance and innovation of the album.

The other single, besides “Hotel California” and “Life in the Fast Lane”, was “New Kid in Town”, a dreamy tune that explores the passing fashions and whims of people in this materialistic world.  Popularity comes and popularity goes:

“You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you.

They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes along.”

And so the theme continues.

But feel free to see for yourself.  There is no music like live music, and the Eagles were not shy to improvise at their recent show.  In “Life’s been Good”, Joe Walsh sings “They send me emails”…and of course emails did not exist when he first wrote the song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to Hotel California – how The Eagles defined innovation

  1. I’ve always liked the Eagles- both collectively and individually (as musicians, please). And, I agree- to disrupt one’s own business model- and extend outside of a comfort zone- that’s how one reacts to the world and stays vibrant.
    thanks for sharing your excellent analysis with the rest of us.

  2. The leap from country to rock was a bold gamble that paid huge dividends. I’m not the hugest Eagles fan but “Hotel” and “Life” are two of the best all time rock songs that will stand the test of time. “Hotel California” has also become a common phrase in English for not being able to leave.

  3. Russell C. says:

    I found this article to be fascinating, since the Eagles are my favorite band. I know all their songs by heart, but never knew the info here. Thanks for sharing.

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