Hotel California: How the Eagles made a haunting country rock classic

14 February 2024, 10:16

'Hotel California' is undoubtedly the Eagles' signature song. Here's all you need to know about it. (Photo by RB/Redferns)
'Hotel California' is undoubtedly the Eagles' signature song. Here's all you need to know about it. (Photo by RB/Redferns). Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

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"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

Those chilling and now timeless lyrics continue to send shudders down the spines of the majority music fans even still, especially the most die-hard of the Eagles' followers.

A song about the many excesses, contradictions, and irresistible trappings of the music industry and celebrity became the band's signature song, ironically catapulting the country rock stars into the upper echelons of stardom.

The mysterious lyrics have been consistently de-coded throughout the years, taking on various meanings according to eager Eagles fans, with the band offering different meanings to keep everyone guessing.

Despite what its meaning is, 'Hotel California' is widely regarded as one of the greatest songs of all time, and showcases the band's musicianship at its peak.

But who wrote 'Hotel California'? What is the actual meaning behind it? How did it perform after it was initially released?

How much do you know about the Eagles' haunting country rock classic? Read on for all the important facts:

Who wrote 'Hotel California'?

Eagles - Hotel California (Live 1977) (Official Video) [HD]

Whilst each of the Eagles' members dabbled with songwriting throughout the band's tenure, 'Hotel California' was the handiwork of three of them.

The idea was initially conceived by original guitarist Don Felder, who came up with the idea whilst playing around on the beach, which resulted in the chord structure and the song's title.

He later played a demo he made to co-singers Don Henley and Glenn Frey who fleshed out the idea and wrote the song's lyrics.

In an interview with Songfacts, Felder discussed the way in which 'Hotel California' came together from the initial song title.

"Once you arrive in LA and you have your first couple of hits, you become the 'New Kid In Town' and then with greater success, you live 'Life In The Fast Lane' and you start wondering if all that time you've spent in the bars was just 'Wasted Time'," he revealed, nodding to the Eagles' song titles.

"So all of these other song ideas kind of came out of that concept once the foundation was laid for 'Hotel California.' It was a really insightful title."

The guitarist went on to explain: "I had just leased this house out on the beach at Malibu, I guess it was around '74 or '75."

"I remember sitting in the living room, with all the doors wide open on a spectacular July day. I had this acoustic 12-string and I started tinkling around with it, and those 'Hotel California' chords just kind of oozed out."

"Every once in a while it seems like the cosmos part and something great just plops in your lap."

Was there a specific hotel that inspired the song?

The Eagles in 1977. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The Eagles in 1977. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images). Picture: Getty

There was a hotel in mind when Don Henley and Glenn Frey penned the lyrics to 'Hotel California': The Beverly Hills Hotel.

Henley once revealed that The Beverly Hills Hotel had become both a symbolic and literal focus on their lives as a band whilst they were settling into Los Angeles.

"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' was 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."

It was Frey who conceived the cinematic concept of a lone man seeking sanctuary after a long journey on the highway, only to find "a weird world peopled by freaky characters", and soon becoming "quickly spooked by the claustrophobic feeling of being caught in a disturbing web from which he may never escape".

Were the Eagles tormented by California?

Don Felder and Joe Walsh's double-tracked guitar solo is a signature of 'Hotel California'. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)
Don Felder and Joe Walsh's double-tracked guitar solo is a signature of 'Hotel California'. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images). Picture: Getty

Tormented is maybe a rather strong way to put it, but the idea of Los Angeles and balancing commercial success with creative ventures was playing on their minds.

When you consider that only one of the band members (Bernie Leadon) was originally from California, the state takes on an entirely new meaning for outsiders.

Don Henley was from Texas; Glenn Frey was from Detroit; Joe Walsh was from New Jersey; Randy Meisner was from Nebraska, and Don Felder was from Florida.

"As you're driving in Los Angeles at night, you can see the glow of the energy and the lights of Hollywood and Los Angeles for 100 miles out in the desert," Felder later discussed in an interview.

"And on the horizon, as you're driving in, all of these images start coming into your mind of the propaganda and advertisement you've experienced about California."

"In other words, the movie stars, the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, the beaches, bikinis, palm trees, all those images that you see and that people think of when they think of California start running through your mind. You're anticipating that. That's all you know of California."

Frankly put, Felder admitted: "We were all middle-class kids from the Midwest. 'Hotel California' was our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles."

Did the song hint at them having beef with Steely Dan?

"They stab it with their steely knives but they just can&squot;t kill the beast". (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
"They stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast". (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images). Picture: Getty

'Hotel California' did in fact suggest a rivalry between the Eagles and Steely Dan, as they shared the same manager in Irving Azoff.

The line, "they stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast" is a reference to Steely Dan, though their rivalry was more friendly than fierce.

It was in response to Steely Dan's song 'Everything You Did' which came out the year before 'Hotel California' which featured the line, "Turn up the Eagles, the neighbours are listening".

Is 'Hotel California' a metaphor for the afterlife?

The Eagles' Don Felder, Don Henley, and Joe Walsh posing with gold records in 1978. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The Eagles' Don Felder, Don Henley, and Joe Walsh posing with gold records in 1978. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images). Picture: Getty

Over the years, countless fans and critics have attempted to figure out the true meaning of 'Hotel California' or bleed it out of the band themselves, much to their chagrin.

In 2007, Henley told the Daily Mail that "some of the wilder interpretations of that song have been amazing", which include the song detailing a man's journey to the afterlife, the breakdown of a marriage and subsequent divorce, or the idea of paradise being mis-sold.

It was really about the excesses of American culture and certain girls we knew," Henley said at the time. "But it was also about the uneasy balance between art and commerce."

In subsequent interviews, his story has changed slightly - only weeks later Don said "Everyone wants to know what this song means. I know, it's so boring. It's a song about the dark underbelly of the 'American Dream', and about excess in America which was something we knew about."

Shifting the interpretation once again during the 2013 documentary, History of the Eagles, Henley commented: "It's a song about a journey from innocence to experience."

In another take, Glenn Frey compared 'Hotel California' to an episode of The Twilight Zone which features frequent jumps to various scenes and doesn't particularly have a narrative or concept behind it.

Ultimately, Frey said the song's success comes from people attaching their own stories and meanings to it based on the imagery packed into the lyrics.

When was ‘Hotel California’ initially released and how did it perform?

The original vinyl cover for 'Hotel California'.
The original vinyl cover for 'Hotel California'. Picture: Alamy

'Hotel California' was released in 1977 and featured on the album of the same name, to huge critical and commercial acclaim.

It topped the US Billboard Hot 100 for a week, their fourth single to achieve the feat, and was certified gold three months later.

The Eagles were awarded with Record of the Year at the 20th Grammy Awards in 1978 for 'Hotel California' but chose not to attend to pick up the accolade.

Don Henley supposedly loathed competitions, along with the fact that new bassist Timothy B. Schmit had just joined so they decided to rehearse instead of perform at the ceremony. Though they watched it on their televisions at home.

Nevertheless, 'Hotel California' became one of the most culturally significant songs of the era, one whose lyrics have infiltrated popular culture in the years since and has featured in numerous films and television such as The Big Lebowski and The Sopranos.

Has anyone else covered 'Hotel California'?

Nancy Sinatra | Hotel California

'Hotel California' is arguably the Eagles' most covered song, with a wide-ranging amount of artists having covered it in the years since its 1977 release.

Due to its strong association with the band, other artists have struggled to make it their own, with the exception of maybe Nancy Sinatra who covered it in 2002.