Released in 1976, Hotel California rapidly became one of the world’s best selling albums. For the past 5 years it has been my most played album on Spotify. My annual top ten of most played songs includes as least 5 of the 9 album tracks. I have spent many hours listening to the album and plenty trying to decode the themes and truly understand the meaning of Hotel California.
The great thing about any music is that every listener will take something different from it. There will also be a difference between what it means to me, the listener and what the writers want you to think they are singing about. Every interpretation will be subjective, not definitive. So here is my take on it.
What does Hotel California Mean?
The album can be seen as a metaphor for their lives in the 1970s. The story behind Hotel California is the band’s rapid rise to fame. Between their arrival on the scene, and the writing of Hotel California – the band wrote, released and toured four major albums and delivered a Greatest Hits album that remains one of the all time best sellers.
Between 1971 and conceiving the album in February 1977 the band wrote, recorded, toured and partied relentlessly! Money, parties, and drugs all took their toll. Don Henley (long before he wrote songs about New York) came up with the concept and title into which the other band members added songs.
The meaning of Hotel California can be assumed as the record industry. The band, mostly California outsiders arrived in Los Angeles, along a dark desert highway to be welcomed into the music industry. Like the welcome to a hotel that promises much, “Welcome to Hotel California” could be “Welcome to the Music Industry.”
The album takes the listener on a journey. Coming in on the dark desert highway full of excitement and expectation and leaving, broken and burnt out sailing off to lahaina.
There is no one dark desert highway, but a reference to the ‘path’ to Los Angeles and fame. Only one band member was from California, the rest were all ‘outsiders’ that individually found their way to the land of dreams.
As the title track song progresses we learn about the excess or success of the record industry and the power of music. ‘Her mind is tiffany twisted’ seems to be a reference to a divorce settlement. Considering the album was about the dark side of success you can see how the valuations were in material things – jewellery from Tiffany’s, a Mercedes-Benz. The definite misspelling (Mercedes Bends) could also reference ‘the bends’ that a diver would experience if they came up too quickly.
Along the way, the songwriters Don Felder, Don Henley & Glenn Frey add in some jibes at other bands. The line “they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast,” is a playful jab to at Steely Dan. On ‘Everything You did’, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wrote, “turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening”. Taken from the album ‘The Royal Scam’ which was released six months prior.
“You can check out any time you like” could be a reference to death a suicide or drug overdose, ‘but you can never leave’ meaning that even after death you are in a record contract.
- ‘New Kid in Town’ was about being the hot new band and watching as the next group on everybody’s lips came into town: “Everybody’s talking… people starting walking…”
- ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ was a line the band heard whilst literally ‘racing up and down the freeway’ trying to find drugs. Another member of the party kept saying, “life in the fast lane…”, and so a song was born.
- ‘Wasted Time’ was a tired band looking negatively at the past and thinking, was this all wasted? Their success clearly dictates otherwise. ‘Pretty Maids All In a Row’ is a reference to lines cocaine.
- The last track on the album, the bleak ‘The Last Resort’, ends with what feels like a comment on the industry and the changing culture of California: “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
Where is the real Hotel California?
- The hotel on the cover is the Beverly Hills Hotel (one of the many LA Rock n’ Roll Landmarks). It is not the Chateau Marmont. If you go there, don’t expect to get a picture like the front cover. That was taken from a cherry picker 60 foot in the air!
- The back cover was taken at the Lido Apartments, 6500 Yucca St, Los Angeles (read more about the album cover in this great article, ‘Location of the Ghostly Eagles “Hotel California” Lobby Gatefold Photo’).
Who Wrote Hotel California?
- The album was written by and shares the perspective of California ‘outsiders’. Despite the Eagles sounding like a California band, only Bernie Leadon was originally from The Golden State. The songwriters (for the single Hotel California) were Don Felder from Florida, Glenn Frey from Detroit and Don Henley from Texas.
- Whilst the band sang harmonies, four different members took lead vocals on different tracks. Don Henley on the title track, ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, ‘Wasted Time’, ‘Victim of Love’ and ‘The Last Resort’. Glenn Frey on ‘New Kid in Town’, Joe Walsh on ‘Pretty Maids in a Row’, and Randy Meisner on ‘Try and Love Again.’
- The guitar riff from ‘Fast Lane came from Joe Walsh practicing. The other band members loved the riff and built from there.
Just How BIG Was This Album?
- The album spawned two number one singles, the title track and ‘New Kid in Town’, as well as a third tune which almost reached the top 10 – ‘Life in the Fast Lane’.
- To date, the album has sold more than 21.5 million copies – that’s massive! Still, that is six million less than Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and a whopping 10 million less than their very own Greatest Hits that was released just before Hotel California. (source)
- It won many awards:
- 1978 Grammy for Song of the Year – Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Don Felder. (But lost Record of the Year to Rumours)
- 1978 Grammy for Best Pop Performance – Eagles
- 1978 Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance – Eagles
- Both the single and album are in the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honors musical recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance.
- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame defined this as a song that shaped rock and roll.
- The music style can be considered Americana.
What Happened Next?
The album went on to record sales of over 26,000,000 copies in the USA alone! A tour followed by which time the band weren’t really connecting. The pursuit of perfection had paid off, but left the band burnt out.
“It had stopped being fun,” Glenn Frey told the Independent newspaper. “We no longer trusted each other’s instincts, so there was considerable disagreement. Plus, both Henley and I had developed drug habits, which didn’t help matters.”
It took another three years to deliver ‘The Long Run‘ which had some good tracks but would never reach the Zenith of Hotel California.
Essential Reading on Hotel California
If you’re still here, then I thank you for reading. I have endeavoured to double check these facts along the way. Some of them may be my personal interpretation of the songs and their meanings. Whilst band members including Don Henley and Glenn Frey have shared thoughts on the meanings of some songs, they have never explicitly stated the connections. Perhaps the music is better for your interpretation that simply following the dots, with many of my insights have come from watching documentaries like ‘History of the Eagles’ (available to stream) and books.
The Eagles grew up in Los Angeles at a time of great cultural change, well documented in the BBC’s ‘Hotel California – LA from the Byrds to the Eagles’ which is available on the Internet archive. This album and these stories were the influence for me to take a small pilgrimage of sorts to Los Angeles and seek out some of the locations, like the Troubadour Club and Laurel Canyon, made famous by the Eagles and others. My blog post covers those Rock n Roll Landmarks of Los Angeles.