The Story of... 'Hotel California' by Eagles

22 April 2020, 16:58

Eagles - Hotel California
Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

'Hotel California' by the Eagles is one of the most iconic songs ever recorded, and helped the band's Greatest Hits become the biggest-selling album in United States chart history.

The summery classic rock track from 1976 still sounds fresh over 40 years later, but what is it all actually about and is it based on a real hotel?

Here's all the facts behind the song:

  1. Who wrote 'Hotel California'?

    Don Felder came up with the instrumental demo
    Don Felder came up with the instrumental demo. Picture: Getty

    Writing credits for the song are shared by Don Felder (music), Don Henley, and Glenn Frey (lyrics).

    The song was written for the band's 1976 album of the same name.

  2. What inspired the song?

    In general, the song is about materialism and excess. California is used as the song's setting, but it could relate to anywhere in America and beyond.

    In 2007, Don Henley said: "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."

    In 2013, he added: "It's a song about a journey from innocence to experience."

    Don Henley and Glenn Frey wrote the lyrics
    Don Henley and Glenn Frey wrote the lyrics. Picture: Getty

    Henley chose the theme of the song, pointing out how The Beverly Hills Hotel had become a literal and symbolic focus of their lives at the time.

    He 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 also came up with a story of a person who, fed up of driving a long distance in a desert, saw a place to rest and pulled in for the night. However, he 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."

    Speaking to Cameron Crowe, Frey said he and Henley wanted the song "to open like an episode of the Twilight Zone", saying: "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 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."

    Henley wrote most of the lyrics based on Frey's ideas, and also looked for inspiration by driving out into the desert, as well as from films and theatre.

    Read more: Watch the most incredible vocal harmonies by The Eagles

    Meanwhile, some of the lyrics, such as 'Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes-Benz / She got a lot of pretty pretty boys she calls friends', were based on Henley's break-up with girlfriend Loree Rodkin.

    Theuse 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 dig at the band Steely Dan, who had previously included the lyric 'Turn up the Eagles, the neighbours are listening' in their song 'Everything You Did'.

  3. What other interpretations of the song are there?

    The song has alsp been described as being "all about American decadence and burnout, too much money, corruption, drugs and arrogance; too little humility and heart."

    It has been interpreted as a metaphor for hedonism, self-destruction, and greed in the music industry in the late 1970s.

    In the Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Volume 1, Steve Sullivan theorized that the "spirit" that the Hotel California hasn't had since 1969, refers to the spirit of social activism of the 1960s.

    The Eagles
    The Eagles. Picture: Getty

    The character of the story in the lyrics has inspired several other conjectural interpretations by listeners.

    In the 1980s, the Reverand Paul Risley of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin claimed that 'Hotel California' referred to a San Francisco hotel bought by Anton LaVey and converted into his Church of Satan.

    Other claims suggested that the Hotel California was the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

    The word 'colitas' in the song has been interpreted as sexual slang or a nod to marijuana. 'Colitas' means 'little tails' in Spanish, while in Mexican slang it refers to buds of the cannabis plant.

    Other interpretations of the song include heroin addiction and cannibalism.

    Henley once said: "Some of the wilder interpretations of that song have been amazing. It was really about the excesses of American culture and certain girls we knew. But it was also about the uneasy balance between art and commerce."

  4. How was it recorded?

    A demo of the song's instrumental was created by Don Felder in a rented house on Malibu Beach.

    He recorded the basic tracks with a Rhythm Ace drum machine and then added a 12 string guitar on a four-track recording deck in his spare bedroom, then mixed in a bassline.

    He gave Don Henley and Glenn Frey each a copy of the recording. Felder, who met the Eagles via 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 might work with him on finishing the songs they liked.

    Felder's demo for 'Hotel California' had influences from Latin and reggae music, and it intrigued Henley, who said he liked the song that "sounds like a Mexican reggae or Bolero", giving its first working title, 'Mexican Reggae'.

    Read more: Play the ultimate Eagles lyrics quiz

    The Eagles recorded the song with Don Henley on lead vocal three times, twice at the Record Plant in LA, and also at the Criteria Studios in Miami.

    They first recorded the song's riff, but for the vocals, the key was too high for Henley's voice, so Felder lowered the key from E minor, to B minor.

    The second recording was too fast, and so in Miami, the band fine-tuned the instrumentats and lyrics, and recorded several takes. Five or six best ones were selected, and the best parts were mixed together.

    Producer Bill Szymczyk said there were 33 edits on the two‑inch master. The final version had a guitar battle between Joe Walsh and Felder.

  5. It was almost not released as a single

    Henley decided that the song should be a single, but Felder had doubts, and the record company wasn't sure about releasing a six minute single, which far exceeded that of the songs generally played by radio stations.

    However, the band took a stand and refused the label's request to shorten the song.

  6. How did it perform in the charts?

    'Hotel California' topped the US charts for a week in May 1977, their fourth song to achieve the feat.

    In 2009, the song was certified Platinum by the RIAA for sales of one million digital downloads, and has since sold over 3 million downloads.

    In the UK, it reached a peak of number eight.

  7. What is the hotel on the album cover?

    A view of the grounds of the Beverly Hil
    A view of the grounds of the Beverly Hil. Picture: Getty

    The hotel on the album cover is the Beverly Hills Hotel, known as the Pink Palace.

    The photo was taken by photographers David Alexander and John Kosh, who sat in a cherry-picker about 60 feet above Sunset Boulevard to get the shot.

    However, the rush-hour traffic at the time made the experience rather difficult!

  8. What happened to the movie version?

    According to Rolling Stone, Julia Phillips, the producer of films Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, wanted to make a movie based on the song's story.

    The band members and Phillips met up to discuss the idea. In her book You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, she said that the band members were difficult to deal with and arrogant.

    Henley later said that Phillips offered them cocaine and was "nonplussed" when they turned it down.

    Rolling Stone reported that the band was not upset at the film being scrapped, as they were not particularly in love with the idea of a movie version.

  9. What are the lyrics?

    On a dark desert highway
    Cool wind in my hair
    Warm smell of colitas
    Rising up through the air

    Up ahead in the distance
    I saw a shimmering light
    My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
    I had to stop for the night

    There she stood in the doorway
    I heard the mission bell
    And I was thinkin' to myself
    'This could be heaven or this could be hell

    Then she lit up a candle
    And she showed me the way
    There were voices down the corridor
    I thought I heard them say

    Welcome to the Hotel California
    Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
    Such a lovely face
    Plenty of room at the Hotel California
    Any time of year (any time of year)
    You can find it here

    Her mind is Tiffany-twisted
    She got the Mercedes Benz, uh
    She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys
    That she calls friends

    How they dance in the courtyard
    Sweet summer sweat
    Some dance to remember
    Some dance to forget

    So I called up the Captain
    "Please bring me my wine"
    He said, "We haven't had that spirit here since 1969"

    And still those voices are calling from far away
    Wake you up in the middle of the night
    Just to hear them say

    Welcome to the Hotel California
    Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
    Such a lovely face
    They livin' it up at the Hotel California
    What a nice surprise (what a nice surprise)
    Bring your alibis

    Mirrors on the ceiling
    The pink champagne on ice
    And she said, "We are all just prisoners here of our own device"

    And in the master's chambers
    They gathered for the feast
    They stab it with their steely knives
    But they just can't kill the beast

    Last thing I remember
    I was running for the door
    I had to find the passage back
    To the place I was before

    "Relax", said the night man
    "We are programmed to receive
    You can check out any time you like
    But you can never leave"