The Dale Cooper Quartet: Metamanoir
John Darnielle: Universal Harvester

Is "Hotel California" the best rock recording of the 1970s?

I'm referring to the song alone, not the album. And although I don't think the answer is an absolute "yes," if only because you can't reasonably pick one, if I did have to pick one, this might be it. I have trouble coming up with something that I would definitely place above it, or alongside it: Springsteen's "Born to Run," maybe, or another song from the album of the same name. 

Anyway, it's a great song, and a great recording; i.e. it isn't the song alone, but the whole package. What do I mean by "great"? Well, aside from musical excellence, I have in mind some sort of depth and scope, something that gives the recording a broad cultural significance, and maybe even more. As a commentary on the decay of American society, and specifically of the decay of the phenomenon we call "the Sixties," "Hotel California" is profound. 

And it is musically brilliant, in writing and performance: the imaginative and decidedly atypical (for pop music) chord progression, the odd but mysteriously effective dub-like rhythm, the lyrics which brilliantly describe a place devoted to sensual pleasure which "could be heaven or...could be hell," where the inhabitants 

...gather for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can't kill the beast

and from which there is no escape, as described in the lines which have become part of our culture: 

You can check out anytime you like
But you can never leave

And the dual electric guitar breaks which are up there with "Sultans of Swing" in Guitar World's list of classics (#5 and #7, respectively).

I posted a shorter version of this on Facebook, and got a certain number of "I hate the Eagles" responses, several saying their music is bland and boring, and referencing that scene from The Big Lebowski:

I'm not a big fan of the Eagles. In fact I've always disliked the song to which The Dude is reacting in that scene. I like some of their music well enough, especially the Desperado album, but it's not music I go out of my way to hear, and I never bought any of their albums. (I might have bought Desperado, but I was working in a record store when it was released, and heard it enough for a lifetime.)

But "Hotel California" is different from everything else they did. Whatever you think of it, "bland" and "boring" do not apply.

Forty years on, the song's metaphor continues to be applicable to the country. It occurs to me that it represents an end point to something initiated or at least recognized in the Beatle's "A Day in the Life" approximately ten years earlier. "A Day in the Life" sketched an alienated culture and suggested liberation through drugs. "Hotel California" is where that trip ended. 

Comments

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That scene from The Big Lebowski cracks me up as much today as it did the first time I saw it. And I recently had a genial argument with a friend on whether America or The Eagles were more "commercial."

I've never been a big Eagles fan, and must confess to finding "Hotel California" somewhat overblown and melodramatic. But this may be because overhearing it has ruined its strong points for me. I do remember liking it fairly well when it first came out. Oddly enough, the friend with whom I was arguing about America vs. The Eagles feels exactly the same way about "Born to Run," a song which for me has never lost its power.

Even though I'm not a fan of the song I can certainly understand why it's considered a 70's great. For my money the other 70's rock song that immediately springs to mind is Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way."

Funny that you mention "Go Your Own Way"--it was one of the songs that somebody commenting on my Facebook post nominated as a more worthy best of the '70s. I do like it but that seems like an apples-oranges comparison--it's not "great" in the sense that I described here. "Overblown and melodramatic" are fair criticisms of HC, though obviously I think it works anyway.

I never heard any more of America than that handful of successful singles, so have no firm opinion about them vs Eagles. The Eagles had more hits, so by the measure of the marketplace they were more "commercial." :-)

All this is so subjective, but quite fun of course! I remember riding my bicycle to the local record store to buy the Hotel California album when it was released. I would say that listening to the album as a whole is a better experience than just to listen to the one song, that I unfortunately feel like I've heard 100,000 times. As I said on your FB post, "Lyin' Eyes" is my favorite of the Eagles. Also, they are a band I've kind of drifted away from (again, do to over-saturation), but it is hard to deny the talent they had and especially with the harmonies between Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit, Don Felder - I guess all of them! At any rate HC was a really great album, perhaps the final great Eagles album. There's no more over-saturation of music because there's no more Top 40 format radio....or is there? I couldn't tell you one song from someone like Taylor Swift, or Miley Cyrus, though I am aware of their existences.

I suppose I really didn't address your original question. Sure, I can go for it based on your explanation and criteria you seemed to be following, and also the Beatles song you mentioned harkoning back to the 1960s. I suppose you would not consider "Imagine", or "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road"? ;-)

"Imagine" has its own position in infamy. :-) I actually don't have any idea what "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is about beyond the title. And there's a penthouse in there somewhere. That album was like Desperado, played to death in the record store, and I don't think I understood more than a few words out of the whole two LPs. Not that I tried very hard.

"Lyin' Eyes" is an excellent song, but also one heard way too many times. Looking at their discography on AllMusic, I see I only ever heard their first album and Desperado all the way through back in the day. But the first album has a song on which I agree with the Eagles-haters: "Peaceful Easy Feelin'". Nothing really wrong with it, but I dislike it. It too was overexposed. I listened to HC all the way through the other day and it seems uneven to me as an album.

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