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Counterbalance No. 102: Eagles - 'Hotel California'

The 102nd most acclaimed album of all time knew all the right people, took all the right pills. Counterbalance gives it a listen to see if it was all just wasted time.


Hotel California

US Release: 1976-12-08
UK Release: 1976-12-08
Label: Asylum

Mendelsohn: The only thing I really know about the Eagles I learned from watching episodes of Yacht Rock, a poorly produced web series that was popular back in 2006 for a minute, that detailed the lives and adventures of makers of smooth, smooth music. Yacht Rock, specifically the episode “FM", taught me that the Eagles were a bunch of meatheads who wrote smooth music and beat up Steely Dan for their lunch money. I took all of this as fact, because honestly, I didn't really want to know anything more about the Eagles than is required of me. Well, now we've come to the point where I have to learn about the Eagles, and I have to tell you, I'm severely disappointed that Steely Dan and the Eagles were actually friends in real life. I'm also severely disappointed by Hotel California. Not the song, I sort of like that, but the rest of the album feels like slogging through a swamp of smooth music and soft ballads. Not nearly as bad as slogging through a real swamp, but not how I want to spend my Saturday afternoon. The one exception I will make is for "Life in the Fast Lane" I don't care if it's an overplayed AOR radio staple. I love it and have no problem with Joe Walsh. The rest of the Eagles can go lay an egg. Your turn.

Klinger: Well, yeah, this has been a difficult week here at Counterbalance HQ, what with the Eagles playing all the time, but we'll do our best to persevere. (I would argue that there's no way you couldn't know at least something about the Eagles, since here in the Midwest their songs are played about every hour on our radio stations. Once I heard "Peaceful Easy Feeling" playing on both the oldies station and the classic rock station at the exact same time. I almost drove into oncoming traffic.) However, I must confess that like a lot of teenagers in the 1980s, I went through a (mercifully brief) Eagles phase in which their Eagles Live album was in heavy rotation.

My girlfriend back then would sternly lecture me about the Satanic influences in their music and something something steely knives and you can never leave and something something, but I wouldn't listen. I just kept playing Eagles Live over and over. I think she's even the one who told me that Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, could be seen lurking in the shadows in a picture on the Hotel California inner sleeve, but this was the cassette era and we didn't have sleeves. It turns out, though, that she was half right: the Eagles were a pernicious influence on us all, but it had more to do with their stultifying music than any overriding commitment to Evil. But yeah, Joe Walsh is cool. Now it's up to us to figure out how this album got on the Great List.

Mendelsohn: I wish this album was more satanic. I also wish there was more hard rock grooves and less of their southern California country feel-good vibes. But that may be why we are talking about this record. It is full of well-executed, feel-good vibes backed by smooth, smooth ballads. Looking back over the Great List, the years of 1976—when Hotel California was released—and 1977 have a bit of a split personality when it comes to the albums that garnered the most critical acclaim and that sets up an interesting dichotomy that may help explain the inclusion of this record. On the one hand, you have the emerging punk scene as the Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Clash, and, to some extent, Television released albums mostly to critical acclaim. On the other hand you have the commercial juggernauts of Stevie Wonder, the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac who enjoyed both commercial and critical acclaim. I would like to point out that the former groups listed all rank higher on the Great List above their smooth counterparts, so while the criterati placed high praise on the new, cool groups, it seems they couldn't escape the gravitational pull of such commercial success that propelled a group like the Eagles to the top of the charts.

I guess, when you get down to it, no one wants to listen to punk all the time. I can't blame them, but I also don't particularly want to listen to the Eagles. Man, I'm glad I didn't have to suffer through that. How did you manage?

Klinger: I think that it eventually just leaves your system, like a toxin. But I don't really remember the Eagles ever being all that popular with the critics. One wag of a scribe famously dug into their peaceful easy vibe by accusing them of "loitering" onstage. And among their So Cal brethren they lagged well behind Warren Zevon and even Jackson Browne in terms of critical respect. Hotel California was so clearly, so visibly their play for critical approval that it's really hard to imagine that it actually worked. Obviously bringing in Joe Walsh and Don Felder (whose playing is really what lights up the title track) was an attempt to rock things up a little, but then Walsh ends up contributing the über-mellow "Pretty Maids All in a Row", which only serves to confuse the issue. Personally, I suspect that Jann Wenner spent a lot of time, uh, enjoying himself at Henley's house in Aspen, and as a result put the screws to his editors to make sure that Hotel California got itself shoehorned into every Top 500 list that Rolling Stone compiles.

But there you go. You mention Fleetwood Mac, and you're right that Rumours is regarded considerably better than Hotel California, despite the fact that it's shot through with the same sunny-breezy vibes and Peruvian excesses. Yet I can't hear the Eagles anymore without being reminded of that all-too-apt line from The Big Lebowski—and I suspect I'm hardly alone. What is it that makes the Eagles such an easy target?

Mendelsohn: Don Henley's giant head? That's a pretty easy target to hit. They were also hugely successful and that breeds contempt. I'm not sure why but for the better part of the 1970s, they were the biggest band in the United States. I think it is because they were so middle of the road. The Eagles are the vanilla pudding of rock 'n' roll. Serviceable in all situations and unlikely to offend. But they weren't the good kind of vanilla pudding, the homemade stuff that Mom would whip up in the kitchen for desert, no, the Eagles are more like the stuff you get from a plastic container in the hospital. It's bland, a little soupy, and doesn't have any character, but everyone keeps eating because they have no idea what real pudding tastes like because somebody in a white coat keeps handing them single-serving packs of over processed, dairy-like gelatinous ooze. I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself. That quote is completely out of context but I think I've made my point.

Thinking it over, this is probably all Joe Walsh's fault.

Klinger: Oh no, Walsh was most certainly the crunchy Nilla Wafers in this whole pudding metaphor of yours. And while we're on the subject of complicated, difficult-to-prove metaphors, I've decided that Don Henley is the Michael Douglas of rock. Both men are obviously quite talented, and both are capable of unassailably good work ("The Boys of Summer", Wonder Boys). But in both cases, I can't escape the feeling that somewhere right under the surface of their performances lies an undeniable smugness, a belief that they're doing ever so much more than simply performing—they are making very important work, work that should also serve to cement their position as the heirs apparent to the title of Spokesman for a Generation. That sense is all over Hotel California, and maybe at the time there were just enough boomers hungry for a new spokesman that this album fit the bill.

Of course, this still doesn't help explain Glenn Frey, whose country rock stylings are such a key ingredient of the Eagles' sound and whose "New Kid in Town" gets stuck in my head like post-nasal drip. But to my ears, their brand of acoustic rootsiness is totally at odds with, say Gram Parsons, who combined the swagger of rock with the pathos of country. The Eagles' take on it is rather more likely to combine the posturing of rock with the mawkishness of country.

But hey, we've been a real couple of cranky-pants this time around, and it's still inescapable that Hotel California must have some appeal for people and critics alike—after all, every American over the age of 40 has at one pointed owned a copy of this LP. So I suppose we should each say something nice about Hotel California before we close. I'll start: the string bit at the end of "Wasted Time" is lovely, and as you said before "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane" are well-observed documents of a time and place that needed documenting. Your turn.

Mendelsohn: Well, if Walsh hadn't joined the Eagles, thereby lending them some semblance of cool and completing the unstoppable five-part harmony, then we wouldn't be having this conversation, now would we? Screw it, Klinger, let's go bowling.

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