Sep 19

In These Old Familiar Rooms (THE EAGLES – “Hotel California”)

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(Reached #8 in May 1977)

A byword for monolithic biggitude in their homeland, The Eagles never came close to a Number One in Britain. They did a solid trade in LPs, but they’re one of those groups who kept finding a ready British audience for “Greatest Hits” albums which – technically – are nothing of the sort. Their size and fame was more rumour and maybe wish, men buying CDs in service stations and dreaming of a denim-draped land far away where soft rock ruled the desert night.

Like most big album acts, The Eagles did have a signature song, and like many signature songs, it was long and ponderous and vaguely allusive, a rebuke to the idea that pop worked best as sharp jabs of feeling. I admit it, there’s a base appeal for me in the idea of the Prestige Rock epic as a grand statement, one I’ve protested too much against sometimes. It took years – decades! – for me to admit that while “Stairway To Heaven” is stupid in a dozen different ways, none of them actually stop it being great. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is distended and lumbering, mercury mourned by lead, but maybe more poignant because of that. Could you say something similar about “Hotel California”?

The odds are against it. “Hotel California” doesn’t build; it doesn’t segment itself; it adds on a guitar solo (very nice as these things go) as a way of kludging together an ending once its story’s finished. It can’t commit to its mysticism, moving between mission bells ringing and bitching about faithless chicks, between running down nightmare corridors to in-jokes about Steely Dan. (The Dan, with pre-emptive spite, recorded “Sign In Stranger” the same year, a far more evocative entry in the ‘weird lodgings’ subgenre).

And it’s so clumsy. The “we haven’t had that spirit here since – 1969” line is as on the nose as a silvered coke straw, and “this could be heaven or this could be hell” reinforces the feeling that whatever else the band are aiming for here, it can’t be profundity. There’s no poetry in “Hotel California”, no real riddle to unlock.

So what is there? Vibe, at least. The hints of reggae in the rhythm and delivery give some of the game away – a signal of the exotic, of travellers’ tales and resin-rich shaggy dog stories. The lines that land in the song are the first one – setting the scene – and the final punchline – everything else is campfire-story flummery. “Hotel California” is American Gothic as a summer camp ghost story, as cosy as a torch under the chin, with the solo as a swell of communal appreciation at the story’s end.

The band are onto something in the setting – we’re a year or so away from Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick finding how to unlock the horror of hotels as liminal places where you come face to face with yourself. “Hotel California” gestures at that darkness, out beyond the fire, a couple of times. But that’s not what The Eagles were ever about. The gesturing at 1969 isn’t just unconvincing because it’s laboured, but because this band and this song aren’t here to critique rock, but to sustain it as something big and reassuring, a warm centre for culture. You can never leave – but when the highway’s this wide and the going’s this smooth, who’d want to?

5 out of 10

(Less Popular are reviews of hits which did not get to #1 – it’s made possible by the generosity of the patrons on my Patreon.)


  1. 1
    Phil on 18 Sep 2019 #

    I hated this song with a passion, both at the time and for a decade or so afterwards, because it was so facile while also being so damn catchy and well-executed. (See also that compendium of cliches, Born to Run.)

    Joe Walsh had only recently joined the group, and I always felt that the length & uninhibitedness of that guitar solo showed that the Eagles hadn’t quite absorbed him yet; what’s ironic that it makes the song. There’s perhaps an echo of Free Bird, particularly in the duetting guitars towards the end; at least, it will have appealed to a lot of people who also liked FB.

  2. 2
    Mark M on 20 Sep 2019 #

    This was part of my childhood, in a way that Stairway to Heaven and Shine On You Crazy Diamond* weren’t. It was one of my brother’s tapes that got played a lot on long, long car journeys around Mexico and – I’m pretty certain – our epic family road trip from Mexico City to the Grand Canyon, Vegas and then – yes – San Francisco and LA. My sister and I even bought our own copy so we’d have it when our brother was elsewhere. So I’m guessing that having heard the lines ‘On a dark desert highway…’ on dark desert highways** a number of times probably enhances it.

    And I’m still reasonably happy to hear it – that’s one of the fairly few long guitar solos that lurks near complete in my mind. The lyrics are obviously nonsense and occasionally portentous nonsense, but they hint at a good spooky story – campfire-style indeed – and that’s works for me.

    It’s not the one great song on the album – that’s New Kid In Town – but I think Hotel California is good silly not bad silly.

    *Now those are two songs I’d walk out of a shop to avoid.
    **My father was very much of the ‘I’m sure we’ll find somewhere reasonable to stay when the time comes mentality’, which led us to spend nights in some wretched places.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 22 Sep 2019 #

    I am old enough to remember hearing this being premiered on Nicky Horne’s show on Capital Radio and even then feeling a bit underwhelmed by the lyrics and the cod reggae arrangement. The album is similarly disappointing in its sententious and meandering posturing with only Randy Meisner’s ‘Try and Love Again’ providing a refreshingly lightweight break. IMO there’s a distasteful suspicion of homophobia in the ‘pretty, pretty boys’ line that reveals the unreflective conservatism of the self styled outlaws.
    The reggae rhythms were also found in Steely Dan’s ‘Haitian Divorce’ from earlier that year while ‘Everything you did’ from the same album (‘The Royal Scam’) features the songs angry narrator ordering his partner to ‘Turn up the Eagles, the neighbours are listening’ which prompted the rather limp ‘steely knives’ response in return.
    If I wanted to get a sense of the murky appeal of the alternative California I’d rather listen to Gene Clark’s ‘From a Silver Phial’

  4. 4
    mark sinker on 23 Sep 2019 #

    the gang of prog fans in the year below me at school absolutely included eagles as a favourite alongside yes, genesis, barclay james harvest and so on — as if this was a natural fit (at the time being ignorant i didn’t question it; now it seems a little odd)

  5. 5
    Gareth Parker on 22 Aug 2021 #

    I think Tom’s 5/10 is pretty much on the money here, for the Eagles. Quite like Stairway to Heaven (7/10?) but personally don’t have that much time for SOYCD (or 70s Pink Floyd in general), so a 3/10 there.

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