(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.)