It’s been more than 41 years since Hotel California was released, but no matter – this fresh reissue let’s us reflect on a record that’s sold a staggering 48 million copies. And in addition to the remastered album, you get a full Eagles concert at the L.A. Forum, taped a month before the LP was released in December 1976.
The backstory of the album is that the Eagles finally found a genuine rock producer (Bill Szymczyk), and merged their soft country-rock sound with harder riffs from new guitarist Joe Walsh, creating a formula that AOR radio found irresistible. Looking back, the LP feels more crafty than truly brilliant, almost surgically engineered to produce hits. There were tender piano ballads (“New Kid In Town,” “Pretty Maids In A Row”) mixed with heavy guitar stompers (“Life In The Fast Lane,” “Victim Of Love”). Pretty much something for everyone.
There’s also the title track, an epic comparable in scale and scope to “Stairway To Heaven” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It broke the mold of the three-minute Eagles single, evolving into a raging axe duel between Walsh and co-leadman Don Felder (who wrote the central chord progression). Topped by wickedly cynical lyrics, the song remains a brittle gem of ’70s rock.
Throughout the LP, Walsh and Felder conjure up both quiet licks and loud riffage with ease; listen to the mariachi-styled guitar figures in “New Kid” to hear them play it soft and sweet. In contrast, “Fast Lane” delivers a savage Walsh riff over a funk figure – the mechanical precision of the rhythm section shows you how tight these young guns were. Finally, Joe drops in one of his ain’t-in-no-hurry solos and brings it all home.
Cue up the Forum live disc to hear the Walsh/Felder dynamic even better. Felder (left channel) rips it up on “James Dean,” adding snappy leads behind the vocals, and then he and Joe (right channel) weave in daredevil harmonies. The Eagles’ take on the James Gang’s “Funk #49” is perhaps overly professional, but allows both Felder and Walsh to deliver smokin’ solos.
It bears reminding ourselves how terrific a singer Joe is – like his famed brother-in-law, Ringo Starr, he doesn’t have a technically great voice, but you can recognize it a mile away. In the music biz, that’s pure gold – or in this case, platinum.
The final treat is an in-concert version of “Hotel California,” with its haunting chord riff and that final guitar battle between Walsh and Felder, somewhere out on a dark desert highway. Even four decades later, it may be the Eagles’ finest hour.
This article originally appeared in VG May 2018 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.