No. 20: Eagles, ‘Hotel California’ – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs
‘Hotel California’ might very well be the Eagles‘ best-known song — but if you ask a dozen people what the lyrics mean, you’ll quickly find out this entry in our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs countdown has at least that many explanations.
The band itself has described the six-minute song as its “interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles,” with Don Felder, who wrote the music, explaining, “If you drive into L.A. at night … you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights, and the images [are] of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have.”
Don Henley, the song’s primary lyricist, once said, “It’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.”
But all that aside, listener imaginations ran wild. One group of Christian evangelists insisted ‘Hotel California’ referred to a San Francisco hotel converted into a Church of Satan, while other people thought the song’s title was about a state mental hospital.
Henley’s always been resistant to explaining exactly what the metaphors in the song mean, but here’s what we do know: the word “colitas” in the first stanza is Mexican slang for the buds of the Cannabis plant (oh stop looking so surprised), and the phrase “steely knives” was a playful nod to Steely Dan, who referenced the Eagles in their song ‘Everything You Did.’
Do with all that what you will, but there’s no mystery about the electric guitar interplay between Felder and Joe Walsh at the end of the song.
Walsh recently told us he remembered his recording session with Felder fondly, saying, “We decided we would each have a personality to each of our guitar parts, and we would work together in the body of the song — and then we would have a go at each other at the end. We brought out the best in each other. We were real competitive … if he played something great, it was like ‘Oh yeah? Watch this!’”
The magical combination of metaphors, allegory and some bad-ass guitar work took ‘Hotel California’ to the top of the charts in May of 1977, and the song earned the Eagles a Grammy Award for Record of the Year as well. In addition, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ranks it among the ’500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll,’ and Rolling Stone magazine calls it the 49th greatest song of all time.
Pretty lofty stuff for a song most people still don’t even understand.