Hotel California Turns Forty

Not so long ago, you could not wander the halls of any High End Audio show and not hear The Eagles' Hotel California. To say it was an audiophile favorite is to grossly understate the obvious.

Produced by Bill Szymczyk and tracked between March and October 1976 at Criteria Studios in Miami and the California branch of the Record Plant, it was the group's fifth and ultimately one of the album-sales blockbusters of all time. Its current sales number is somewhere near 35 million copies sold. Late last year Rhino Records released a Hotel California 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition CD boxed set edition of this rock landmark that comes complete with a hardbound book of photos, a tour posters and other assorted paper goods.

Given some of my previous utterances on The Eagles and the vociferous responses that they've elicited I need to clear the air once and for all. For the record (and hopefully the last time), even though I am a Gram Parsons fan (if not a full-fledged member of the Gram cult), the Eagles occupy a cherished place in both my teenage hood and my overall musical education. Besides the endless cruising in cars and fruitless scheming about girls that went on whilst the One of These Nights album was playing on an 8-track car stereo, I also bought all the records and saw the band a number of times, both pre and post Joe Walsh joining the band. While I prefer the self-titled debut, On The Border (their first album to be released in a quadraphonic version), and One of These Nights, I pretty much loved them all including The Long Run. With the mustachioed and rakishly handsome Glenn Frey as the front man and Don Henley, one of the few drummers outside Levon Helm who was a genuinely great lead vocalist—both of whom could also write memorable, hooky songs—they were a powerhouse. I have always marveled that Frey, a guy from Detroit, the land of the MC5, Iggy Pop and CREEM magazine, became an icon of soft, sweet SoCal country rock.

The band's supporting cast was equally strong. In fact, I like the band best when the voices of Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner and the slide and double-necked guitar heroics of Don Felder were all still aboard. Leadon, who'd played with Gram Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers prior to the Eagles, wrote "My Man" for the On The Border album to pay tribute after Parsons OD'd in 1973. Losing Randy Meisner's high voice was a definite blow and noticeable sonic alteration change to the band's sound. As far as later additions are concerned, there's no doubt, however, that Joe Walsh's guitar, which upped the band's overall musicianship, and then his songwriting both became welcome infusion of new energy into the band's live shows and the last two studio albums prior to their 1980 breakup.

For me, a show during the On The Border tour (or was it during the One of the These Nights tour . . . the memory wobbles) and one show during the triumphant 1977 Hotel California tour will always rank among my favorite live music experiences of all time.

Now for the inevitable provisos. As a live act, before and after Walsh entered, they did tend to scrupulously stick to the script, essentially playing their studio albums note for note including replicating guitar solos. If you dislike bands that make changes from the studio albums when they play live, then The Eagles were your kind of act. I would have preferred a little stretching, a different vocal arrangement here and there, and a new guitar solo now and then. Seeing them live, I always wanted to see what they actually had musicianshipwise—see them kick out the jams and blow away the old saw about how they were essentially a studio-only band.

And then there's the oversaturation issue. Today, when I listen to the band's albums I tend to lift the needle over the hits and play the inner cuts—the deep tracks that the radio forgot. Because the band owed much of its massive success to 1970s commercial radio who, along with Steve Miller and Fleetwood Mac, played their singles and album cuts—OVER AND OVER AGAIN—I do not go back to Hotel California much. That and it's constant presence at High End Audio shows, where those famous opening chords to the title track that usually sent me drifting back into a hallway, have combined to give me a little ear and brain fatigue.

With that as my overlong prologue, I approached the 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition 2-CD/1-Blu-ray reissue box ($99.98), primarily curious about three things: the original album remastered, the hi-rez and 5.1 mixes and finally the ten previously unreleased live recordings from 1976.

According to Rhino, the surround mix by Elliott Scheiner and the 24-bit/192kHz stereo mix were originally released on a DVD-A in 2001. Neither have ever really impressed me much. While the Eagles camp were early 5.1 adopters, surround was still a new toy then. These mixes could perhaps be improved upon today. While what you hear is the band all around you, at sort of the halfway point between the ceiling and the floor in whatever room you are listening in, I still prefer the standard two-channel mix—you standing in the audience and the band in front of you. Again via Rhino, this new remastering, which was done a few years back when the album was remastered for HD digital download, is here on CD for the first time. The results are not dramatic, but the overall sound is a mite clearer and like virtually all-new remasterings, a touch brighter.

As for the live tracks, they are taken from the band's three=night stand in 1976 in The Forum in LA, a gig that also supplied five tracks for the band's official live recording, Eagles Live. That album, the last Eagles album, was cobbled together to fulfill their contract with the Elektra/Asylum record label. The fact that is has an 86 on the front cover, and record labels that feature a bird's nest filled with eggs and hand grenades were seen at the time as hint that the band was over. The album was mixed and released after the famous backstage near- fisticuffs between Don Felder and Glenn Frey that occurred in Long Beach in July 1980. Frey refused to participate in postproduction. He stayed in Los Angeles while the band went to Miami to work on the album. This led to producer Szymczyk's famous quote: "We were fixing three-part harmonies courtesy of Federal Express."

All that fixing led to a live album that was overdubbed to the point of being a studio album. The sound is suspiciously clean and groomed. It's no secret that many '70s live albums were in fact sweetened in the studio before release—clams were fixed, harmonies were added, guitar solos re-recorded and dropped in. On Eagles Live and the live tracks here on the 40th Anniversary boxed set, any and all warts, both in sound and performance are scrubbed and what's left are impossibly perfect performances with vocal harmonies that are mostly dead-on. What's best about the live tracks here is the selection of tunes, which cherry picks the best tracks from On The Border, One of These Nights and Hotel California.

One mystery here is why extra material from the original sessions—alternate takes or unreleased tunes—was not included. The band's near obsession with recorded perfection, with not exposing loose ends or anything but fully assembled takes, may be the reason. While picture books are nice, more extensive notes would have been a better choice for collectors. And while there have been numerous LP reissues previously, heavy, quiet, premium-quality LPs would have been a welcome addition. Overall, though a must have for Eagles fans and the first of what I suspect will be more tributes to come to one of the most iconic albums in all of pop music recording history.

ToeJam's picture

The author’s comments about over exposure are so true. Still, I love this album, and already own vinyl, hi-Rez stereo and 5.1 versions. I’ll pass on this release.

rschryer's picture

...until "...Eagles Live. That album, the last Eagles album..." It may have been their last then, but, as you know, the Eagles recorded both Hell Freezes Over and Long Road Out of Eden later.

dalethorn's picture

I have a grand total of 3 Eagles tracks in my collection, and 2 of those are Hotel California (live and studio). So I'm not a huge fan, but then again I don't see a lot of benefit to live recordings of rock bands that typically put out heavily processed music. The Rolling Stones' live album from the 1969 tour was well done, but that's a rarity. Another band that made a very listenable live album was Pink Floyd - the live half of Ummagumma. The trick there was having a very quiet audience and introspective playing by the band.

Oh BTW, the live Hotel California track has some great guitar tones and drum impacts. I assume the rest of the album sounds as good. I have a very positive impression of how the audience sounds were blended into this track.

Graham Luke's picture


jeffdyer's picture

I have the 5.1 SACD version. That's good enough for my cloth ears.

BDP24's picture

In the documentary on them I found myself unable to get out of seeing, there is a scene in which Don Henley tells of the parties The Eagles would have at the hotel after shows, wherein they would fill the bathtub with beers and ice. Wild man, wild. I'm going to guess they are as boring as people as they are at making music.

RageATL's picture

"The fact that IS has an 86 on the front cover..."

"It's no secret that many '70s live albums were in fact sweetened in the studio before release—CLAMS were fixed..."

Y'all need a new editor. ;)

rschryer's picture

...but a clam, in this context, is slang for a mistake made by a musician.

boulderskies's picture

It takes a certain kind of personality to turn a record review into a personal self portait. A waste of bandwidth...

dalethorn's picture

As an ordinary music review, OK ..... but as an audiophile music review, excellent. More about the Eagles than I ever knew, and worth the read due to the rock legends therein. My brother was a big fan - me not so much, but even when I have just 3 of their phenomenal tracks on my music player, that's a great thing to have.

orgillian's picture

This album seemed like a step forward, given how inconsistent its predecessor One Of These Nights was, and how much we, who already loved Joe Walsh, thought he would bring to the band. Walsh's warmup riff that became Life In The Fast Lane was a prime example of this, as was the exquisite pas de deux he and Felder played to close out the title track. In the end though, Henley's The Last Resort represented the epitome of his lyrical whining as much as it musically defined the end of the band as a true collaborative group - Don in a soundbooth singing wistfully of a paradise that never existed atop of a pseudo orchestra - so much promise yet so little ultimately delivered. Funny though how 30 + million in sales can make even the weakest music seem like genius...and sad too how the promise of Desperado and On The Border fizzled into the California desert...

Shootr's picture

Joe Walsh was far more than just a studio musician. I suspect the other members were also but they chose to play it close to the vest in their concerts. I remember disctinctly a lot of improvised play during Walsh's rendition of Turn To Stone when I saw the Eagles on their second to last concert ever. If he had played it the way it was first recorded it would have still sounded improvised because that't the way the Walsh originally played it.

I'm not tired of Hotel California at all. Maybe it's because I only listen when I want to hear it. It's a fantastic song as we all know. It has more meaning than pretty much any other rock song in history IMO. They shattered the myth of the California high life. I am still thrilled at the point, counter-point alternating leads at the end. My take on that is it represents the shock of having the comfortable lifestyle revealed to be a fraud. The leads alternate the feeling of shock with the desire to cling to the fading ways of the past. It's music genius IMO. The lyrics set it up perfectly and they drive home the point like few have ever done. I still rate it among the top rock songs of all time and my list is not the usual list (Free Bird isn't on the list for example).

BTW I love Desperado too. I loved it from the first time I heard it way back when. I don't care if the critics panned it. What do they know? They're just fans with a soap box. I point to Rolling Stone bashing Led Zeppelin for years until they finally figured out they were on the wrong side of history. My opinion means more to me than their's does.