Record Bin: How The Eagles perfected soft rock on “Hotel California”

Authored By pitulah

Most people have a love-hate relationship with The Eagles. If you grew up with them, that love was cemented in place through a collection of remarkable singles that basically created the soft rock genre. But if you came to them later, there was always something of a stigma to their laid-back rock sound-as if you should feel just a little bit guilty about listening to them. So naturally, the details of your first contact with the band in large part shaped how you responded to their music. But is there any critical validity to their work?

The Eagles-consisting of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Don Felder, Joe Walsh and Randy Meisner-didn’t set out to change music. Their songs weren’t meant to push the boundaries of the rock genre. And in fact, they softened the edges of classic ’70s rock in a way that some found to be a bit heretical. They were one of the first bands that could honestly be called critic-proof to their die-hard fans-The Eagles were The Eagles, and that was all that mattered to some people. Their songs were about life on the road, love and the realization that love oftentimes doesn’t last. So basically, they sang about the same things that many people were singing about in the ’70s.

But what set The Eagles apart was their rather casual means of telling their stories. I’m not saying that as a dig against the band, but their songs kept to their own timelines and never felt rushed or forced forward quicker than they wanted to be. Everything was just soft and mellow in a way that took the music pretty far away from any sort of harder-edged classic rock sound. Their first few records set the stage nicely for them to become the heralds of the soft rock genre (well, them and Jackson Browne), but it wasn’t until their fifth record, “Hotel California,” was released in 1976 that the band hit a high watermark that they’ve yet to reach again.

The Eagles were never going to be a band whose words were held in high esteem. Admittedly, the lyrics were fine and did their job admirably, but the band would never be accused of being dedicated lyricists. This is not an insult per se-just a simple observation. But what their words lacked in depth, they made up for in a communal emotional relevance. The Eagles dealt more in conversations than they did in strict story narratives. You could find yourself at the center of any of their songs without batting an eye, and it was exactly this sense of inclusivity that allowed the band to garner such a huge following with such common sentiments.

But on “Hotel California,” they mixed a rather imaginative bout of introspection with some of their best melodies and came away with an album that will forever be lodged in people’s minds-if only for some because of the global success of its title track (which would be a shame but understandable). Apart from being a rather odd choice for a single, the title track was a six-and-a-half-minute trip through deserted highways and a rather odd hotel. Despite the rather sordid and surreal nature of the lyrics, Henley has said that the song was about “a journey from innocence to experience.” And it functions as one continuous Rorschach test and is open to dozens of interpretations, which is one of the reasons why it has maintained such a viable history over the past four decades.

Other singles such as “New Kid in Town” and “Life in the Fast Lane” would go on to become staples of the band’s live shows and classics in their own right. But the other songs on the albums-the ones that weren’t released as singles-were just as interesting and memorable as anything you were likely to hear on the radio. Tracks such as “Victim of Love,” “Pretty Maids All in a Row,” “The Last Resort” and “Wasted Time” were quintessentially The Eagles, songs that moved at their own pace but held your attention no matter the gait. They were familiar and drawn from the band’s love of their home state.

“Hotel California,” both the album and song, has become intrinsically linked to the softer side of rock in the ’70s. But far from feeling guilty about listening to it, people should embrace the sort of communal aesthetic that the band was exploring here. The Eagles weren’t the first band to attempt this mellow rock approach, but they were the first to bring it to its logical conclusion. And this record is exactly that-a definitive statement on an emerging genre. Successful from both a critical and commercial perspective, “Hotel California” has been lauded and has inspired other artists ever since it came out. It was the sound of a band who finally understood the balance between stadium anthems and the quieter side of rock ‘n’ roll.

According to a couple of band members in later interviews, this album was a metaphor for the decline of America, a detailed description of society as it slipped further into depravity and materialism. But they never allowed the songs to maintain a melancholic appearance-there might have been times when the band was sincerely trying to comment on some facet of the world, but for the most part, they spoke in simple ideas that felt universal and shared a common lineage.

Commonly referred to as one of the greatest rock records ever recorded, “Hotel California” was more than just a collection of soft rock tunes (although it certainly was that as well); it was an aural explanation of how the band viewed their place in the long and storied history of rock music. So go listen to “Hotel California,” and if anyone tells you to turn it off, just sing along even louder.

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.