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'Hotel California': How The Eagles' earworm became an American icon

by Kevin Ferguson | Take Two®

Since its formation in 1971, the Los Angeles based rock band The Eagles have seen six of their albums sell more than a million copies. From left; Don Henley, drums; Joe Walsh, guitar; Randy Meisner, bass; Glenn Frey, guitar; and Don Felder, guitar. 1977 photo. Anonymous

"Hotel California," the 1977 hit single by the Eagles, is the band's biggest hit: So big, artists have covered the song hundreds of times. According to Nielsen Soundscan, "Hotel California" is played on American radio once every 11 minutes — that's about 131 times a day.

And now another version has been recorded by former Eagle Don Felder to drum up publicity for his upcoming solo tour. (Scroll down to the bottom for a graphic of 20 things to know about "Hotel California.")

Felder's version is a collaboration with members of Styx and Foreigner. Here they are performing on TV's "Fox and Friends":


The fact that musicians like Felder can use a nearly 40-year-old song to promote a tour is a testament to how "Hotel California" has become one of the most ubiquitous songs in pop music.

But how did it get to be that way?

Go back to 1975, or maybe '74, in Malibu. Felder is sitting on a couch in one of his houses — it's right on the beach, of course. He's got his acoustic guitar, a reel-to-reel tape recorder and outside his window, one of the best views real estate has to offer.

He begins strumming a chord progression that, once it's released, America will never forget. 

In a rehearsal studio later on, the band gets together. A beat forms, the other electric guitars start to come in on the off beats, giving Felder's brooding chord progression — the self-identified "Mexican Reggae" style he'd later lay claim to. Then, from behind the drums, Don Henley takes the mic:


It's long: 35 seconds longer than "Bohemian Rhapsody." In its six-and-a-half minutes, you're taken on a dark, spooky journey where a tired, anonymous traveler checks into a mysterious hotel, only to discover he can never really check out. It's a "Twilight Zone" episode drowned in tequila and propped up by a laid back, moody guitar solo.

When asked about the song's meaning, Henley and Glenn Frey always been coy.

"It's been denounced by Evangelicals, been accused of all kinds of wacky things, like being members of the Church of Satan. People see images on the album cover that aren't there," said Henley in a Showtime documentary on the Eagles. "My simple explanation is: It's a song about a journey from innocence to experience. That's all."

And the song has had plenty of experience. In 1977, the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The album's sold 16 million records since then. 

The average classic rock radio listener will hear it more than 1,500 times in his or her life — assuming they were born after the song came out. In academia, "Hotel California" has been mentioned in at least 73 different scholarly journals. 

It's been covered hundreds of times, by artists like Nancy Sinatra, Frank Ocean, Marilyn Manson … and remember William Hung? From "American Idol"? 


But critics haven't shown the song as much love: It's simplistic, indulgent, too long, the rhyming scheme can get a little lazy — when Henley sings "what a nice surprise, bring your alibis" what does that mean, even?

Others point out that wine, which the hotel hasn't apparently carried since 1969, isn't technically a spirit. But that might be splitting hairs.

And then there's the "Big Lebowski" (Warning: foul language):


But not every voice in music is as down on the band. Ann Powers, NPR's music critic, remembers loving the "Hotel California" as a kid, and she says it still holds up today. In "Hotel California," there are elements of folk and flamenco, sure. But also, says Powers, a commercially viable brand of progressive rock, which was also popular at the time. 

"The brilliance of the Eagles is that they never, ever could be as serious as most progressive rockers in that way. They could not be that ponderous," said Powers. "They made something that was, you know, completely weighty in the hands of bands like Procol Harum, accessible to 11-year-olds, like me."

Good or bad, when Felder, the former guitarist of the Eagles, performs his version live, he's taking part in a song that's transcended criticism and commercial sales. "Hotel California" isn't just  one of the most vindictive, annoying earworms in American music — it's an icon.

Click the image below to see our full infographic, 20 things to know about "Hotel California":

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