Music Analysis:
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Hotel California - Allegory and Economical Lyrics
Albums: Hotel California, 1976 & Hell Freezes Over, 1994

"I had just leased this house out on the beach at Malibu, I guess it was around '74 or '75. I remember sitting in the living room, with all the doors wide open on a spectacular July day. I had this acoustic 12-string and I started tinkling around with it, and those Hotel California chords just kind of oozed out. Every once in a while it seems like the cosmos part and something great just plops in your lap."
– Don Felder

“What happened with Hotel California was Don Felder, the underrated genius guitar player in our band, and he did not have the name of Joe Walsh, but definitely just an incredible player. He used to make instrumental demos at his house and on a tape of about seven ideas, was what was to become the track of Hotel California. And Don and I heard the tape and said gosh... this is like a Spanish Reggae Rock, this is really a bizarre mix of musical influences, this is great!”
– Glen Frey

Spanish, Reggae, and Rock are indeed a bizarre mix of musical influences, but aren’t bizarre mixes of musical influences what creates great original work, redefine musical traditions, and inspire a new generation to think out of the box? The Hotel California album containing the title track, which won the 1977 Grammy Award for Record of the Year, did mark a significant departure from their musical identity for the Eagles. With Don Henley and Glen Frey maturing as lyricists and lead vocalists, the departure of Bernie Leadon sucking the prominent country and bluegrass flavor out of their sound, and the entry of Joe Walsh, the Hard Rock stalwart, as the lead guitarist replacing Leadon, the Eagles were increasingly moving away from their Country Rock sound to a more Hard Rock sound although they wisely remained faithful to the soothing multi-voice harmonies that defined them as a unique band. However, despite their heavy use of acoustic guitars as a result of the Country and Bluegrass influence, a Spanish flamenco sound was definitely not a prominent flavor within the Eagles’ musical repertoire leading up to Hotel California or thereafter although its presence can be felt, to a certain extent, in songs like Tequila Sunrise (from the 1973 album – Desperado). The Reggae rhythm, with its signature chop on the backbeat, is not very obvious in its traditional sense, but can be felt on the backdrop of the song; it is another drastic diversion from their musical norm for the Eagles and can be attributed to the birth of the Jamaican musical idiom in the early 60s and its emergence in the United States due to the growing popularity of the likes of Bob Marley and Harry Belafonte. Given this background, I can understand why Felder feels the cosmos parted when this bizarre mix of sounds and rhythms oozed out of his 12-string on that spectacular July day!

The haunting sound of Hotel California is developed through an unusual harmonic progression, which, ironically, keeps with the song’s theme and exudes the same classical brilliance of its lyrics. The song is rooted in the key of B minor and the chord progression builds on a gradually receding baseline of descending perfect 4th intervals, which, as you can see below by the inverted dominant to root movement of a major scale, continuously moves away from resolution rather than moving towards it. For example, F# - B, E – A, and D - G are all dominant to root movements in their respective major scale and is more common in popular music than an inverted root to dominant movement.

On a dark, desert highway                                   - cool wind in my hair                       | Bm – F#                 
Warm smell of colitas                                            - rising up through the air                | A  - E                 
p ahead in the distance                                        - I saw a shimmering light                | G  - D                  
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim       - I had to stop for the night            | Em – F#

The same chord progression is repeated for each of the two 4-line sets on each of the three verses. The final line of each 4-line set uses an ascending major 2nd interval to set up the F# chord which will then resolve to a B minor chord for the next 4-line set or G major chord for the 4-line refrain. The use of a G major chord for the refrain instead of the B minor chord is absolutely perfect as it momentarily releases the tension in the song to welcome the protagonist as well as the audience to the Hotel; however, the momentary brightness fades almost immediately and a gradual gloom is cast over it with the move to D-F#-Bm chord progression. And then a Bm chord (B~D~F#) resolves to a G chord (G~B~D) with just the F# being raised to a G, which does bring a sense of renewed brightness, but is not felt as strongly as a F# chord resolving to G in the first line of the refrain with all three notes being raised (F#-G, A#-B, and C#-D). The same chord progression shown below is maintained for each of the two refrains.  

Welcome to the Hotel Cali                                           – fornia                        | G  - D                                                  
such a lovely place (such a lovely place) such a         – lovely face                | F# - Bm                         
Plenty of room at the Hotel Cali                                  – fornia                        | G  - D                 
any time of year (any time of year) you can             – find it here                 | Em – F#


What is strikingly haunting about this chord progression is how it creates a sense of mystery and suspense with the use of five major chords (D, E, F#, G, A) and just two minor chords (Bm, Em)! In each 4-line set including the refrain, the major to minor chord ratio is 3:1 but the only occasion you really get a sense of real optimism is on the first line of each refrain as described above. The mystery and gloom of the song is, therefore, not generated in the individual chords, but in the receding baseline and the movement of chords based on descending perfect 4ths, which move against resolution. This tonal quality could have most definitely sparked the idea for a Twilight Zone like mysterious concept of the song. Also, I cannot help pointing out the classically balanced chord structure, which most clearly vouches for the inherent structural beauty that exists in any great work of spontaneous art.

While the lyrics and the harmonic structure of the song have remained largely unchanged over the years and at various concerts where the Eagles have performed this classic, the group has taken liberty to improvise on the songs’ musical arrangement, especially the introductions and finales, for these concert performances though always keeping with the song’s theme. I was very fortunate to see the Eagles in concert in Columbus, Ohio in July 2002; I clearly remember they were going to end the concert without performing Hotel California, only to come back to a rousing sold-out crowd screaming for an encore, and for sure, their favorite song! On that occasion, the song began on a trumpet solo with a distinct Spanish/Mexican touch to it; I barely knew the words to Love Will Keep Us Alive (again from the Hell Freezes Over album), the only Eagles song I was familiar with up until then, but since that concert I have come to realize the greatness of this band, especially Don Henley. Hotel California was just a legendary song in my mind as I had only heard about it through friends, and once, I heard a group covering the song while passing through the beautiful streets of London, England, on a spectacular July day in 1999! Oh well, I think it was August! Therefore, obviously, I did not know what the crowd was screaming about when those first few chords and arpeggios were strung until my friend told me that it was Hotel California! So, when I listen to the acoustic version of the song on the Hell Freezes Over album, where the familiar introduction from the original version from 1976 is prefaced with a hypnotic flamenco guitar solo by Felder, I am always thrilled to hear the same sense of wild enthusiasm in the audience at the first strumming of those haunting chords. I think the two versions (1976 and 1994) are worth discussing in comparison as they both show the perfectionists that the Eagles were, and still are, while also showing their growth as musicians during those 18 years that they grew apart as a band, through the contrasting attitudes exemplified by Don Henley’s singing and the climactic finales on guitar by Felder and Walsh. When the band broke up in 1980, Don Henley apparently said that they would only get together when hell freezes over, thus the album title of the reunion concert!

Strum - a hypnotic B minor chord by Walsh and Frey silences the crowd. Felder responds with a very flamenco melody line transporting you to the Californian desert. Strum, runs an A major chord as Felder responds in similar fashion giving you the sense of a drug induced high. Strum, another G major chord and Felder eases into an extended G major arpeggio blending into an E minor arpeggio as it picks up speed to a rousing cheer from the audience; it slows down and glides into an F# major. Then a strolling solo beat on the Conga takes over as the protagonist starts walking down a desert highway with no end in sight. The song is on a leisurely 16th beat (4/16) with 8 measures in each musical phrase. Shakers and Maracas add the chop on the backbeat giving it a cool Reggae feel. Walsh and Frey return to the cool stroll with the hypnotic Bm-A-G~E-F# harmony as Felder leads with a beautiful melody line which speaks of emptiness and dejection. Then, a sense of optimism; those familiar arpeggiated chords; the crowd is ecstatic! The optimism, however, is felt not in the chords, but in the change of rhythm on the guitar from an almost powerless strumming of the harmony into a lively arpeggiated form, though still maintaining its hypnotic quality. This could be seen as the musical depiction of the point in the narrative where the fatigued protagonist sees a ‘shimmering light in the distance’ or where the hopeless artist is offered a recording contract. It is a highly imaginative extension of the narrative from a musical perspective, and in its various forms of arrangement using Spanish-sounding trumpets, trombones and perhaps many other instruments, has been a regular feature in the reunited Eagles’ concert performances of the song since Hell Freezes Over.

In order to appreciate the value-addition of that 1994 introduction as well as the Eagles’ maturity as musicians over those 18 years that it showcases, we need to discuss it in comparison with the original from 1976. The original version begins with the arpeggiated harmonic movement of descending perfect 4ths and without any accompaniment on percussion like in the 1994 version. Therefore, the original does not capture that emotive change from dejection to optimism in the narrative from a musical perspective, but only through the vocal narration of the first verse. However, the hypnotic quality of the chord progression is still able to bring about the sense of drug induced high, so the initial mental state of the protagonist is established immediately in both versions. After the complete harmonic progression of Bm-F#-A-E-G-D-Em-F# is arpeggiated once with each chord holding up four measures, that lonely guitar, now subdued, comes back. That is how the solitude was captured in the original song, but it does not seem overly out of place in the 1994 version since the protagonist, at that point in his journey, is still fighting a lonely battle with his own thoughts although his mind may be perceiving better fortunes. 

Thump, thump – the vocal narration begins with a signature knock on the door that is used very insightfully throughout the song. In the 1976 version, the double thump that opens the narrative is used in three different symbolic occasions, each one preceding an encounter with one of the three supporting characters in the narrative: the first knock to enter the Hotel after a weary stroll through the Californian desert where he meets the attractive woman, the second after he asks for his cup of life from the Captain which is the knock on the door of opportunity, and the third, a rather hurried knock at the end when the shocked protagonist is trying to leave the Hotel after realizing his disillusionment. However, in the 1994 version, the second knock that precedes the meeting with the Captain seems to have been omitted, but it is not clear why. Whereas the first two knocks are represented on the 1st and 3rd downbeats (1 X 3 X), the third knock is heard on the 2nd and 3rd beats (X 2 3 X) to bring out the sense of panic; I will return to this later in this discussion.

Don Henley, who was known for his shyness in his younger years, clearly oozes with more passion and attitude in the 1994 version, which shows his growth as a person and is a major reason why this version is more appealing to me than the original; and I, generally, have always preferred originals over re-arranged, and even worse, re-mixed versions! You can hear it, especially, in the manner he expresses the word ‘face’ in such a lovely face with a hint of sarcasm to add a sense of retrospective superficiality to his entire experience and to the environment to which he was attracted as well as the sexual uh in the second verse, just to give a couple of examples. The contrasting attitudes portray the impressions of the helpless naiveté and innocence of the young artist in the 1976 version against the wiser, yet passionate recollection of the grown up in the 1994 version. From the arrangement’s perspective, the contrast between youthfulness and maturity is captured with the blunt power of the electric guitar on overdrive in the 1976 version which brings out the aggression, frustration, and anger of the helpless artist pitted against the monster industry whereas in the 1994 version, a romanticized recollection of a far more mature artist, now resigned to his fate of past deceptions and exploitations, is captured brilliantly with the use of a flamenco induced guitar as the lead sound in place of the overdrive guitar licks.

The most poignant moment of Henley’s singing comes at the climactic point of awakening - what a nice surprise - where an sudden outburst of dismay and anger sets up a piercing state of mind where the protagonist puts all his thoughts of luxury and indulgence aside and begins to reflect on his experiences to understand the real state of his life! The musical background to this point of twist, too, is beautifully captured with a two-dimensional panoramic scan of the hotel room covering mirrors on the ceiling with an arced vertical scan and pink champagne on ice with a horizontal scan with the same haunting chord sequence that begins the song. Furthermore, while taking the audience into the hotel room to paint the cinematic visual, this sequence also creates the reflective state of mind of the protagonist quite effectively through its suspended quality to bolster both intended effects of the lyrical narrative through the musical depiction as well. This state of mental clarity is then immediately contrasted with a resulting state of panic with a rumble on the drums (Timbale in the 1994 version) after seeing the crowd stab the monster beast with their steely knives, without being able to kill it! He begins to run for the exit door realizing the terrible danger he has found himself in. The third knock on the exit door, discussed above, enhances this sense of fear and panic, before he encounters the man who threatens him with his contractual obligations to the industry and makes sure he understands that he can never leave!

And fury is unleashed! The overdrive guitar leaps into high gear in a fist of anger aptly backed by the crashing drums in the original 1976 version with Felder and Walsh leading a powerfully charged battle of the wits and, perhaps, fists too, lasting over 2 minutes in length as the protagonist battles out the rights for his illusive freedom with the bully night man. It is a breathtaking piece of creativity and is my favorite part of the original version. If one thought nothing could improve on this finale, then the subtle, yet poignant Hell Freezes Over version does just that, although many fans and critics have argued that only the original keeps faith with the true spirit of the narrative. As I have explained earlier, the feeling of retrospection and recollection that seems to have romanticized this version justifies the lack of charged anger that is such a prominent force in the original. Felder and Walsh yet again leads the finale with their alternating arguments engaging the audience with a brilliant display of virtuosity on their pet instruments, only this time they play unplugged; Felder, representing the protagonist’s point of view, glides through the incredibly heart-wrenching, almost pleading melody before he is joined by Walsh for the final battle. The protagonist continues to knock on that exit door over and over again, only to face the defiant resistance of the industry and its henchmen. You can feel his tenacity to escape dwindle with each knock on the exit door depicted on the Conga drums, which gradually fades out into the background; and then the inevitable rapid strum: our protagonist gives up…and the crowd erupts!

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