Without doubt, for many of us, Hotel
California is the first song on the rock soundtrack of our lives. One
of those melodies that burns itself into our social psyche, becoming more than
just a mere song. It is the title of another of those great tracks in which the
guitar, in its countless ways and its myriad of styles, plays the starring
California in the '70s. To be precise, December 1976. More than enough information for us to be able to picture the scene. Don Henley said back then that the record, his fifth official album, represented both the best and worst of the decadent rock lifestyle going on in Los Angeles at that time. More American than even the Marlboro man, although in the Eagles' case they had already left the plains for the city and had managed to shake off the smell of cattle and country music (almost).
The main man on the six strings was Joe Walsh, a recent arrival to the group who had come in to replace Bernie Leadon, with the work shared out between him, Don Felder and Glen Frey. This was a typical Southern way of doing things from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Crosby, Stills…, you just fill up the stage with great guitarists and let the beer do the rest.
Walsh was more than just the lead guitarist in that band of superegos. The synergy of his creative talent with that of Don Henley took no time at all in producing musical masterpieces, songs that would inevitably become the band's greatest hits. Walsh's secret was not a prodigious talent akin to those of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, but rather his ability to compose such intense solos such as the one that screams out in Hotel California - of course, always with the previous approval of Don Felder, author and soul of that song. He also took up piano and synthesizer duties in the band. Truth be told, every single one of the Eagles could fly high on the wings of more than just one instrument.
As is often the case with a multi-instrumentalist, a whole plethora of guitars passed through Walsh's hands, although the Telecasters and Stratocasters predominated together with the Gibson Les Pauls, including the one he famously sold to his 'admirer' in Led Zeppelin. All in all, an eclectic collection and a sight to behold.
For Walsh, the guitar was a means to an end and not an end in itself. Apart from his diehard fans, few are aware that Hotel California is in fact a conceptual album, a country rock-based symphony whose aim was to condemn the empty decadence of 'the American dream'. Even fewer know that by singing along to Sweet Home Alabama they are in fact defending the ideals of the Ku Klux Klan…
However, the hard bitterness of the lyrics, many written by Walsh himself, are sweetened somewhat by the elegant and clean style of the group's music, with melodies that shine bright under the warm Californian sun. They were rock's friendlier face if we compare them to the likes of Black Sabbath, who they sometimes shared a recording studio with - and when the mayhem broke out it was impossible to get any work done.
Looking back four decades on, it is clear that Hotel California was the swan song to a style that would continue for a good few years before it became equated with a refuge for has-beens farming out the same old recipes for a public that had also not been able to keep up with the times. At least not as well as other old-timer outfits such as, we need go no further, Ozzy and his merry men.