Eagles' Complete Discography: Don Henley Looks Back

Triumph, heartache and a little bit of peyote: The stories behind every studio album, in his own words

'Hotel California,' 1976
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'Hotel California,' 1976

Hotel California was a searing examination of the American dream that still managed to become one of the Seventies' biggest successes, selling over 16 million albums, thanks largely to its dreamlike title hit.

In terms of any song you wrote with the Eagles, which lyric are you most proud of and why?
I guess I'd have to say "Hotel California," although I feel it important to point out that Glenn contributed some very important lines to that set of lyrics. Those lyrics employ what Glenn used to call "the perfect ambiguity," and are open to a wide array of interpretations – and we've seen some doozies. But the song has somehow resonated all around the globe, even with people who live in countries with which our government does not have the best of relations; people whose first language is not English. On April 1st, 2001, a U.S. EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet. The pilot and his crew survived a crash landing at a military base in China and were taken into custody. While in captivity, some of the crew were reportedly questioned about "Hotel California." The song has traveled into space with astronauts. I was once visiting a remote village in a mountaintop jungle in Honduras – and when I say remote, I mean these people were living in the most primitive of conditions – no electricity, no plumbing; crude, makeshift shelters – when one of the villagers disappeared into a little hut and came out holding a beat-up old cassette player. He pointed to the cassette player, then pointed at me and said, "You." I later found out that the cassette in the player was "Hotel California." The song got around.

To clarify the timeline, was the title song the first track written for this album, and then everything followed after that, in terms of the theme?
As best I recall, that's more or less the way it went down.

What was your reaction when you heard that snippet of music on Felder's tape that became the basis for the melody? What did it conjure for you, musically or lyrically?
Felder had submitted a cassette tape containing about half a dozen different pieces of music. None of them moved me until I got to that one. It was a simple demo – a progression of arpeggiated guitar chords, along with some hornlike sustained note lines, all over a simple 4/4 drum-machine pattern. There may have been some Latin-style percussion in there, too. I think I was driving down Benedict Canyon Drive at night, or maybe even North Crescent Drive (adjacent to the Beverly Hills Hotel) the first time I heard the piece, and I remember thinking, "This has potential; I think we can make something interesting out of this."

I know there are a million theories about the lyrics for "Hotel California," but one I'd heard is that it refers to some degree to the Record Plant itself, with mirrors on the ceiling and so forth. Can you comment on that?
First time I've heard that one. The song has absolutely nothing to do with the Record Plant, except that portions of it were recorded there.

In the History of the Eagles doc, Glenn talked about the car ride that resulted in the phrase "life in the fast lane." What do you recall of Glenn telling you about that line, and how fast did the song come together after that? Whose line was "lines on the mirror/Lines on her face"?
That song actually sprang from the opening guitar riff. One day, at a rehearsal, Joe just busted out that crazy riff and I said, "What in the hell is that? We've got to figure out some way to make a song out of that!" But we really couldn't sing over that riff, so Glenn came up with the idea of what is a traditional blues or R&B staple – the "one chord" song (although there are obviously other chords in there, too). But primarily we just sang the verse parts over an E chord, and then, in the "prechorus," we went into the basic blues changes that led into the chorus, and Joe played his riff underneath the chorus lines. The bass guitar and bass-drum foot pedal, along with the rhythm guitar, provide the syncopation that underlies Joe's riff in the choruses. It was a real bitch for me to learn how to do that syncopated bass-drum part and sing the melody at the same time.

As far as who came up with the lyric lines you've asked about, I really don't recall, but I think that Glenn came up with one half of it and I came up with the other. I just can't remember which half each of us wrote. Back then, we were always finishing each other's sentences; we had a kind of telepathy going on.

In what ways do the other songs on the album tie in with the themes in "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane"?
They're the same themes that run through all of our work: loss of innocence, the cost of naiveté, the perils of fame, of excess; exploration of the dark underbelly of the American dream, idealism realized and idealism thwarted, illusion versus reality, the difficulties of balancing loving relationships and work, trying to square the conflicting relationship between business and art; the corruption in politics, the fading away of the Sixties dream of "peace, love and understanding." But it's also important to remember that during the making of the Hotel California album, we were ecstatic much of the time. We knew we were onto something. So, you have the interesting juxtaposition of dark themes being developed and constructed in an atmosphere of excitement and productivity. (And OK, a little debauchery, here and there. You know what they say about all work and no play.)

What inspired "Wasted Time," one of your greatest Eagles ballads?
Failed relationships. Nothing inspires or catalyzes a great ballad like a failed relationship. Still, it's a very empathetic song, I think.

What did that album say about you and the band at that point in your careers?
I think that we were at the height of our powers. Every band has a peak, and that was ours. And because of various factors – pressure to perform at peak level, pressure to deliver more of the same, the changing nature of the band dynamic, the constantly changing public tastes, etc. – it was impossible for us to take the time off that we needed in order to get our heads together, to regain a sense of perspective that we had lost.

The Eagles were known to be perfectionists in the studio. How would you know when a song was done?
We got saddled with that perfectionist label because we were always paying attention to detail, always trying to up our game. There is no such thing as "perfection" in rock & roll, although we did strive to be tight, musically, and to sing and play in tune. No apologies to be made for that. There has always been the opposing school of thought, especially after punk came in, but I always saw that as a cover-up for lack of ability. But obsessive perfectionism can be oppressive, stifling, paralyzing. Never let the great be the enemy of the good. We understood that. There should always be – and will be – a wart or a little clutter here and there. Life is messy, and rock & roll is part of life.

We knew a song was done when we had made our very best efforts, given the circumstances, the parameters. When you're working within a group, some compromise is necessary. We weren't always ready to let a song go, but after a while, you have to just let go, especially if you're working within the constraints of a budget and a time frame. There are some real mediocre pieces of work on our early and mid-Seventies albums – songs that aren't well-written, not fully realized from a production standpoint, but that's the price of democracy and time limits – and we were all still learning.

In the History doc, you talk about some of the trepidation you had about Joe joining the band. But once you started making this album, the first with him, how did those feelings change, and what did he bring to the studio/record-making process that wasn't there before?
Well, Joe was and is his own man; he's always been an independent entity, even as a member of the group. He had a fine solo career going before our manager suggested bringing him into the Eagles. We in the band had some trepidation because, although we liked him personally and we liked his music, we weren't sure that he'd be able to fit into an already established group. But somehow it worked, and Joe has always been able to live in both worlds. In the studio, he brought his distinctive guitar sounds and his versatile chops. He's a helluva slide player. He can handle many different styles of guitar playing, and he can play keyboards, too. All that, plus he added another singing voice to the assemblage.

What about this album captured the public's imagination in ways even the previous Eagles albums hadn't?
I've learned over the years that one word, "California," carries with it all kinds of connotations, powerful imagery, mystique, etc., that fires the imaginations of people in all corners of the globe. There's a built-in mythology that comes with that word, an American cultural mythology that has been created by both the film and the music industry. But I think the success of the album was due to a combination of things that all coalesced at that point in time. Hotel California was our fifth studio album of original material, so the momentum had slowly, steadily been building since 1972. And during those years, we had become a viable touring act. Then, there was the enormous and somewhat unexpected success of the Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) album. We didn't really want that album to be released, but had allowed the label to do it in order to buy ourselves more time to work on the Hotel California album. So, when the Greatest Hits album literally exploded on the charts that really kicked the momentum into high gear. By the time Hotel California was released in December 1976, the circumstances couldn't have been better; the world was ready and waiting.

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