Everything about Hotel California, the late-1976 album by Eagles, was larger than life – beginning with the epic title track. Upon its release, its stature grew as mighty as the music within its grooves. It yielded two U.S. No. 1 singles, was certified platinum within a week of release, and sold over 17 million copies in the U.S. alone as of 2013 – a number that grew to over 32 million worldwide, and counting. Over forty years after its initial release, the most famous Eagles album has arrived in expanded form – the band’s very first album to receive such a treatment. The 2-CD/1-BD deluxe box set edition (Elektra/Asylum/Rhino R2 562944) adds a disc of live concert highlights on CD and high-resolution stereo and surround mixes on Blu-ray, for a compelling and immersive trip back to the Hotel California. (A 2-CD edition has the original album and concert, while a single-CD edition has just the core album.)
The sinister yet alluring tone of the opening title track set the stage for a “new” Eagles sound, helmed with grace and precision by longtime producer Bill Szymczyk. On guitar, Joe Walsh and his arena-ready heft had replaced Bernie Leadon and his country-fried lilt. With Walsh trading licks with Don Felder, and Don Henley not only holding down the beat on his drum kit but taking an increasingly assertive role as the band’s “voice,” Eagles were taking flight to rock. Randy Meisner was as locked-in as ever on bass, as Glenn Frey added texture on keyboards and guitar. The impressionistic “Hotel California,” composed by Felder, Henley and Frey, was the band’s finest and most hard-hitting meditation on their preferred themes of excess, greed, and hedonism. The lyrics’ first-person narrative lent a personal feel to these big concepts, adorned with unforgettable images conjuring a vividly eerie experience. The music, anchored by Walsh and Felder on guitar, was as blazingly intense and atmospheric as the words.
The high level of craft behind “Hotel California” revealed itself throughout the relatively taut album’s nine original songs. The cautionary tale of “Life in the Fast Lane,” built around Joe Walsh’s famous central riff, once more commented on the high life with which the band was so closely associated. The searing tale of a “Victim of Love,” penned by Felder, Frey, Henley, and “honorary Eagle” J.D. Souther, soared with the twin-guitar approach from Walsh on slide and Felder on lead.
“New Kid in Town,” co-written by Frey, Henley, and. Souther, revisited the band’s lush and languid country-rock sound, with its ruefully yearning lead expressively provided by Frey in his only lead of the album. The group’s trademark harmonies also shone here. Randy Meisner’s “Try and Love Again” also was in this vein, returning the band to its roots. The heart of the album may belong, however, to the heartbreaking Frey/Henley soul ballad “Wasted Time.” It closed Side One of the original album and opened Side Two in an instrumental reprise, which like the original track, showcased Jim Ed Norman’s majestic string arrangement. The Walsh-led “Pretty Maids All in a Row” (co-written by the guitarist and Joe Vitale) complements “Wasted Time” in its conversational reflection on a past relationship.
Frey and Henley’s “The Last Resort” closed out the album. An even lengthier song than “Hotel California,” it’s similarly filled with evocative California imagery and shares with “Hotel” and “Life in the Fast Lane” the theme of excess – in this case, of man destroying the nature he once found so beautiful. There’s a despairing grandeur in Henley’s poignant vocal as well as in the anguished melody. The Eagles tackled the big picture on Hotel California, using the real or imagined place as a vehicle for their musings on man’s seamier side and the underbelly of the American dream – of success and excess, of love and loss, of triumph and disappointment.
No additional studio material has been included – which is a particular disappointment, considering how the band and producer Szymczyk utilized the studio as another instrument. The brief liner notes by Richard Buskin mention two early versions of “Hotel California.” What a thrill it would have been to hear those, or even Don Felder’s original demo tape, and follow the development of the song as well as the band’s creative process for the album. (That any such material would ever surface is doubtful. When asked about bonus tracks for future reissues in a recent Rolling Stone interview, Don Henley confirmed his belief that “there’s nothing else there” warranting release.)
Ten tracks have been culled from the band’s concerts of October 20-22, 1976 at the Los Angeles Forum, during which the album (released on December 8, 1976) was previewed with performances of its two songs which would go to No. 1 on the U.S. Pop chart: “New Kid in Town” and “Hotel California.” J.D. Souther joined in on vocals for “New Kid in Town.” Live at the Los Angeles Forum also has the band reaching back to its first album for “Witchy Woman” and an appropriately breezy “Take It Easy,” plus other highlights like the On the Border pair of “James Dean” and “Good Day in Hell,” and the One of These Nights duo of “Take It to the Limit” (with Jim Ed Norman conducting the orchestra) and, of course, “One of These Nights.” Joe Walsh’s James Gang favorite “Funk No. 49” also is aired here. It’s hard to fathom why the band – in top, edgy form, playing off the audience’s energy – didn’t opt to include an entire concert here, or highlights from the Forum run, replicating a full, roughly 20-song setlist. (Five tracks from the Forum shows were included on 1980’s Eagles Live including “New Kid in Town” and “Take It to the Limit.”) But the ten songs selected and expertly sequenced are choice, indeed, with tracks like “James Dean” and “Good Day in Hell” echoing the themes of Hotel California. Sound, too, is uniformly crisp and excellent on the live recordings. The Eagles have taken the “leave ’em wanting more” adage to heart.
The high-resolution stereo (192/24 PCM) and surround (96/24 DTS-HD Master Audio) mixes make their Blu-ray debut in the box set, although they were previously available in the U.S. on DVD-Audio and in Japan on SACD. The 5.1 surround mix, stunningly engineered by Elliot Scheiner to make discrete and powerful use of all speakers, is the preferred way to experience Hotel California for those equipped with a surround system. Like the best of Scheiner’s work, the mix here isn’t subtle – yet it isn’t flashy for the sake of flash. The instrumental placement is well-considered, yet captivates the listener’s attention as various details in the tight playing come to the fore from the very first moments of the title track.
The remastered sound quality for this set produced by Jason Day, Bill Inglot, and Steve Woolard is impressive throughout. So is the packaging which is reminiscent of the series of Led Zeppelin boxes. Hotel California is housed in a sturdy flip-top box containing a minimum of swag (a replica tour poster; a foldout photo; and an Eagles family tree reprinted from the April 23, 1977 issue of Sounds magazine delineating the band’s connections to The James Gang, Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band, The Byrds, Dillard and Clark, and more) and two booklets. The first is a reprint of the Eagles tour program, and the second is a linen-bound hardcover. Buskin’s liner notes offer new commentary from producer Szymczyk, while the remainder of the handsomely-designed book is filled with memorabilia reproductions and photos, all of which are captioned in detail. Many of these items are fascinating, such as an advertisement for Rock’s Superbowl II (featuring Eagles, Hall and Oates, Jimmy Buffett, and Andrew Gold!) in Orlando, 1976, or the ticket stub for Summer Pop ’78 with a ticket price of $12.50 for Section A – General Admission! The three discs (which bear re-creations of the original custom labels) are held on spindles attached to the box’s inner back cover itself.
Hotel California remains the Eagles’ musical high point. This anniversary edition is a poignant tribute to the late Glenn Frey, whose role in the band has been filled by his son Deacon and country superstar Vince Gill. It’s also a timely reminder of how the group was able to grow at the top of their game, to pull off a perfect marriage of inspiration and well-honed songcraft. The warm smell of colitas is still rising up through the air…