Hello there! Our song this week is Hotel California. This is a rock song by The Eagles that contains one of the all-time great guitar riffs. We will review the original version by the Eagles. We will then discuss cover versions by The Gipsy Kings, and by SkaDaddyZ.
Eagles, Hotel California:
In 1971, Linda Ronstadt assembled a group of musicians for a touring band to promote her Silk Purse album. Among them were drummer Don Henley from Texas, guitarist Glenn Frey from Michigan, guitarist Bernie Leadon from the group Flying Burrito Brothers, and bassist Randy Meisner from Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band.
The group actually performed live on only one occasion, but all four musicians played on Ronstadt’s album Linda Ronstadt. The group then formed a band, Eagles.
Below is a photo of the original Eagles in the early 1970s. From L: Glenn Frey; Bernie Leadon; Don Henley; Randy Meisner.
The band released a self-titled album in June, 1972 and it immediately made a splash, particularly for their first hit single Take It Easy. This became one of the Eagles’ signature songs, and made the group famous for their form of country-rock fusion.
Nearly all songs by the Eagles were co-written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The pair turned out to be a powerhouse song-writing duo. Over the years they churned out hit country-rock tunes characterized by lovely melodies coupled with terrific, memorable lyrics. And the Eagles also became known for their impressive four-part harmony.
Back in the 70s there were many groups in the country-rock scene, but the Eagles stood out for both the quality and quantity of their hits. After their first big hit in 1972, the Eagles became an unstoppable musical juggernaut. They were arguably the greatest country-rock band of the late 20th century.
The Eagles also enjoyed great success as a touring band. Their ability to reproduce the harmonies from their records made them a major draw on tour. In 1974 the group became a quintet, adding guitarist Don Felder to their band.
When Felder arrived, the Eagles added more hard rock songs to their repertoire. However, Bernie Leadon strongly preferred the group’s original country-rock music, and as a result he left the Eagles at the end of 1975. Leadon was replaced by Joe Walsh, who had been the lead guitarist with The James Gang before embarking on a solo career.
Don Felder composed the melody for Hotel California. He then sent it on a demo cassette to Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Both Henley and Frey were intrigued by Felder’s composition, and they came up with various concepts for the song.
The influence of both Latin music and reggae was obvious in Felder’s draft composition. Don Henley apparently referred to it as a “Mexican reggae or Bolero,” and the group’s early working title before adding the lyrics was “Mexican Reggae.”
Apparently Henley and Frey had discussions about this song while driving from the desert into Los Angeles, or vice versa. In particular, Frey had the notion of creating an atmosphere of a mysterious metropolis, where a crass commercialism had overtaken an earlier idealism.
While Frey contributed to the overall atmosphere of Hotel California and collaborated in writing the song, the bulk of the lyrics were provided by Don Henley. “Hotel California” was the band’s name for the Beverly Hills Hilton, where members of the group were spending much of their time at that moment.
The lyrics of Hotel California succeed brilliantly in creating the mood envisioned by Henley and Frey.
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor
I thought I heard them say
[CHORUS] Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year (any time of year) you can find it here
Several of the lyrics simply burrow themselves into your brain. The phrase “you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave” has actually been used by economists in referring to
the negative effect of financial regulations on investment;
not surprisingly, it is called the “Hotel California effect.”
Another iconic line is “I called up the captain/please bring me my wine/He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.’” While it ostensibly refers to vintages of wine, it also brilliantly references the spirit of idealism and activism that peaked in America in 1969, and subsequently declined.
Some of the lyrics (in particular, “she got a lot of pretty, pretty boys that she calls friends”) were contributed by Henley following his recent breakup with his girlfriend. The line “stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast” is a jab, so to speak, at the group Steely Dan, who had recently inserted snide comments about the Eagles into one of their songs.
Hotel California was the title song of the Eagles’ 1977 album of the same name. Above left we show the “Hotel California” logo that appeared on the album. The single hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1977, and over the years has sold over 3 million records. Hotel California won the 1977 Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
So here is a live performance by the Eagles of Hotel California. This took place during the Eagles 2005 Farewell Tour in Melbourne, Australia.
Isn’t this great? My only regret is that Don Felder, who wrote the music for this song, split with the group in 2001. Felder was fired by the group, then sued the Eagles, and the lawsuit was subsequently settled out of court. In 2007, Felder released a tell-all book Heaven and Hell: My Life in The Eagles. That pretty much ensured that Felder was never again going to play with his former bandmates.
Here, Felder is replaced by guitarist Steuart Smith. Smith produces a note-for-note copy of Felder’s classic licks on a double-neck guitar. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to show you an earlier version of Hotel California featuring Don Felder. A 1977 live clip of the Eagles is blocked from YouTube by a claim of copyright protection. Hell’s bells.
The song begins with an extended trumpet solo. Steuart Smith and Joe Walsh start out contributing on guitar. After a brief guitar intro, Don Henley enters with a couple of thumps on drums, and then begins with his lead vocals.
You could always count on the Eagles to give a thoroughly professional performance, and they don’t disappoint here. Their live version is extremely close to the studio cut. Great harmonies from the band, and Henley’s vocals are just perfect for the song.
The song ends with an extended two-minute guitar coda from Smith and Walsh. It is interesting that, while recording this in the studio, Felder and Walsh began improvising. However, the other members of the band insisted that Felder’s original composition was so beautiful that they needed to play it exactly as it was written.
It is no surprise that several polls rate the guitar solos in Hotel California as the best ever in rock music. The more classical part composed by Felder and played here by Smith is brilliantly juxtaposed with Joe Walsh’s more hard-edged rock guitar.
During their tour for the Hotel California album, bassist Randy Meisner left the group and was replaced by Timothy Schmit. Here is a photo of the Eagles after Meisner was replaced by Schmit. From L: Glenn Frey; Don Felder; Don Henley; Joe Walsh; Timothy B. Schmit.
This lineup of the Eagles persisted until 1980, when the group disbanded after particularly nasty and lingering disagreements amongst the members.
The individual Eagles members then embarked on solo efforts or joined other bands, with varying degrees of success. Don Henley had a most impressive solo career, with a number of acclaimed solo hits. Glenn Frey also had a few pop hits on his own.
The group re-formed in 1994, and went out on a reunion tour in 1999. When a band names their reunion tour the “Hell Freezes Over Tour,” you know the dissolution was a contentious one! After their reunion, the Eagles once again became one of the highest-grossing touring acts, in part because of the astronomically high ticket prices they charged for their concerts.
So here are the Eagles with a live acoustic version of Hotel California. This was performed during their 1999 “Hell Freezes Over” tour.
I really enjoy this version. It starts with all five Eagles sitting on stools in a line. Timothy Schmit appears at left with his bass guitar, Don Henley is carrying a pair of maracas, and the other three Eagles have acoustic guitars.
Don Felder starts out with a haunting and melodic flamenco-inspired solo riff on guitar. Then a conga drum begins a slow, measured beat, while Felder continues his Spanish-guitar riff.
Next, the acoustic guitars segue into the iconic guitar intro to Hotel California. The crowd bursts into spontaneous applause when they recognize the song.
We are now treated to an acoustic flamenco-style version of Hotel California. Don Henley again sings the lead vocals, while the other Eagles chime in on the chorus with their trademark close harmonies.
What a treat to see the boys back again, still at the peak of their artistry! Once again, we get extended guitar solos with Felder and Walsh alternating on lead. The hard-rock electric guitar solos from the original version are here replaced by the Spanish-influenced styling.
Finally, the group finishes up with a flourish, providing an abrupt and satisfying ending. The audience loves it, and so do I.
The Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In a classy move, both the original lineup and their current lineup performed at their induction ceremony. In terms of record sales, they are the best-selling American band in history. Their Eagles: Greatest Hits album alone has sold over 42 million copies.
When the Eagles started out in the early 70s, there was a distinct difference between their country-rock music and the Nashville-dominated “country and western” sound. However, in the intervening decades, country music has become much more diverse. The “outlaw country” genre begun by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and others has more or less eradicated the line between “country” and “country-rock.”
If they appeared on the scene today, The Eagles would almost certainly be considered a country music group. But who cares about labels? The Eagles produced terrific music for well over 40 years.
Sadly, Glenn Frey died in January, 2016 while recovering from gastro-intestinal tract surgery. He will be greatly missed.
Gipsy Kings, Hotel California:
The Gipsy Kings were born in Arles and Montpelier in southern France. Their families had been gitanos, gypsies who had fled from Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War.
In southern France, the musicians Jose Reyes and Manitas de Plata had popularized a type of music called rumba flamenca. This was a popular music that derived from a kind of fusion between flamenco and salsa.
After that duo split up, Jose Reyes began a band with his sons, Nicolas and Andre Reyes. They subsequently added three more of Jose Reyes’ sons, three of their cousins Jacques, Maurice and Tonino Baliardo, and formed a band called Los Reyes.
Initially, the group traveled around France performing at festivals and weddings. Because they spent so much time traveling like gypsies, the group changed its name to Gipsy Kings. Below is a photo of the Gipsy Kings from 1989.
Gipsy Kings began issuing albums, but with disappointing sales. However, their third self-titled album struck gold. That album was released in the U.S., and spent 40 weeks on the charts. This was surprising success for a Spanish-language album.
One of the most popular singles on the Gipsy Kings album was the band’s cover of Hotel California. Here is a video of Hotel California by the Gipsy Kings.
The Gipsy Kings begins with a slow flamenco riff on guitar. It then shifts to a fast-paced salsa rhythm for Hotel California. As you can see from this music video, rumba flamenca is a terrific, bouncy, danceable genre. The musicians have a great time with this tune, which seems tailor-made for a Latin version.
After all, the Eagles initially characterized their own song as “Mexican reggae,” and the elaborate guitar runs and trills from the Gipsy Kings seem tailor-made for this cover.
The Gipsy Kings sing the song in Spanish, except that they shift to English for the chorus. This tune was featured in the 1998 Coen Brothers cult classic movie The Big Lebowski.
The Gipsy Kings continue to perform today; however, the only original members still remaining in that group are Nicolas Reyes and Tonino Baliardo.
SkaDaddyZ, Hotel California:
I must confess that writing this segment caused me a fair amount of difficulty and confusion. I possess an MP3 file of a Hotel California cover, ostensibly by the ska punk group Reel Big Fish. However, I obtained that tune from a source that is known to mistakenly attribute the source of music files.
So I looked on the Web for copies of Hotel California by Reel Big Fish. I found several videos of Hotel California by garage bands (often incredibly untalented), purporting to be “in the style of the Reel Big Fish cover” of the song.
OK, it looked like I was getting close. Then I found a Web site that contained audio files of a number of Reel Big Fish songs. However, under the audio file labeled “Hotel California, Reel Big Fish,” several comments claimed that the song was not by Reel Big Fish at all, but instead by a group called SkaDaddyZ.
Below left is a photo of the West Coast ska-punk group SkaDaddyZ.
The situation was compounded when I attempted to find “Hotel California” by Reel Big Fish on Spotify. Spotify has a large catalog of Reel Big Fish songs, but there is no Hotel California cover by that band. So I became suspicious.
Finally, I found a live video of Hotel California, attributed to SkaDaddyZ. Next, I found on Wikipedia a bio of SkaDaddyZ; it states that the group “had a hit with their cover of Hotel California.”
When I played that video, it was identical to my music file that was attributed to Reel Big Fish. So my guess is that the Hotel California cover I was searching for was actually performed by SkaDaddyZ. And here it is, presented for non-commercial use.
As you can see, the video is a mixture of clips of the band, interspersed with shots of them performing Hotel California live. The SkaDaddyZ Web site describes them as a band whose genre is “ska, rasta or punk.”
To my mind, the version is a fusion of reggae with punk. The band features a horn section with trumpets and saxophones, an extremely frenetic beat, and staccato rapid-fire drumming. I find their high-energy sound both amateurish and appealing. The musicians seem to be having a good time.
The verses are slowed down and presented at a measured pace. However, the chorus bops along at a very rapid clip, carrying the listener along for the ride.
The group SkaDaddyZ was formed in 1993 and hails from Oxnard, California. Apparently there is a rather active reggae-punk community on the West Coast. Two of the band’s members are Zorba Cruz and Blake Cruz.
They are brothers of Brandon Cruz. He was a child actor on the TV series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Cruz subsequently carved out a career in rock music. He was the lead vocalist for the punk-rock group Dr. Know, and for a time was lead vocalist for another punk group, Dead Kennedys.
And that’s all I know about SkaDaddyZ, although it appears that the group continues to exist. However, it’s a bummer that their best-known song is widely attributed to another band!