Decoded: "Hotel California" by Eagles

OnRecord’s Decoded is a series of articles binds together a set of possible interpretations and theories for songs that make you look twice. People have, for a long time, analysed music, like art. Discovering stories behind songs adds meaning to the experience of listening to a sequence of words and sounds. From pop anthems to rock ballads, this series aims to unveil the hidden meanings and personal stories behind masterful pieces of music.

In the words of former Eagles member, Joe Walsh, “Yeah, everybody wants to know if it has demonic references and is there a “Hotel California?”” From fans of the Eagles to several religious institutions, the question of the song’s satanic connotations trouble both alike. 

Released as a single in February 1977, the iconic soft rock song has several countrified overtones and went on to become the definition of country rock. “Hotel California” is full of dark and sultry imagery as it transcends into a more gothic image with the lines,

“And in the master’s chambers,

They gathered for the feast.

They stab it with their steely knives,

But they just can’t kill the beast”. 

Several fans and critics have tried to decode the imagery behind the song. However, the band’s senior member, Glenn Frey, has dismissed it mildly, “We decided to create something strange, just to see if we could do it.” He explains that the song is rather several narratives juxtaposed as split images of a wholesome California glamour. 

Recalling how the song was interpreted in various ways and how “a lot more than what exists” was made out of it, Frey confirms that the Eagles managed to achieve the “perfect ambiguity” with this hit single. The seemingly satanic album cover with a dark figure looming over the balcony also raised several eyebrows. 

For some, the song denotes a materialistic nature while others reason it with excess, either of drugs, luxury or fame. The imagery of the woman in the doorway has also been interpreted as a siren luring the people inside a place from where they “can never leave”. The masterful lyrics further turn to the scene of the feast where the guests are preparing to eat an animal or the “beast” whom they have to stab. 

The song drowns into a silent frenzy as the singer’s inability to find the exit door dawns. The horror becomes apparent as the night guard simply informs the singer that one can never leave from this place. Hence, the name “Hotel California” maintains ambiguity where the metaphor may be interpreted as an indulgence, love for fame or anything one may term as addictive. 

In the February 1977 Rolling Stone review of the song, critic Charlie Walters claims, “Hotel California showcases the best and worst tendencies of Los Angeles situated rock but more strikingly it’s lyrics present a convincing and unflattering portrait of the milieu itself. Don Henley, handling five of the eight vocal tracks expressed as well the weary disgust of a victim or observer of the region’s luxurious excess.” Several others gave slightly negative reviews but the song sold over 15 million copies making it Eagles’ best record till date. 

However, Eagles member Joe Walsh has said that the song is about the band’s arrival in Los Angeles, California. The shimmering lights of the city, which were visible from a distance in the desert, became a matter of sheer excitement for all who had come to Hollywood life from different towns across America. The idea of Los Angeles as a hotel sprung up because, “Everybody was going to Los Angeles, that’s where everybody was trying to make it!” 

He further explains that the idea of “Hotel California” originated from the fact that “nobody was from California. Everybody was either from Ohio or Texas or Michigan.” It became a “melting pot of people with talent trying to fit in”. 

The epic song came to be known all across the world for its country tunes and became a soft rock hit. The band never recovered from the popularity of this song to produce another equally hit album which finally led to their split. Be it an addiction to heroin, devil worship or the good old California dream theme, this song shook the charts making the band’s popularity soar. 

Listen to the live version of “Hotel California” from the album Live New York 1994 only on JioSaavn.