Friday, February 26, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Eagles' Hotel California (1976)

This excursion on chart-topping records from 1975 began after I smelled a rat last month. The local hipster radio station bent over backwards in lugubrious homage after the passing of David Bowie on January 10, devoting a whole day of programming to the oeuvre of the Thin White Duke after just having spent a whole Friday playing Bowie records in honor of his birthday, January 8. My antenna started to tingle after the station engaged in the most perfunctory of memorials following the death of one of the Hippie founding fathers and a godfather of psychedelia, Paul Kantner, at the end of January. The attention paid to Kantner far outstripped what respects were paid to Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey though, because as far as I could tell the hipsters marked Frey's passing not at all (much the same could be said of KEXP's treatment of Maurice White). This does not speak well of hipsters.

It is frequently quoted that "History is written by the victors," which is a form of presentism, the idea that the best way to look at the past is through a prism of the current cultural paradigm. Whereas the radio station's elision of Earth, Wind & Fire is undoubtedly due to racism, the omission of Eagles music can be chalked up to a brittle snobbery and an elite know-nothingism.

The fact is that the Eagles are as important to the Great American Songbook as George Gershwin, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash. They are the highest-selling America band in U.S. history with the highest-selling album in U.S. history, 1976's Their Greatest Hits, 1971 - 1975. Growing up in the United States of the 1970s Eagles music was ambient. And what makes it important for us on this page is that they ruled the roost when Hippies gave up the ghost in the middle-1970s and the Punks arrived on the scene.

Originally, to stay with the year 1975, this post was meant to be about One of These Nights, the hugely successful Eagles album produced by Bill Szymczyk. Unfortunately, the hold I placed on the album at my public library never arrived, and I couldn't bring myself to pay for a digital download. Instead, I found an inexpensive used CD of Hotel California (1976) at my local record emporium. Having a connection to the album, I decided to immerse myself in it this week.

My connection to Hotel California is twofold. First, though the album is listed as a product of 1976, which it is, it didn't achieve saturation radio airplay until the following summer. The Eagles' masterpiece "Hotel California" and the saccharine, lachrymose, Frey-sung "New Kid in Town" both reached #1 on the U.S Billboard Hot 100 in 1977, and "Life in the Fast Lane" almost cracked the top ten. I remember playing Frisbee with my oldest sister's girlfriend, the stereo speakers blasting "Hotel California," on a warm summer evening; it seemed to me to be some sort of perfection, like a state of bliss was aurally captured and transmitted and history had to end because there was no place left for time to go.

That was in the summer of 1977, about the same time as the Sex Pistols took their famous boat-ride-turned-police-melee on the Thames during Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee anniversary celebration. Second, my hipster college girlfriend, a person that flits in and out of these Hippies-vs.-Punks posts (see the Pure Mania post or the Hate Your Friends post), someone with whom I became intimate when my wife-to-be was largely absent for the year prior to our relocating to the East Coast, made a mix tape for me as a going-away gift. Anchoring the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Replacements tracks was "Hotel California."

So, to my mind, the Eagles' Hotel California always had hipster chops. That sense was upheld this week. The two-guitar attack of Don Felder and Joe Walsh that provides the coda to "Hotel California" might not be as arty as Glenn Branca but it is definitely not lite rock and it definitely has an avant-garde edge to it.

There are other arty flourishes throughout Hotel California: the symphonic instrumental reprise of "Wasted Time" that begins side two; a song sung by bass player Randy Meisner, "Try and Love Again," that sounds like something off Gerald Collier's hipster-fave eponymous album from 1997; Don Henley's shrewd indictment of American Manifest Destiny in "The Last Resort" to conclude the album, not to mention an exhaustive criticism of the bankruptcy of "massified bohemia" found in "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane."

Walking to work on a chilly morning this week listening to "Life in the Fast Lane" I saw a young woman dressed for the office driving in her compact car, and what struck me is that the same thing has been happening for the 40 years since Hotel California was released and the machine has only gotten worse.

In the end, what is interesting about Hotel California is how negative it is and how prescient it was. The dead end had arrived for the Hippies by 1977, and the Eagles called it. Despite this almost hostile negativity, the record is celebrated as a pillar of classic rock. That makes Hotel California a fascinating document of the nihilism that is the root of our present neoliberal age. Too bad the hipsters at the radio station didn't give it a listen.


  1. I was born in 1950 so I guess I'm of another musical generation. My musical tastes were born in the pop/rock sixties (tempered by my parents' love for show tunes). By the time the Eagles came along they fit in with both the singer-songwriter push of the late sixties, early seventies. Their first big hit was Jackson Browne's "Take It Easy", and for that they got a nod for covering a "true artist" in much the way that, say, The Fifth Dimension, covered Laura Nyro.

    They cranked out a steady dose of top-ten hits in a moderately countryish, rockish style, LAish style that fit in nicely with Eddie Money and other rock acts on the radio.

    I moved from the East Coast to the SF Bay Area in 1974, and immersing myself in the Bay Area scene. When "Hotel California" happened I was beginning to get caught up with the punk scene. I was listening to KSAN, at the time the alternate rock center of the universe. Once that happened there wasn't much room for The Eagles and what I felt was rather ham-handed pretentious SoCal lyrics when someone like Elvis Costello could write lyrical circles around them. Music at the time was like an expanding universe for me. All rules were broken. My personal playlists had "We Are All Prostitutes" following Eddie Money's "Get A Move On".

    When I think about it, there were all these shards of music around. The sixties super bands like the Doors, Jeff Plane and all were pretty much done. The Move had devolved into ELO. Dylan seemed a bit confused at the time. Tower of Power was pumping in the Bay Area, along with bands like the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils who were big locally but not bubbling up nationally. Being that I was from the Jersey Shore I knew about Springsteen, who was putting out "grown up" music.

    Plus, I was discovering obscure music, like Dyke and the Blazers "So Sharp" from back in the Sixties. It gave funk a kind of new, raw, ragged alternate to the shiny disco that was coming along about then (which hipsters, hippies and punks were not supposed to like). Dyke, by now deceased, was a kind of punk soul alternate. (Really, try their cover of "It's Your Thing".)

    Soon I was seeing bands like Devo, Pere Ubu, Dead Boys as they passed through town. I was moved to join a punk band (a very, very, very bad punk band), and once I began playing with others it changed how I took in music.

    It was an incredible music period. My love life interfered with my music. I remember buying the Jefferson Whatever album with "Miracles" on it, and while I loved that song, that album was pretty much my warning that Grace and company were not going to take me much farther on my journey. When my first wife and I split up I let her keep the album.

    I got married again in 1981, my punk band broke up, and I got a job carrying mail, and getting up early to sort and deliver mail pretty much ended my clubbing time. That was another musical end. After being married for awhile I began finding a revenue stream to resume buying music, and as I was delivering mail to The Residents and some other obscure bands I managed to work my way back into the musical, cultural stream.

    Interesting times. The soundtrack of our lives.

    1. Wow. Thanks very much for the great comments, Bob. I'm going to check out the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils. The next few Hippies vs. Punks posts are going to be devoted to great bands/albums of 1991 that though more powerful than Nirvana's NEVERMIND never enjoyed the success of the Emerald City power trio. Grunge, the attempted synthesis of Hippie with Punk, was my "salad days" era. The horizon was clear. Possibilities seemed endless. Anyhow, I am interested now in how that which goes unthought actually structures consciousness. Thanks again.