Is 'Hotel California' a real place? The story behind The Eagles' hit song

Is 'Hotel California' a real place? The story behind The Eagles' hit song

The lyrics are the stuff of legend, but what do they mean?

By Nicole McCray
There has been much speculation over the story being The Eagles' hit 'Hotel California', largely around whether or not it is an actual place, or simply a metaphor. 

The title track from the album of the same name was released back in 1977, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in that same year. It's widely considered one of the most iconic rock songs ever made and came in at 49 on Rolling Stone Magazine's 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time

There is a real establishment in Mexico called Hotel California, however, it is not what is referenced in the song, even though guests have long been encouraged to believe otherwise.  

In fact, in 2017 the Eagles filed a lawsuit against the owners for perpetuating the myth that the band was in any way associated with the hotel, which sold T-shirts and other merchandise bearing the name. 

So, what is the real meaning behind the title of Eagles' enigmatic anthem? 

First, let's look at the history of how the song came to be. Don Felder first developed the song's instrumental part while staying in a rented house in Malibu Beach. He used a 12-string guitar and a drum machine on a four-track recording deck.

Don Henley and Glenn Frey were then each given a copy of the demo, and soon began conceptualising lyrics together. According to Felder, the jumping-off point came from memories of driving into Los Angeles at nighttime.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Glenn FREY and Joe WALSH and Don HENLEY and Don FELDER and EAGLES and Randy MEISNER; L-R: Don Felder, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner - posed, studio, group shot - Hotel California era  (Photo by RB/Redferns)

"All of us kind of drove into L.A. at night. Nobody was from California, and if you drive into L.A. at night… you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights, and the images that start running through your head of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have, and so it was kind of about that," Felder told Howard Stern in 2008. 

The song also originally had a different name. Its working title was 'Mexican Reggae' - a nod to the latin and reggae influences heard in the track. 

There are countless theories that speculate about the song's deeper meaning and offer various interpretations of its prose. Some suggest 'Hotel California' paints a picture of a mental instituion, while others think it chronicles an experience in an actual hotel full of strange guests. 

The Eagles, however, have declared the song is really a commentary on American self-indulgence and the band's introduction to "the high life".  Henley once described the track as "a journey from innocence to experience."

In an interview with 60 minutes Henley said, "It's basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about."

To Rolling Stone, Henley also stated, "We were all middle class kids from the Midwest. 'Hotel California' was our interpretation of the high life in L.A." 

"Some of the wilder interpretations of the song have been amazing. It was really about the excesses of American culture and certain girls we knew. 

But it was really also about the uneasy balance between art and commerce."

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of EAGLES; Performing live on stage circa 1972 - L-R Glenn Frey, Don Felder, Bernie Leadon and Don Henley  (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

While the song is undoubtedly an allegory of hedonism, it also has socio-political inferences and some have even suggested it references Satanism. One thing that's clear is that 'Hotel California' was made to be thought-provoking and inspire many different interpretations. 

'Hotel California' has been covered many times over the years, notably by Gipsy Kings, Nancy Sinatra and Wilson Phillips.

Members of the American soft-rock ensemble The Eagles sit on chairs as the perform on the television show 'Don Kirschner's Rock Concert,' 1979. Bandmembers are (left to right) Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Don Felder. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)

According to guitar teacher Vincent Reina (who, full disclosure, happens to be my brother), the solo from Hotel California is often used to teach beginners how to properly hold a guitar pick and learn rhythmic strumming and picking patterns. 

In the 90s, 'Hotel California' was voted the home of the greatest guitar solo in history by readers of Guitarist magazine. 

Since the song's success in the late 70s, there was talk of adapting by 'The Sting' producer Julia Phillips, but the band members disliked the idea, so it never happened. 

The Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, where all seven past and present members performed 'Hotel California' on stage for the first (and last) time.

The late Glenn Frey said of making 'Hotel California: "We decided to create something strange, just to see if we could do it."

Strange? Yes. Legendary? Definitely.