Don Felder Looks Back at 40 Years of ‘Hotel California': Exclusive Interview
Former Eagles guitarist Don Felder recalls a moment when he realized the universal appeal of “Hotel California,” the iconic hit song he helped conceive and co-wrote for his former band. The occasion was a 2013 show he did at the United Nations in New York City in front of about 600 people, most of whom probably didn’t speak English.
“If you look at the U.N., they’re sitting there with their translator [earphones] on,” he tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “I’m playing for this audience, and I hope they could understand the lyrics and the song. So when I get to “Hotel California,” everybody in the crowd is singing along, they knew every lyric to this song: ‘Wow, guys in parts of the world who don’t even speak English know this song.’ It was an awakening for me about the global impact that the song has had over the years. Forty years later, it’s still going along.”
Felder himself is still going along too. His long career includes working with artists like Bob Seger, the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Stephen Stills, Stevie Nicks and Diana Ross. He and his band are now part of this summer’s United We Rock tour with old friends Styx and REO Speedwagon.
“It’s been really just full of excitement and anticipation,” he says of the tour. “We’ve all known each other for decades, we’ve played together, been friends together and hung out together. This particular group of acts had never worked together at the same time – I’ve worked with REO [and] Styx, Styx has worked with REO, but this combination is so much fun. There’s no egos, no drama. We’re all seasoned pros and it’s so much more fun having a great time with these guys, than it is is dealing with another act that has other dynamics, to put it politely.”
Felder’s set consists mostly of Eagles songs he either co-wrote, recorded or performed onstage during his 27-year tenure with the band — including “Already Gone,” “One of These Nights” and “Life in the Fast Lane” — as well as his 1981 solo hit “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” from the Heavy Metal soundtrack. And, fittingly, “Hotel California” serves as the finale of his set, which immediately elicits audience cheers as he plays the familiar opening notes of the song on his 12-string guitar. (“Hotel California,” from the 1976 Eagles album of the same name, peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard chart in May 1977.) The origins behind the pop-culture landmark modestly began when Felder was playing around on his guitar on a sunny day at a rented beach house in Malibu.
“I was sitting on the couch and out came that chord progression over and over and over,” he recalls “So I went into the back bedroom and recorded a little demo of it. I [later] re-recorded the whole thing where I played acoustic 12-string, electric guitar and bass. I had a drum machine that played a reggae cha-cha beat and made a pretty complete demo. I gave a copy — along with 14 or 15 other songs, one of which was the track and the melody of “Victim of Love,” and a bunch of other song ideas — to [the band] and said, ‘Hey, is there anything on here that anybody likes that want to finish writing with me?’ I get a call from [Don] Henley saying, ‘I kind of like that track, sounds like a Mexican reggae. So that became the working name of the song, “Mexican Reggae,” we went into the studio and started recording it.”
Co-written by Felder, Henley and Glenn Frey, “Hotel California” has been interpreted as a look at the dark side of the California dream of the ’70s, an epitaph of the ’60s hippie innocence and idealism. “We had conversations since it was my basic track about how no one from the band was from California,” says Felder. “We’ve all had that experience of driving into L.A. When we got there and got into the entertainment business, it became a different tale along the way. And I thought the imagery of Henley’s lyrics were just fantastic, he was sending like little visual postcards, snapshots of scenes along the way. I thought it was brilliantly put together with Glenn’s conception, our conversations that we have had, and Don’s lyric ability.”
A “Hotel California” highlight is the soaring dueling guitar solo between Felder and Joe Walsh that caps the song. “At the end of the demo, I made up what I thought would be a part that I would play and something that Joe would play,” Felder says. The two guitarists got into the studio, plugged in their guitars and started playing. But then, according to Felder, Henley came in and told them, “‘Stop! That’s not like the demo. You got to make it like the demo.’”
“We were sitting in Miami in the recording studio’s doing those guitars,” Felder says. “I had left my original cassette in my studio in Los Angeles in Malibu. So I had to call my housekeeper, have her go find the cassette, put it in a blaster, play it over the phone, so we could record it in the studio in Miami. Then I had to sit down and learn what I had just made up, note for note from the hip because Don wanted it just like the demo. I would say over half of that solo on the end came off of my original demo.”
Felder wasn’t sure at the time if the song had a chance to be a hit, given its unorthodox construction, not to mention its more than six-minute length.
“We had a playback party for the record company,” Felder recalls. “After “Hotel California” played, Don turned around and said, ‘That’s gonna be our single.’ In those days AM radio would only play something that was under three minutes and 30 seconds long [and[ it had to be a rock track or a danceable track or a ballad of some kind. “Hotel California” was none of those. It was the absolute wrong format for radio. So I said to Don, ‘I think that’s an FM cut, it’s something that’ll play on FM radio, not AM radio.’ Don said, ‘Nope, this gonna be our single.’ We all went with it, and I’ve never been so happy to have been so wrong.”
He now recognizes how special “Hotel California” is when he performs the song. “It’s really funny, because you look out at the audience at these shows and there are three generations, and they all know this song and they all stand up for it,” he notes. “By the end of the night we get a standing ovation for the show and especially that song. It just feels really great that the song has endured so well and has become a classic.”
As for the future, Felder is currently working on his next solo record, the follow-up to 2012’s Road to Forever, for possible release next year. He’s hoping to get members of Styx and REO Speedwagon to collaborate on a song for the record during the United We Rock tour, which runs through Aug. 28.
“There’s a lot of guest artists on it who are good friends of mine,” says Felder. “It’s been so much fun to have great classic rock singers, guitar players, writers, come in and help me with this. I found it so much more fun to do it with friendly people rather than to do it by myself. That last record I did, I think I played every guitar on the entire record. I want to do something more fun and exciting. We’re in the process of talking with some of the guys on this tour about writing a piece of music together, and write something together that all three of our bands can record and play together.”
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