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“Hotel California” by the Eagles is one of the most famous rock songs of the 1970s. In some ways, the song feels less like music and more like a short story. The narrative of “Hotel California” has helped it to outlive much of the other music of the 1970s.

Like many other great pieces of music, “Hotel California” can be understood in a completely literal way. A the same time, it could be taken as some sort of parable or metaphor. This raises an interesting question: What were the Eagles trying to say when they wrote “Hotel California?”

The Eagles sitting in casual attire | Photo by RB/Redferns

The origins of ‘Hotel California’

Don Henley started writing the music for “Hotel California” when he was at a beach house in Malibu, California. According to Rolling Stone, he recalls “I remember sitting in the living room on a spectacular July day with the doors wide open. I had a bathing suit on and was sitting on this couch, soaking wet, thinking the world is a wonderful place to be. I had this acoustic 12-string and started tinkling around with it, and those ‘Hotel California’ chords just kind of oozed out.”

Fellow band member Glenn Frey was impressed by the song’s music. He felt it adeptly combined reggae, Mexican music, and the sound of the electric guitar. What a combo!

Don Henley’s different explanations of the song
“Hotel California” by the Eagles

So what is the song about? Fan interpretations have ranged from Satanism to cannibalism to drug addiction. Certainly, the song’s sinister nature has helped fans to think it’s about something unsavory.

The Eagles have given different albeit overlapping interpretations of the song. In 2002, Henley said the song is about the United States as a whole. According to ABC News, he explained “It’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.” This is an interesting interpretation, as the lyrics of the song reference California but not the rest of America.

Later, in 2005, Henley offered a more specific interpretation of “Hotel California.” “We were all middle-class kids from the Midwest. ‘Hotel California’ was our interpretation of the high life in L.A.” These comments seem to align more with the song’s California-themed lyrics. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Henley feels the track can be interpreted in numerous ways.

The reference to another band in ‘Hotel California’

Steely Dan in front of a dark background | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Of course, not all of the lyrics contain social commentary. One of the lines of the song mentions people at a dinner of some sort. “They gathered for the feast/They stab it with their steely knives/But they just can’t kill the beast.” “Steely” is a rare adjective, so its use in the song stands out.

According to Ultimate Classic Rock, that lyrical choice was a direct reference to another 1970s band, Steely Dan. Why did the Eagles reference Steely Dan in “Hotel California?” Frey said the song was the Eagles’ attempt to emulate Steely Dan’s bizarre lyricism. At the same time, the Steely Dan reference was a nod to how Steely Dan mentioned listening to the Eagles in the lyrics to their song “Everything You Did.” It’s interesting to see how the inspirations for a song can come from so many different places.

Also see: Pink Floyd: Was ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ Stolen From Them?