Hotel California saw the Eagles abandon their country origins in favour of full-blown rock & roll, and made them one of the biggest selling groups in the world. Producer Bill Szymczyk tells us how it happened.
Ostensibly, a song about a luxury hotel visit that crosses over to the dark side, but really an allegory about American materialism and excess — as well as the decadent LA lifestyle that many musicians experienced during the mid‑'70s — 'Hotel California' was a pivotal track for the Eagles.
At a time when punk was starting to explode and album‑oriented rock was all the rage, the song not only topped the US singles chart and scooped the Grammy for 'Record Of The Year'; it also established the theme of — and lent its name to — the Eagles' autobiographical, multi‑platinum LP that, courtesy of guitarist Bernie Leadon's replacement by Joe Walsh, saw the band make the transition from country rock to mainstream rock while achieving their greatest critical and commercial success. So, it's interesting that the track itself underwent three different versions before emerging in the form that everyone knows.
"The first version we recorded was just a riff,” says Bill Szymczyk, who earned a 'Producer Of The Year' Grammy for his efforts producing and engineering the album. "However, once Don Henley began to write the lyrics, it turned out to be in the wrong key. So, then we recorded it in the right key with largely the same instrumentation and a smattering of lyrics, but after we'd developed the song a little more and Henley and Frey had fine‑tuned the lyrics, we came to find out the tempo was too fast. When we recorded it the third time, that was the charm.”
A native of Muskegon, Michigan, Szymczyk took an unconventional route to arrive at his chosen profession, starting out not as a musical performer or technician but as a SONAR (SOund Navigation And Ranging) operator for the US Navy.
"I guess I learned by osmosis,” he now remarks, while explaining how a crystal radio he assembled from a kit sparked his interest in blues and R&B. "I think I ordered it from a comic book — five bucks to build your own radio. The crystal itself was indiscriminately tuned to whatever channel it was on, and at first nothing came through. But the antenna was just a single dangling wire, and one night it touched my bed springs and suddenly it was a huge antenna that picked up WLAC out of Nashville, Tennessee. That station played a lot of BB King, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and early blues records, none of which I normally heard in Michigan as a kid. We got Elvis, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, but in terms of grittier stuff, that was the first time I ever heard the real blues.”
When Szymczyk joined the Navy at the age of 17 in 1960, he took the requisite audiometer test that, as SONAR was based on pitch perception, judged recruits' likely ability to help locate Russian submarines. Since Szymczyk was among the top five people in this regard, he was assigned to SONAR school, where he also acquired about four years of electronics training in just six months.
"That really was my entrée into the music business, because when I left the service I got a job as a maintenance man in a recording studio,” he recalls. "By the time I got out of the Navy in February 1964, I had been accepted as a student in communications, television and radio at New York University's Media Arts School. However, when school started that August, I was already well ensconced in the music business. So I blew off college and persevered in moving up the food chain.”
February 1964 was the month that the Beatles arrived in America for the first time, launching the British Invasion that would also see acts such as the Animals, the Kinks, Manfred Mann, the Troggs and the Rolling Stones storm the US charts.
"I could not have entered the business at a better time,” Szymczyk asserts. "The studio where I started was Dick Charles Recording in New York, located at 729 Seventh Avenue in Room 210. They had two mono machines there and they mainly cut demos for songwriters. One of their biggest clients was Screen Gems, whose roster included Brill Building writers like Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — the first session I ever saw was a Goffin & King demo, with Carole singing and playing the piano while Gerry produced in the control room.
"During my time at Dick Charles and, subsequently, Regent Sound, I recorded a lot of folk artists during the day — including Tom Rush and Phil Ochs — and R&B sessions at night with the likes of Van McCoy, and as I gained a reputation as a pretty good R&B engineer I also did some sessions for Quincy Jones, who was working at Mercury as a staff producer. Then I got to know Jerry Ragovoy really well and engineered a lot of stuff for him at Regent Sound. So, when he opened the Hit Factory, I was his first engineer.”
After a year at the Hit Factory, Bill Szymczyk then jumped at the opportunity to join ABC Records as a producer, even though this entailed taking a huge pay cut.
"I went from about $1200 a week to $300 a week,” he says, "so I packed up the family and moved from the Upper East Side of Manhattan out to Queens. Jerry Ragovoy was the guy who really taught me how to be a producer, and there were also many times when I found myself kind of taking over if I felt a producer had lost control over — or didn't know how to control — a session. A lot of people who hired me, hired me for that reason — 'If we get in trouble, Bill will know what to do.' So I was aiming that way, and when ABC actually offered me the job, I went for it. That was in 1968, and two years later, when they closed down the New York record office, they fired 80 people and moved just two — me and the guy who had hired me — to LA to work for ABC Dunhill.”
Szymczyk commenced his working relationship with BB King in New York, producing 1969's Live & Well, as well as the Completely Well album that spawned the blues guitarist's signature song and first major pop‑crossover hit, 'The Thrill Is Gone'. King's 1970 follow‑up, Indianola Mississippi Seeds, was recorded in LA, where Szymczyk continued to work until February of '71, when an earthquake sent him "off the bed onto the floor” and out of LA into Denver. "The day the earthquake happened was the day I became an independent producer.”
Having worked with Joe Walsh when producing the James Gang — which was the first act he signed to ABC — and also on sessions such as those for Indianola Mississippi Seeds, Szymczyk produced Walsh's solo albums Barnstorm and The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get. The latter, recorded in 1973, included the hit 'Rocky Mountain Way'. Shortly thereafter, the Eagles began recording their On The Border album and wanted a more rock‑oriented sound than producer‑engineer Glyn Johns had given them on their eponymous debut and its successor, Desperado. It was Joe Walsh's aforementioned LPs that turned them onto Bill Szymczyk.
"By the time they started On The Border, things were getting a little rough between the band and Glyn,” Szymczyk explains. "He perceived them as a vocal group, whereas Glenn Frey and Don Henley in particular wanted to be more rock & roll. So during the course of recording On The Border, they had a falling‑out, and the band discarded all of the songs except 'Best Of My Love' — which was a good idea — and 'You Never Cry Like a Love', before I did the rest.
"During our initial meeting, Henley asked me how many mics I'd use on a set of drums and I told him eight or nine. Glyn Johns was known for using three. Then, when Glenn Frey wanted to know how long he could work on his guitar solos, I told him, 'As long as it takes.' They wanted to rock and that's what I did, so it was a good marriage.”
On The Border was released in 1974, and that same year Szymczyk produced and engineered the Eagles' next, even more successful album, One Of These Nights, released in 1975. A compilation of singles, Their Greatest Hits (1971‑1975), was issued in February 1976, and the following month, with the hits collection on its way to becoming one of the bestselling albums of all time, work commenced on Hotel California. In addition to its more pronounced rock edge, this record featured a heightened level of musicianship, with the cohesive unit of drummer Don Henley and bass player Randy Meisner backing the powerhouse lead guitars of Don Felder and Joe Walsh alongside Glenn Frey's electric guitar, 12‑string acoustic and keyboards. It also marked Henley's emergence as the band's main singer and lyricist.
"This is a concept album, there's no way to hide it, but it's not set in the old West, the cowboy thing, you know,” Henley told the Dutch magazine ZigZag shortly before Hotel California's release. "It's more urban this time... It's our bicentennial year, you know, the country is 200 years old, so we figured since we are the Eagles and the eagle is our national symbol, that we were obliged to make some kind of a little bicentennial statement using California as a microcosm of the whole United States, or the whole world, if you will, and to try to wake people up and say 'We've been OK so far, for 200 years, but we're gonna have to change if we're gonna continue to be around.”
"Given the success of One Of These Nights, we knew we had to be really, really good on the next record,” Bill Szymczyk now says. "In both cases, we did half of the album at the Record Plant in LA as a concession to the band, half at Criteria in Miami where I was living at that time, and at both studios we had the best of everything in terms of what was available at that time. Compared to today, it was pretty basic stuff — we had [Urei] 1176s, [Universal Audio] LA3As and some outboard equalisers, but there weren't massive amounts of gear. At the Record Plant, we worked in Studio C, which had an API board, and at Criteria we were also in Studio C, the big room, which had a custom‑made MCI console that was a one‑of‑a‑kind deal. In fact, when I had first thought of moving to Miami, I'd gone on a scouting mission and checked out the studio. At that time, the MCI was only 16‑channel, and I told [Criteria's owner] Mack Emerman, 'If you convert this up to 24, I'll start booking this room.' So he did, and then I did.
"Every time we were at Criteria, the guys were actually quite happy to be out of LA and away from all of the partying and the hangers‑on. Hotel California took nine months to make, and throughout that time we'd go back and forth between LA and Miami. We'd do a month in LA and take three or four weeks off, and then a month in Miami and take three or four weeks off, because we'd record tracks and then they'd have to go away and write the words. Very seldom would they write a full song all in one go. Somebody would have a lick, somebody would have a riff, and then we'd develop that in the studio more than anywhere else.”
It was Don Felder who originated the music for Hotel California's title track, recording a 12‑string riff in his four‑track home studio, and as Glenn Frey recalled in a 2005 BBC Radio 2 interview, when he and Don Henley first heard the demo, they perceived it as "a bizarre mix of musical influences” that, thanks to its modified reggae beat, sounded like "Spanish reggae rock.” Hence the song's working title, 'Mexican Reggae'.
The first two versions of 'Hotel California' were recorded in LA, the third and final one was cut in Miami, and as with the rest of the album, the band members recorded live together in both studios.
"Meisner's bass was gobo'd off and I'd take it direct as well as through a small Ampeg amp,” Szymczyk recalls. "Henley, on the other hand, I tried to keep as open as possible, so I didn't use a drum booth. However, I did use iso booths for the acoustic guitars and there were gobos for the electrics. The miking all depended on what the song and the sound called for. I'd change the mics constantly, and so when people ask me, 'What mic did you use on that?' I have no clue at this point. The only thing that was consistent was a pair of Neumann KM84s that I discovered to be the absolute best setup on acoustic guitars. As far as the guitar amps went, it was a case of whatever worked.'
"For the drums, like everybody else I'd put a [Shure] SM57 on the snare. Then there'd be [an AKG] D88 on the kick and either Sennheiser 414s or perhaps [Neumann] U87s on the snare — I'd change every now and then to see if something else sounded better, and as I've said, I'd use a total of eight or nine mics on the kit. For vocals, I'd use 67s and 87s.”
Although Szymczyk shared the Hotel California engineering credit with Allan Blazek, Bruce Hensal and Ed Mashal, those three men were actually his assistants.
"Having come up as an engineer and gotten stiffed on many credits, I made sure that everybody got credit on the records I produced,” he explains. "And as with all of them, the Eagles recorded together as a band on Hotel California. Remember, this was before the days of build‑a‑record, where you start with a click track and then do things piece by piece. We may have gone back and replaced a guitar or keyboard part, but my way of doing things was to record numerous takes, select the five or six best ones and use the very best parts from all that. So I did a lot of two‑inch tape editing, and I know for sure that on 'Hotel California' there were 33 edits on the two‑inch master.
"By the time we recorded the third version, we'd pretty much refined what we wanted and everything was set, including the arrangement and the tempo. I had a system where I'd pull all five takes off however many reels there were, and I'd put them all on a master reel. Then I'd cue it up and listen to all five intros and pick one; listen to all five verses and pick one; and then go back and physically lop it together. The band members would be there to pick things, and then, when I started editing, I'd make them go play pool.
"At this stage in their career, the Eagles were pursuing perfection, and in the process of editing I'd hear, 'Well, see if you can do that, Coach,' which was my nickname back then. This might refer to replacing one drum fill with another fill that was a little better, so there'd be an edit at the front and an edit at the end. That's the kind of perfection we were dealing with — the stuff people now do in Pro Tools every day. Still, it wasn't hard to retain my objectivity. To me, the objectivity and the creativity went into the actual recording of the five tracks, then I'd turn from a creator into an editor, before we then took care of overdubbing lead guitars at a later date.”
Szymczyk now describes the recording of the extended Felder/Walsh twin‑guitar coda that concludes 'Hotel California' as "one of the most amazing times that I've had as a producer. Don and Joe were with me in the control room, and we ran their mic cords out to amps in the studio so they could hear exactly what was happening. Don Felder was on one side of me, Joe Walsh was on the other, and we were punching in all of these incredible guitar parts which had not really been written before we started to do it. So we were doing a lot of what we call search‑and‑destroy — 'Well, let's try this and let's try that. If I did that, then the harmony would be this...' Just overdubbing all those leads was a basic two‑day process, and man, what a ball that was. They're both great, great players, and the two of them were on fire.”
Mixed in Criteria's Studio C, Hotel California was released in December 1976 and spent a total of eight weeks atop the Billboard 200 en route to selling more than 16 million copies in the US alone. 'New Kid In Town' topped the singles chart in February 1977, followed by the title track that May, which shifted a million units within three months of its release.
"At that time, we had a friendly rivalry with Fleetwood Mac — both bands were in the same town, and hell, they were dating each other — and while it was great to be leading the way, there was also the pressure to keep producing the hits,” says Bill Szymczyk who, after helming the Eagles' sixth studio album The Long Run at his own MCI‑equipped Bayshore facility in Miami, worked with anyone from Joe Walsh and Bob Seger to Santana and the Who. Nevertheless, disenchanted with the synth‑based direction that the music business subsequently took, he retired in 1990 and moved to North Carolina to spend more time with his family. In 2001, he then resurfaced to co‑produce the Eagles' comeback album Long Road Out Of Eden (released in 2007), and, having come full circle with the outfit that he affectionately refers to as "my band”, he also helmed the self‑titled records of Dishwalla in 2005 and Brian Vander Ark three years later.
"Working with the Eagles again was quite a bit different from before,” he says. "Everybody was older, a lot richer, and in some ways wiser. And since most of them were married and had kids, we had to act more like adults. Everyone had responsibilities. So, instead of going in at two in the afternoon and working until two or three in the morning we were starting at 10 in the morning and sometimes leaving as early as four in the afternoon because of family concerns. It was 180 out from what we did back in the '70s...”
"Don Henley and Glenn wrote most of the words,” Don Felder told Howard Stern in a 2008 radio interview. "All of us kind of drove into LA at night. Nobody was from California, and if you drive into LA 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.”
"At the time, we were also quite fond of Steely Dan and listening to their records,” Glenn Frey remarked in a BBC Radio 2 interview, "and one of the things that impressed us about Steely Dan was that they would say anything in their songs, and it didn't necessarily have to make sense. They called it 'junk sculpture'. When we thought of this song 'Hotel California', we started thinking that it would be very cinematic to do it sort of like The Twilight Zone, where one line says there's a guy on the highway and the next line says there's a hotel in the distance. Then there's a woman there. Then he walks in... So it's one‑shots all sort of strung together, and you sort of draw your own conclusions from it. We were sort of trying to expand our lyrical horizons and just try to take on something in the realm of the bizarre, as Steely Dan had done.”
Evidently, the admiration was mutual. On Steely Dan's 1976 album The Royal Scam, a track titled 'Everything You Did' contained the line "Turn up the Eagles, the neighbours are listening”. A few months later, 'Hotel California' returned the compliment: "They stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast.”
Among Bill Szymczyk's other favourite experiences on the Hotel California album was the recording of 'Life In The Fast Lane' and the phasing that takes place just before the fade.
"I had learned how to do this from a dear friend of mine who has since died, Gary Kellgren, who like me began his career at Dick Charles and who then co‑founded the Record Plant in New York with Chris Stone,” Szymczyk says "However, Gary then made me pay the price. At that time, I was still working for ABC and he had just helped record the Jimi Hendrix album Electric Ladyland. It had some phasing on there, and when I heard it I wanted to do the same sort of thing on a song that I was recording with another band, but I didn't know how. So I booked a session over at Gary's place, and he had this box with a bunch of knobs and an in and an out on it, and he did some patching and then phased this track that I was trying to do.
"I said, 'Oh, man, I've got to have one of these boxes!' and he said, 'OK, I'll have my guys build one for you.' But it was all a ruse. He had gotten some ridiculous piece of gear that did nothing while he was actually manipulating the tape machines to go one against the other. Of course, I was chagrined and he was laughing his ass off, but then he taught me how to really do it. Anyway, when I suggested doing the same thing on the end of 'Life In The Fast Lane', Henley and Frey were a little sceptical — 'Oh, don't do that, it might sound like 'Itchycoo Park'...' I said, 'Well, that's the idea!' So I did it and then they said, 'Oh, it's pretty cool!' It stuck, and I was happy about that.”