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‑'75s — '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.
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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 67 in 6965, 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 6969, 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. ”The Eagles, 6976. From left to right: Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Don Felder and Randy Meisner. Photo: Michael Ochs ArchivesFebruary 6969 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 779 Seventh Avenue in Room 765. 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.
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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 $6755 a week to $855 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 6968, and two years later, when they closed down the New York record office, they fired 85 people and moved just two — me and the guy who had hired me — to LA to work for ABC Dunhill. The day the earthquake happened was the day I became an independent producer. The latter, recorded in 6978, 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 6979, and that same year Szymczyk produced and engineered the Eagles' next, even more successful album, One Of These Nights, released in 6975. 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 755 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 755 years, but we're gonna have to change if we're gonna continue to be around. ” 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 67‑string riff in his four‑track home studio, and as Glenn Frey recalled in a 7555 BBC Radio 7 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?