In rock-n-roll, an outstanding guitar riff, lick, solo or hook can become as famous as a band, singer or song.
Even casual radio listeners immediately recognize the opening riffs of The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” or “Satisfaction,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” or Guns-N-Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
In 1976, the Eagles released their fifth album, Hotel California, featuring the iconic title track. The guitar intro to the song and the two-minute solo at the end is one of those legendary riffs that is instantaneously recognizable. It was written by Don Felder and performed by Felder and Joe Walsh.
On Wednesday, Felder and his new band will be at the USANA Amphitheatre along with Styx and Foreigner for the Soundtrack of Summer Tour.
Felder spoke to the Deseret News on the phone during a recent tour stop about his time with the Eagles, his solo career and that iconic “Hotel California” guitar part. We started by discussing his latest album, Road to Forever, his first solo record since being dismissed from the Eagles in 2001. His album, originally released in 2012 and re-issued on iTunes with bonus tracks in December, was written on the heels of his breakup with the Eagles and end of his 29-year marriage. While the extended album version on iTunes has 16 tracks, Felder said he actually had even more songs than that to choose from.
Felder: I think I had 27, 28 maybe as many as 30 tracks pretty much finished and I had to sit down and really select what I thought would make a nice musical, varied statement. In other words, there’s stuff on that record that’s kind of country-rock, there’s acoustic stuff on there, there’s a ballad, there’s a lullaby, there’s some harder rock, it’s a really varied kind of piece of music. I found that really attracting for me to be able to do a lot of different types of music on that record – write stuff, sing stuff, play separate chord cuts, produce stuff – in multiple fields.
I had a lot to say, a lot of topics that I wanted to address. As a matter of fact, I write to some extent every day, whether it’s lyrics, singing in an iPhone driving down the highway in California, or working lyrics on a laptop on an airplane, working up a guitar lick backstage after soundcheck before we go on stage, recording it on a little cell phone. Just so I collect these little pieces of inspiration. And then when I have time, like when this tour if over, I have a couple of weeks set aside and I’ll go through and comb over all these little pieces and kind of put some flesh on their bones and take them from little moments of inspiration to more arranged full songs.
I think any artist really should create from their life experience, whether it’s pain, loss of love, excited romance, a new love. the trauma and trials of just going through life and being battered after one misfortune after another and how you get through that. To me, art, whether it’s painting, literature, songs. compositions, orchestra scores, films, all tell a story about experiences they’ve had in life. So yes, all of the songs on that CD come from experiences that I’ve experienced in my life. And so that to me is more realistic foundation to write on and is a more humanly acceptable, or accessible, piece of art.
Do you tend to write lyrics or the music first?
Felder: All of the above. Sometimes it’s a melody, a vocal melody. Sometimes it’s a fixed line – maybe not the chorus line – but it lays out the snapshot of what the song is going to be about, the feeling in it. Sometimes it’s just a great guitar lick that I go, ‘OK, this is going to make a great music track. Now, what do I want to lay on top of it? What does this feel like in the lyrics? What is the sound this track is trying to say?
Because of all the writing Felder does, many times some guitar parts get left on the studio cutting room floor. Sometimes, those leftovers become new songs.
Felder: When I was writing songs for The Long Run record, I think I wrote 18-20 song ideas. A couple of them wound up on the record. We recorded two of three other ones that never got finished, One of them was the music track which later became “Heavy Metal.”
You just never know when you’re writing what’s going to work and what’s not. So I write a lot, finish a lot and then see what I like.
In addition to his time with the Eagles, Felder also recorded solo material in the ’80s, most notably for two cult classic movies of the era, Heavy Metal and Fast Times and Ridgemont High. But when it comes to playing live, Felder knows it’s his Eagles history that strikes a chord with most people. Even though he has 16 new tracks of music he released less than a year ago, it’s “Hotel California” that fans expect to hear.
Felder: A lot of people in the crowd will definitely know and be familiar with the Eagles’ classics which I had a part in, either recording or co-writing or touring. They’re kind of permanently seared into my history. They want to hear a certain amount of that. Then we do other things. I do a tip of the hat to Stevie Ray Vaughn with “Pride and Joy”” which gives me a chance to just play the blues. There’s a variety of things we do in the show. It’s just not a recounting of my Eagles history.
Felder boasts on his website that he was a member of the Eagles for 27 years, though technically the Eagles were on hiatus for 14 of those, from 1980 to 1994. In addition to “Hotel California,” his writing credits include “Victim of Love” and “Those Shoes.” Felder and the Eagles acrimoniously parted ways in 2001. In the years that followed, they became tied up in lawsuits and countersuits and Felder wrote a tell-all book, Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles. In 2013, the documentary History of the Eagles: Part I, premiered in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival. That was followed by the massive History of the Eagles World Tour in which all former members were invited back to perform on stage, except Felder.
Felder: I’ve seen (the documentary). I was pleasantly surprised to look at the old footage that I have not seen for many, many decades and to realize that we were five guys in ripped jeans and plaid shirts and no background, no pyrotechniques, no fancy lighting – we just went on stage and played and sang really well and wrote really great songs. That was the key to that band’s whole success was the quality of the song writing and the band and the records we made. I got delightful pleasure in seeing that.
I thought that because it was primarily commissioned and funded by Don Henley and Glenn Frey, that there was a lot that was omitted from the documentary. It should have been called The History of Don Henley and Glenn Frey, in my opinion because a lot of stuff had taken place prior to the Eagles. Like, for example, Bernie Leadon was a very successful musician, had been in The Flying Burrito Brothers, been a great session player, had played with (Linda) Ronstadt and a bunch of other things and had more success in the business than Don Henley or Glenn Frey. Randy Meisner had been in Poco, had some hits with them, he was in Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band. None of that stuff was ever mentioned.
It had a very heavy-handed slant on the view that Don and Glenn wanted the public to see. So, I thought it was very quite contained and controlled by Don and Glenn.
Felder said his own history with Stephen Stills, Tom Petty and Duane Allman was never mentioned in the movie. As for how the film portrayed his departure from the band….
Felder: I think that’s the story they want to tell and I can’t do anything about that. If that’s how they think they want to portray it, then go ahead, If you want to hear my side, you should read, Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles.
Today, however, Felder says he is happier than ever and doesn’t spend any time dwelling on the past.
Felder: I am having so much fun now working with some amazing players and singers. Everyone in my band has an amazing substantial pedigree, sings brilliant. And after the 2 1/2 hours on stage, they’re the most fun guys I’ve ever worked with to hang out with. To me that’s really important. There’s no drama. There’s no hissy fits. There’s no egos. There’s no demand to control anything. Even me, I don’t do that. So it’s a really fun time. To me, when you say, ‘I play music,’ the word ‘play’ is really instrumental in that sentence in that, when you look at a child at play, there’s a joyousness about them playing. There’s an excitement. There’s an exuberance in their life when their playing. That, to me, is what needs to be in the person that’s playing music: an excitement, a joy, a passion about it. And not all the other trappings of fame, fortune, success, who has the bigger room, who needs more money…any of that stuff is irrelevant. A long time ago, many decades ago, that joy went out of me being in the Eagles. I stayed with it. Like a marriage where you stay together for the kids. But my joy just left. It was not a fun place to live or work and it was not a joyous experience.
And so I’m having so much more fun now. This tour that I’m on, the Soundtrack of Summer Tour, with Foreigner and Styx and myself and my band, we have dinners where there are 70 people there. The band, the crews, the truck drivers, the bus drivers. It’s like a giant family. On days off, a bunch of us go out and play golf together. It’s a very friendly, very fun, non-controlling…it’s just got a lot of play in it. A lot of laughter, a lot of play, a lot of great music. So for me, I am so much happier doing what I’m doing than I was when I was in the Eagles. So no, I don’t feel any regrets and look backwards. I just keep looking forward.
And as for that infamous guitar part to one of rock’s all time iconic songs, “Hotel California?”
Felder; I had leased a beach house in Malibu one summer, was sitting on a couch in my living room looking out at the sun glistening on the Pacific Ocean and my two very young kids playing on the sand on the beach, and was sitting on the couch playing the guitar and out came this progression, the chord progression for “Hotel California.” So I played it five or six times.
Later, when we were assembling ideas for what would become the Hotel California record, I went back and listened to that and I said, ‘Ya know, I’m going to make a track of this.’
Felder laid down the music that would become “Hotel California,” as well as “Victim of Love,” put it on a cassette and gave it to Henley.
Felder: Henley really liked what he called the Mexican Reggae, which was the working title for it for a long time til they got the lyrical concept for “Hotel California.” And from there we had the foundation of the concept of that song and was off writing lyrics. Don Henley did an amazing job writing those lyrics, I have to say.
But from the time Felder wrote the original music til the time he got in the studio with Walsh to record it, nearly a year had passed.
Felder: I always thought Joe and I would sit down in a studio with a couple of amps, I would play something, he would play something, I’d play something and we’d kind of trade back and forth. We started doing that and Don Henley came in the control room and said, ‘Stop. That’s not right.’
‘What do you mean that’s not right?’
‘That’s not like the demo.’
Well, I don’t know what the demo is, that was like a year ago when I made that stuff up. That was just a demo.
He said, ‘No no, you have to make it like the demo.’
The recording session, at that time, was at a studio in Miami. So Felder called his housekeeper in California, had her go find that original demo tape in his office, put it on a cassette player and blast it over the phone so he could hear it in Miami, and then try to remember what he had originally written, learn how to play it again and record it.
And that was how rock-n-roll history was made.