One day when I was at high school, some representatives of the school newspaper asked random students what our favourite song was. When the next issue of the paper came out, there was The Eagles’ Hotel California, with … one vote.
I don’t know why some songs remain in the individual or collective mind and others don’t. Some super-famous songs basically disappear almost without a trace, while others which were mildly popular at the time become classics. Hotel California was no 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for one week in May 1977. I can’t find any record of its chart performance in Australia. It certainly wasn’t no 1 or one of the top 25 singles that year.
It’s sometimes hard to say how much of my memory of a particular song is from the actual time, and how much is from encountering them on compilation cassettes, CDs or Youtube videos. Some songs were and are extensively featured on compilations and some aren’t. It was easy to spot, by their absence, the singers and groups (or their production companies) which didn’t licence their songs.
The internet is a mixed blessing when it comes to encountering any music, remembered or new. I can now usually find almost any song from almost any time within seconds rather than relying on serendipity. On the other hand, Youtube sometimes suggests music I have never heard before, based on my previous broadly eclectic listening, some of which is stunning, usually classical or modern classical music, but sometimes popular music.
Another test of a song’s status is the number of cover versions or arrangements which are made (authorised or unauthorised). There are comparatively few cover versions of Hotel California, but easily in my experience are those by The Gypsy Kings (from France, in Spanish) (Wikipedia, video), The Cat Empire (from Australia, in French) (Wikipedia, video) and Vocal Sampling (from Cuba, in English) (Wikipedia, video) And there are more: search and you will find, maybe eventually. As an example of a random memory and usually finding almost any song: in 2007 my then-girlfriend/now-wife spent four days travelling in the south-west of Korea. On one night (probably the second night, in Suncheon) I saw and heard on television a version by a female singer in a style I would describe as cool blues. Over the years I have searched a number of times with no result. It fact, in my browser, searching for ‘hotel california’ brings up the autocompletion ‘… cool blues’. I tried it one more time yesterday and found the version by Chinese singer Yao Si Ting, singing in English. I can find no information about her other than that she was born in Guangzhou in 1983.
Comparing versions, I can can pick out words from the Spanish and French versions, less so when listening and more so when reading the lyrics online. Of course, it helps that I know the original lyrics and that English, French and Spanish have so many equivalent words. The lead singer of Vocal Sampling, while proficient in English, is clearly not a native speaker, but Yao’s pronunciation is almost impeccable. She seems to sing in English extensively, see this album). Musically, the five versions are very different, and incorporate a wide variety of influences. Note especially the Vocal Sampling version, which is entirely vocal, including the guitar and percussion parts. Many cover versions are simply an attempted imitation of the original, and almost inevitable pale by comparison. It is hard to say when a cover (attempting to imitate the original?) changes into an arrangement (attempting to transform the original?). (I will have more to say about this, in another context, in my next post.) In some cases, the cover becomes more established than the original, with Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s All along the watchtower usually given as the prime example (neither of which was part of my musical youth).
I chose the title of this blog post at the last moment. At the back of my mind was the thought that so many of the words of this song have entered the collective mind in their own right. (Compare the number of words you know from this song, with those from New kid in town and Life in the fast lane, The Eagles’ previous and subsequent singles.) I chose that one because of its connection with memory. But I didn’t dance to remember this song; I can remember it quite well enough already. (Dancing wasn’t part of my musical youth, either.)
FYI, the video links you provide are not available (blocked) in the US. (I guess they’re all specific to Australia.) Here are some that work Stateside:
The local Chipotle restaurant in my area is fond of playing foreign language cover versions of popular hits from the Sixties and Seventies. I’ve not heard any of the Hotel California renditions, though.
Regarding the primacy of cover versions, perhaps more prime (primer?) examples to my mind would be “Respect” (Aretha Franklin covering Otis Redding) and “Piece of My Heart” (Janis Joplin / Big Brother covering Erma Franklin). Hendrix’s “Watchtower” is certainly outstanding – and Dylan even acknowledged it as superior to his original – but Dylan’s own songs’ versions (excepting those which appear only on “bootleg” anthologies) are hardly obscure.