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Eagles' 'Hotel California': The story behind the iconic cover art

Designer Kosh talks working with Don Henley to create the "sumptuous" and "sinister" image that became one of the most well-known album covers in rock and roll history.

By Michael Goldstein, RockPop Gallery


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The follow-up to the successful 1975/early 1976 releases — the Grammy-nominated “One Of These Nights” and the huge-selling “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975” — “Hotel California” was the first album to feature guitarist Joe Walsh, whose playing and songwriting influence brought the band from its more country-leaning efforts towards a more mainstream rock audience.

During the year and a half spent in the making of the record, drummer/singer/lyricist Don Henley emerged as the “featured player,” and much of the record’s tone and subject material reflected his commentary on success (and excesses it can breed), love lost and just how strange life in California can be.

With their arena-rock-ready musicianship now well-honed (Don Felder and Walsh on guitars and Henley and Randy Meisner providing the rhythmic fundamentals), the band was now ready for the big time, and “Hotel California” proved that they could create music that could both sell countless millions of albums (the record went platinum in one week) and make millions of fans in stadiums around the world cheer loudly as they sang aloud every word of every hit song. “Hotel California” won the Grammy in 1977 for Record of the Year and the songs “Life in the Fast Lane,” “New Kid in Town,” and the epic “Hotel California” (which you can never leave) became enduring classic Eagles tracks.

As the designer of some of the most well-known album cover images in history, Kosh (born John Kosh) has always appreciated a challenge (and a nice production budget). When the Eagles’ manager and record label called looking for an image to properly illustrate the release of a record by a “new” Eagles band — a band that needed no introduction — Kosh and his team braved the California winds in a death-defying effort that produced an iconic cover image and one very exciting “cover story.”

In the words of the designer, Kosh, “I had been designing album covers and promotional material in London for The Rolling Stones, The Who (“Who’s Next?”) and The Beatles (“Abbey Road”) at Apple and working closely with John Lennon on his “War Is Over” campaign.

THE EAGLES during “Hotel California“ introduced guitarist Joe Walsh (middle) to the fold. Walsh brought a heavier rock sound to an album, which won a Grammy in 1977 for Record of the Year. Photo courtesy of Rhino

THE EAGLES during “Hotel California“ introduced guitarist Joe Walsh (middle) to the fold. Walsh brought a heavier rock sound to an album, which won a Grammy in 1977 for Record of the Year. Photo courtesy of Rhino

“After a six-month stint in New York, the family moved to L.A. in 1974 and I soon fell ­­— with great enthusiasm ­— into the West Coast music scene. Heady times. I began working with Peter Asher [Apple] again, who was now managing James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt in LA. This led me directly to Linda’s label — Asylum — and the Eagles. Irving Azoff, their manager, called me in to meet Don Henley and Glenn Frey (they were still friends at this point, so the conversation was fresh and lively). Don Felder was also there, along with the amazing falsetto, Randy Meisner. It was a jolly affair — the Eagles were huge, enjoying hit after hit, and the California rock scene was burgeoning. Their producer and engineer, Bill Szymzyk, brought in an acetate of ‘Hotel California’ — destined to be the first cut on, and the title of, their next album. It was an obvious hit.

“For the album cover, Don wanted me to find and portray the Hotel California — a hotel which would best exemplify a classic ‘California hotel,’ and to portray it with a slightly sinister edge. Photographer David Alexander and I set out to scout suitable locations. We photographed three hotels (including some with a rather ‘seedily genteel’ character) that fit the brief, and large prints were made for approval. By now I was dealing mostly with Henley — the rest of the band would saunter in as we progressed and mutter their approvals — and he preferred more sumptuous images. The shot of The Beverly Hills Hotel against the golden sunset was deemed the favorite.

“To get the perfect picture, David and I had perched nervously atop a 60-foot cherry picker dangling over Sunset Boulevard in the rush hour, shooting blindly into the sun. Both of us brought our Nikons up in the basket, and we took turns shooting, ducking and reloading. We used high-speed Ektachrome film as the light began to fade. This film gave us the remarkable graininess of the final shot.

“Beautiful dye-transfer prints of the chosen frame were made by the great Ted Staidel. I designed and drew out the master Hotel California logo, which was to become the theme of the package and the promotional materials. The script was almost impossible to bend in real neon, and, so, after many experiments, Bob Hickson was commissioned to airbrush the neon effect on the logo — which he did wonderfully — and it was pasted over the Beverly Hills Hotel sign on Ted’s print. The whole piece was then re-photographed, re-printed on the same stock as the original image and retouched to match the grain and hide the surgery.

“Next we organized the gatefold spread — a photo of the band surrounded by friends in the hotel lobby. This was shot inside a cleverly re-decorated flophouse, called The Lido, in Hollywood by David Alexander. Nobody knows what the sinister figure lurking in the balcony window is doing, or who he is. I assume he must have been a benign spirit as ‘Hotel California’ went platinum immediately.

“It is interesting to note that I got tangled in the same heated debate with Asylum Records over the using of the band’s name on the cover that I had years earlier with EMI in London. I thought it unnecessary to use the words, The Beatles on ‘Abbey Road,’ considering the album was so eagerly anticipated and they were the biggest band in the world at the time. Such was the case with ‘Hotel California.’ By 1976 the Eagles were the biggest band in the world and eventually only the title, ‘Hotel California’ appeared on the original cover of the album.

“Subsequently, as the sales of ‘Hotel California’ went through the roof, lawyers for The Beverly Hills Hotel threatened me with a ‘cease and desist’ action — until it was gently pointed out by my attorney that the hotel’s requests for bookings had tripled since the release of the album.

As a designer and art director, Kosh (Born John Kosh) became prominent in the mid-1960s with the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera. He met up with The Beatles toward the end of the decade and, as creative director at Apple Records, was responsible for design, promotion and publicity for The Beatles. His clientele expanded to cover the cream of the British rock bands, including The Rolling Stones, The Who and many others. He handled John Lennon’s crusades including the “War Is Over” campaign in 1969 and art-directed and produced the world-renowned “Abbey Road” and “Who’s Next?” album covers, among many others.

Kosh became well known in the London avant-garde art scene, designing and producing exhibitions, posters and books. After garnering several awards with the London Design & Art Directors Club, he was elected to the British Art Directors’ Jury before moving to Los Angeles in 1974. A seven-time Grammy nominee, Kosh won three of the coveted awards for his work for Linda Ronstadt’s “Lush Life,” “Get Closer” and “Simple Dreams” (above). He served as faculty member of Otis Parson’s Institute of Art and on the Board of Governors of the National Recording Academy.

Kosh’s client roster has included Capitol Records, Sony Records and Warner Bros. Records. Artist clients include The Beatles, Jimmy Buffett, Humble Pie, Randy Newman, Pointer Sisters, Linda Ronstadt (Kosh has prepared all her graphics since 1974), Bob Seger, Electric Light Orchestra, Ringo Starr, Spinal Tap, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, 10,000 Maniacs, T. Rex, The Who and, of course, the Eagles (including “Hotel California” — voted No. 6 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Best Album Covers of All Time”). A display of his more prominent graphics was exhibited at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum.