Forty years ago this week, The Eagles’ first single from the Hotel California LP, “New Kid in Town,” reached Number 1 on the U.S. singles chart. Perhaps anticipating a year when rock-and-roll music moguls would increasingly fixate on mega-selling releases, the group took a mordant view of flavors-of-the-month, both among the rock-buying public and faithless lovers. In the process, the single helped lift this ambitious album to a creative and commercial peak for this avatar of the Southern California sound of the Seventies.
Perhaps we should say at this point what this song is not about. It does not deal with the anxieties of a sensitive teenager arriving at a new high school, a la James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
A better metaphor—but really only a starting point of the song—could be something out of The Eagles’ concept album from a few years before, Desperado: a young gun whose reputation precedes him, who ends up quickly exhausted from looking over his shoulder at the bar awaiting the next person to seize his mantle.
It’s easy to translate that to the rock ‘n’ roll environment in general and the Eagles’ situation in particular in 1976, when the album was recorded and released. One album after another had yielded hits—Eagles, Desperado, On the Border, and One of These Nights—but none seemed to satisfy the critics. In contrast, a new, raw force had appeared on the East Coast: Bruce Springsteen.
Though the group was quick to disclaim any animus toward “The Boss” from Asbury Park, N.J., they admitted to becoming jaded about what another musician on the Southern California scene, Joni Mitchell, called “the star-making machinery.” This was the year of the blockbuster in music: not just Hotel California, but Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
“It’s about the fleeting, fickle nature of love and romance,” the group’s drummer and co-songwriter, Don Henley, remembered about "New Kid in Town" in liner notes for the collection, The Very Best of the Eagles. “It’s also about the fleeting nature of fame, especially in the music business. We were basically saying, ‘Look, we know we’re red hot right now but we also know that somebody’s going to come along and replace us — both in music and in love.”
Especially because of the addition of guitarist Joe Walsh, The Eagles on Hotel California edged away from the more country-rock sound of their prior LPs, particularly with “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Victim of Love,” and the phantasmagoric title tune. But “New Kid in Town,” with its softer instrumentation and melancholy lyrics by Henley, Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther, harks back to their earlier work without being out of place in a collection revolving around personal, creative, and sociopolitical loss of innocence.
“New Kid in Town” won the Grammy for Best Arrangement for Voices. But, in listening to the piece over the years, I could understand those critics who felt that, for all their admitted skill in the studio, The Eagles’ sound had gotten pureed somewhere on the road to perfection.
In fact, the full power of the song didn’t hit me until I heard the version on the 2011 CD Natural History by Frey’s friend and frequent collaborator, J.D. Souther. Roy Orbison may have been the most powerful vocal influence on Souther, and that makes all the difference in comparing his and Frey’s lead vocal on the hit single. Souther’s was a more expressive instrument than his late friend’s, bringing out the underlying message of the song: that nothing lasts forever—not fame, not fortune, not creative fulfillment, not even love itself.