By Christopher Scapelliti
If you’re a Jethro Tull fan, you probably noticed years ago that there is a distinct resemblance between one of the prog-rock group’s older songs and the Eagles’ monster hit “Hotel California.”
The track in question is “We Used to Know,” from Jethro Tull’s 1969 album Stand Up. The chord structure to “Hotel California,” which was released in 1976, is remarkably similar to it. The most obvious difference is that the chord changes come every measure in the Tull song and every two measures in the Eagles’ cut. In addition, “We Used to Know” is also in 3/4 time, while “Hotel California” is in 4/4.
Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson, who wrote “We Used to Know,” has offered up a possible reason for the resemblance.
“[‘We Used to Know’] was a piece of music that we were playing around the time, I believe it was late ’71, maybe early 72, when we were on tour,” Anderson explains in an interview, which can be heard below. “And we had a support band who had been signed up for the tour and subsequently, before the tour began, had a hit single, a song I believe called ‘Take It Easy.’ And they were indeed the Eagles.”
Yes, despite their remarkably dissimilar styles of music, Jethro Tull and the Eagles did share a bill in 1972 when Tull were on tour for their classic album Thick as a Brick. Tull were the headliners, supported by the Eagles, who at the time were just getting started and enjoying some success with their first single, “Take It Easy,” released in May of that year.
“We didn’t interact with them very much because they were countrified, laid-back polite rock and we were a bit wacky and English and doing weird stuff,” Anderson says. “I don’t think they much liked us and we didn’t like them.”
“They probably heard us playing [‘We Used to Know’], because that would have featured in the set list back then,” he continues. “And maybe it’s just something that they picked up on subconsciously and introduced that chord sequence into their famous song ‘Hotel California’ some time later.”
The music to “Hotel California” was written by guitarist Don Felder, who recorded a demo of the song at a rented beach house in Malibu. “I remember sitting in the living room on a spectacular July day with the doors wide open,” he told Guitar World in 2013. “I had a bathing suit on and was sitting on this couch, soaking wet, thinking the world is a wonderful place to be. I had this acoustic 12-string and started tinkling around with it, and those ‘Hotel California’ chords just kind of oozed out.”
Felder actually wasn’t a member of the Eagles at the time that the Eagles toured with Jethro Tull, though as a friend of founding member Bernie Leadon, he could have been in attendance at a show where Tull performed “We Used to Know.” Felder has denied having heard the song before writing “Hotel California” and said his main knowledge of Jethro Tull is that Anderson plays flute.
Though Anderson has commented on the similarities between the songs over the years, he says he’s always meant his comments as a joke. He dismisses the idea that anyone in the Eagles plagiarized “We Used to Know.”
“It’s not plagiarism. It’s just the same chord sequence,” he says. “It’s in a different time signature, different key, different context. And its a very, very fine song that they wrote, so I can’t feel anything other than happiness for their sake, and I feel flattered had they come across that chord sequence. It’s difficult to find a chord sequence that hasn’t been used and hasn’t been the focus of lots of pieces of music. Harmonic progression—it’s almost a mathematical certainty that you’re gonna crop up with the same thing sooner or later if you’re strumming a few chords on a guitar.”
Anderson discusses the similarities in the first clip. You can hear “We Used to Know” and “Hotel California” in the subsequent clips. At bottom, for those of you looking for a deep plunge into the history of “Hotel California,” we’re including a lengthy discussion of the Eagles with guitarist Joe Walsh and Eagles producer/engineer Bill Szymczyk.