The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #1, “Eight Miles High”

The Byrds recorded many outstanding tunes in their nine-year history (1965-1973) as we’ve witnessed each week in our countdown of the Byrd’s Top 25 Songs, but only one song sits atop them all at #1, and that song is…


“Eight Miles High” (3:34)
Written by Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, and David Crosby
Produced by Allen Stanton
From “Fifth Dimension,” Columbia Records, July 18, 1966. Previously released as a single on March 14, 1966.

Following the great success of their debut #1 single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and the same-titled follow-up LP, the Byrds embarked on a tour of England, August 2-19, 1965. Promoters fueled unreasonable expectations by touting the band as “the American Beatles.” Skeptical British audiences were taken aback by the Byrds’ standoffishly-cool stage persona and unpolished performances and they responded coldly in turn. The British music press reviews were downright scathing.

Back in the States several months later, the Byrds opened for the Rolling Stones on a few tour dates in November, 1965. Hanging out with Brian Jones in a Pittsburgh hotel room between gigs, Gene Clark recalled the Byrds’ disastrous trip to England and wrote the basic structure of “Eight Miles High.” The tune takes some veiled shots at the unappreciative Brits, although a listener would have to know the backstory to decipher the cryptic lyrics.

I mentioned in my review of song #11, “What’s Happening?!?!” (see here), that David Crosby was at that time inundating his fellow Byrds with the music of John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar as the band traveled cross-country as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars. Lead guitarist, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, took Clark’s very basic acoustic draft and added electric guitar riffs that uncannily mimicked Coltrane’s frenetic saxophone notes and Shankar’s sitar drones. McGuinn even “borrowed” the four-note signature bridge from “India” from Coltrane’s “Impressions” album. The result: an otherworldly gumbo of jazz-rock and raga-rock. What sounds like backward guitar (a popular studio technique later used by many bands) is actually McGuinn’s heavily-compressed Rickenbacker 12-string.

“Eight Miles High” was released as a single on March 14, 1966, and from Chris Hillman’s ominous opening bassline (borrowed from Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”) to the ending, AM radio audiences were stunned. Even fellow rock musicians were flabbergasted. No one had ever heard a rock ‘n’ roll song like THAT before (the Beatles’ avante garde “Revolver” LP was still five months away). The song quickly climbed to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, but fell just as quickly after a radio industry watchdog accused the song of promoting drug use. It was subsequently banned by many AM stations. The Byrds denied the accusations, but the word “high” in the title and lyrics was problematic. The ban was a crippling blow to the Byrds’ status in the competitive recording industry. The band never again had a single that reached the Top 20.

“Eight Miles High” is credited as being the very first psychedelic song, but McGuinn insists to this day that the song was not a drug tune and that the “eight miles high” referred only to the band’s transatlantic journey to London aboard a jetliner. Clark had originally penned the lyrics as “six miles high,” the standard altitude of commercial transcontinental flying routes, but eventually changed it to “eight” because of its more phonetically-appealing sound.

It’s my pleasure to present song #1 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, “Eight Miles High.”

Wow! Time is fleeting. We began this Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown way back in September. Thanks for reading, listening, and for commenting over the last six months! I’ll be following-up the next couple of Wednesdays with some final Byrds-related posts.

21 thoughts on “The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #1, “Eight Miles High”

    1. Ach. Tax stuff. I really procrastinated with the taxes this year, but couldn’t put it off any longer. This morning I finally made an appointment with the tax lady for next week.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow to think about how things so much since this song was released with the constant and normalizing of drug use! And to think it just use the word “high” when today its so explicit and profane. Makes me think about how so much of modern music video today are soft core porn compared to the 90s which seems so tame now

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Roger McGuinn still protests that this song was not written with drugs in mind. How quickly things changed. Just one year later, in 1967, there were songs on AM radio openly glorifying drugs, especially from the San Francisco bands.

      Yeah, these days there’s very little restraint in pop music and none in hip-hop/rap.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup, it was a dramatic change in only one year. Famously blatant drug songs of 1967: White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles and Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix to name a few.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The summer of 1967 was known as the “Summer of Love” with the Monterey Pop Festival and young people thronging to San Francisco to be part of the “happening” at Haight-Ashbury and the growing awareness of the impending “Age of Aquarius.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review of a great song, Tom. In fact, I loved the entire countdown series.

    On another note, I thought you had taken a break from writing as I had not seen anything by you in a while. It turns out that I’m not receiving your blogs in my Reader. Not sure why. I’m going to unfollow you real fast, and then hit “follow” again and see if this clears up the problem.

    So, if you see that I’m now following you, you’ll know why. (I thought it was unusual for you to take a break before releasing the top song!!!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, David! I appreciate your feedback and support throughout this long series!

      Thanks for letting me know about not receiving my posts. Hmm. That’s strange. I didn’t make any changes on my WordPress settings, but I did notice less views/comments overall this past week. I’ve heard of other WordPress bloggers having this kind of “hiccup.”

      Anyway, glad you went to all the trouble of re-following me! Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve heard about some system/software quirks from other WP bloggers in the past. Not to sound like Peter Paranoia, but I also think there’s some filtering going on these days with bloggers who publish “controversial” posts.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve just read David’s comment and realise why I haven’t seen any of your blogs come up on my reader. (I was wondering what happened to the number one Byrds song…☺️so I did a search).
    You will see that I have started following you again,
    Congratulations on your excellent choice for “numero uno” Byrds song. Thank you for these serie Tom. It’s been fun and interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Crissy, thanks for the support for the frivolous but fun Byrds series and for reconnecting with my blog. It’s a bit disconcerting that a number of friends stopped receiving my posts for some unknown reason.

      Liked by 1 person

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