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.