Listen to this track by folk-rock janglers and supposed progenitors of ‘raga-rock’ The Byrds. It’s their 1966 hit record “Eight Miles High”, released as a single in March of that year, and eventually was featured on their third record Fifth Dimension. It would be their last top 20 hit, and a single that would mark the end of their original incarnation.
This song is like a wormhole back to a mythical period in pop music and cultural history of the mid-60s, a time when things really were a-changin’ in all sorts of ways, including the variety of influences that were having an effect on how bands and artists were approaching their work. This song helped to shape what a pop record came to mean later into the decade.
Nineteen Sixty-Six in particular was an epicenter for this kind of artistic evolution, what with this track, the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, The Yardbirds “The Shapes of Things”, and The Stones’ “Paint It Black” all exploring darker, and more inward-looking regions of human experience lyrically speaking. Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Soft Machine all formed in 1966, among other more sonically expansive-minded bands. It was a year which heralded a more experimental approach to the sound of those records too with tape loops, exotic instruments, and distortion being important elements.
On “Eight Miles High”, elements of “new thing” jazz, and the influence of Ravi Shankar’s Indian classical music all play into the sound of this song. Writers Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby created this song under those musical influences, and from varied experiences ranging from airplane trips, to trips of other sorts that eventually caused some controversy, with this song being among the earliest songs about drugs recognized as such, although with claims otherwise by the band at the time in the face of a radio ban.
But, there is another reason why this song was so significant.
The song was written around the time the Byrds went to London, the “rain grey town known for its sound” in the lyrics. In some ways, this song documents a sort of homecoming in that the band were highly influenced by that sound. Of course, those sounds in turn were influenced by American music, which represents a clear Transatlantic connection that made rock music less reflexive culturally speaking, and more artistic and stylistically inclusive. It no longer mattered that a band from Britain was playing “American music”, or that an American band like the Byrds was playing music that reflected a debt to the British Invasion. It just was what it was.
Further to that, the decision of bringing in other styles of music into a pop milieu opened right up, with McGuinn’s 12-string riff reflecting Coltrane’s saxophone lines on “India”. The Africa Brass and Impressions albums which the band listened to extensively while on their 1965 European tour, along with Crosby’s Ravi Shankar cassette tape (which he purportedly shared with George Harrison at the time) helps give it that Far East flavour. The resulting song represented something more complex as rock music as a whole had begun to branch out, freely dipping into other genres and ignoring national and cultural boundries.
This song was certainly one that packed a cultural punch on another front, banned for a time in the States for its title, and its supposed drug-related subject matter. The band affirmed that the eight miles high in question was about transatlantic flights, not about drugs. And they had a hit in any case.
Yet, many years later it was admitted by co-writer David Crosby, who had nothing to lose by that time, that the ‘high’ in question was certainly chemical in nature. Clark concurred that the song was about drugs, although he said that it wasn’t simply a drug song, but a song that was the product of a time when the band were expanding their scope, and exploring other perspectives while in England. McGuinn stuck to the airplane story, which is perhaps telling of a difference in perspective that had always been in place in the Byrds.
After the success of Fifth Dimension and “Eight Miles High”, and not too long after the follow up album (The Notorious Byrd Brothers) both Gene Clark and Crosby had left the band. McGuinn and a rotating line-up soldiered on until 1973, when the band came to an end after an unsuccessful attempt to comeback with an album simply titled Byrds, featuring the original quintet.
But, this song was an enduring one beyond the life of the band who created it. It enjoyed a life in various forms in the solo careers of each member, as well as in numerous cover versions by artists ranging from Leo Kottke, to Robyn Hitchcock, to Husker Dü. And most importantly, it marked a time when cultural cross-pollination between Britain and the United States, and the rest of the world where rock music is concerned, became de rigueur.
For further references to this song and the band who created it, check out these interviews with the Byrds about the making of “Eight Miles High” and Fifth Dimension.
Check out the official The Byrds site for histories, discographies, and other stuff.
And while you’re at it, investigate David Crosby’s site too.