Eight Miles High (1966)
“Eight Miles High” is one of the most influential rock songs since the form was born in the mid-1950s, arguably the first Psychedelic Rock song, (although other songs could hotly contend in that argument).
“Eight Miles High” certainly was the first psychedelic hit and might have been an even bigger hit if its composers – Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby – had gone lighter on the drug references and weren’t quite so musically daring. (Then again, it wouldn’t have turned out to be the same historic song.)
To counter the censorious radio stations that wouldn’t play the tune, The Byrds tried to explain that it was about the then-novel experience of flying eight miles high in a jet. (The song’s original title was “Six Miles High” but was changed to comport with the Beatles’ hit “Eight Days A Week.”)
If you’re not already, you can be “Eight Miles High” real quick:
Of course, the impressionistic, word-collage lyrics point toward a celebration of drug-induced euphoria rather than being strapped into a Boeing 707:
Eight miles high and when you touch down
You’ll find that it’s stranger than known
Signs in the street that say where you’re going
Are somewhere just being their own
Later, they go on to sing:
Round the squares huddled in storms
Some laughing some just shapeless forms
Sidewalk scenes and black limousines
Some living some standing alone
The lyrics lend a slightly off-kilter aspect to the proceedings, inspired by Bob Dylan’s powerfully imagistic work up to that point, with jangled, fragmented mind pictures, notes of mid-century despair and a deftly self-conscious manipulation of “reality.”
The real ground breaking comes via the music, a short bass intro soon yielding to McGuinn’s crackly-sounding 12-string lead guitar and the continuing hypnotic bass line courtesy of Chris Hillman. McGuinn’s intermittent solos throughout “Eight Miles High” signal a switch from earlier, folkier Byrds’ work and something very different from their later country-influenced albums. The song is a snapshot of a particular moment in rock erupting .
Additionally, there is an improvised feel to the music, inspired by the band’s having listened to jazz saxophone master John Coltrane’s work on his India album. There is a perceptible “raga rock” sound to it, sitars and subcontinental rhythms, a form that would be fully fleshed out later in 1966 on The Beatles’ Revolver album, particularly in “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
The resonance of “Eight Miles High” found a home in 1971 in the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” serving as emblem for the cultural revolution’s rise and fall:
Helter Skelter in summer swelter
Birds flew off the fall-out shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
The Byrds’ impact, though, had come home to roost earlier, in 1967, in “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. Another psychedelic artifact, it features the lyrics:
I woke up this mornin’ with the sundown shinin’ in
I found my mind in a brown paper bag within
I tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high
I tore my mind on a jagged sky
I just dropped in to see what condition
my condition was in
Kenny Rodgers and The First Edition
By the end of 1966, the doors of perception that The Byrds had kicked open with “Eight Miles High” let in a rush of psychedelic, acid-rocking bands. The Beatles were followed by The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane, Blue Cheer and a herd of others. By 1967, with the issue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the genre had been firmly fixed in the starry sky of Rock.
“Eight Miles High,” remains the brightest object in the sky of 1966, thundering, gleaming and illuminating a path forward.
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- The term “raga rock” was invented by The Byrds’ PR team to try to describe the new sound. They often appeared in publicity shots with a sitar, although it is not played on any of their psychedelic songs.
- Co-writer McGuinn to this day claims the song was his idea, while Gene Clark claimed it as his own until he died. Crosby claims but one line in the song: Rain gray town, known for its sound.
- After “Eight Miles High,” Gene Clark left the band. No Byrds’ song ever entered the Billboard Top 20 again.