Nowadays when The Byrds are mentioned, it’s usually in terms of their contribution to popularising 1960s folk songs with a pop audience.
The Byrds took Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” to the upper reaches of the UK and US pop charts and Roger McGuinn’s jangly Rickenbacker guitar quickly became one of the signature sounds of 1960s pop music.
Impressive though those successes were, just before Christmas 1965 The Byrds recorded “Eight Miles High”, a song written by the band members themselves, which would go beyond even the chart-topping high quality re-interpretations of folk songs they had become famous for and open a new chapter in popular music.
“Eight Miles High” is generally regarded as the first psychedelic record to hit the mainstream. Without The Byrds blazing that particular trail, popular music in the late 1960s might have gone in a completely different direction.
Soon, psychedelia would be everywhere. Flower Power would be in full swing. Long haired, kaftan-wearing, vaguely spaced-out people would start a movement in an inexpensive district of San Francisco which would spread across the world.
Soon the biggest bands on the planet would embrace this new psychedelic sound to make memorable hits of their own that we still sing along with today.
But it wasn’t the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd who started the psychedelic ball rolling, even though they rode along the very crest of its wave. It was The Byrds who set the template for the music scene in the latter half of the 1960s.
“Eight Miles High” wasn’t even that big a hit when it first came out, reaching number 14 in the US and number 24 in the UK. A respectable performance for a sound the record-buying public had never heard before, but a far cry from transatlantic Number One records like “Mr Tambourine Man”.
The chart performance was even better than you might think, though, as several US radio stations had banned the song because they thought the lyrics contained drug-related references.
In fairness to those radio stations, that assumption was probably correct. Byrds front-man Roger McGuinn was the “McGuinn” referred to in the Mamas and Papas “Creeque Alley” as “McGuinn and McGuire, just a-getting higher/ In LA you know where that’s at”.
But the record company fought back, claiming the reference to “eight miles high” was about an airline trip the band took to the UK at the start of their 1965 British tour.
There’s some truth in that. The Byrds did come to the UK on an aeroplane for their 1965 tour, but at the time, commercial airlines flew at about six miles high, not eight. Despite the band’s claims that “eight miles high” was just a bit of artistic licence to make the lyrics sound better, US radio stations didn’t completely buy the explanation.
I don’t know if “Eight Miles High” was banned in the UK for similar reasons. Certainly BBC radio at the time was just as zealous, if not more so, than US radio stations at weeding out any “unsuitable content”…real or imagined…
But as I don’t remember 1965, I don’t know if the BBC played it or not. However I don’t ever recall hearing “Eight Miles High” on the radio in later years, even on oldies radio. In fact, I didn’t know the song even existed until some time in the late 1990s when that new invention called “the internet” allowed people to learn about topics they’d couldn’t easily find out about before the birth of the information superhighway.
Either way, “Eight Miles High” deserves its place in history as the song which kick-started the psychedelic music revolution, whether it was really about The Byrds 1965 tour of the UK or an entirely different subject altogether.
The smooth vocals and delightful harmonies sound so evocative of the 1960s even today, but they also have a timeless, almost hypnotic quality about them. They could have been recorded 60 years ago, or they could have been recorded yesterday.
The other-worldliness dimension of the vocals on “Eight Miles High” has probably never been bettered.
There are strong jazz influences in there too. John Coltrane’s “India” album had been a staple on The Byrd’s tour bus during a US tour and the band were keen to bring some of the sounds they’d heard from John Coltrane into the pop world.
And the sitar makes an appearance too…metaphorically, if not literally. Ravi Shankar had also been a staple on the tour bus, so it seemed natural to get a dose of Eastern mysticism on the record too.
That didn’t go as far as actually using a sitar, though.
Roger McGuinn’s trademark jangly Rickenbacker was pressed into service to make a sitar-like sound instead. But if you listen to his playing, the essence of the sitar is definitely there and “Eight Miles High” played its part in popularising that style of playing across the musical spectrum in the years to follow…both with and without the actual instrument itself.
This being the 1960s, and various narcotic substances having allegedly been consumed during the writing of “Eight Miles High”, the lyrics don’t necessarily make a lot of sense.
If you regard the lyrics as some sort of gateway to a higher plane of understanding they work perfectly well, but if you try and take them too literally, you’ll end up more confused than you were before you started…
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
You’ll probably identify straight away that these lyrics might quite legitimately refer to the experience of getting on an aeroplane and getting off at the other end in the UK, a country that was stranger than the US they’d known up to that point.
It’s at least not beyond the bounds of possibility…as the lawyers probably said at the time…
Nowhere is there warmth to be found
Among those afraid of losing their ground
Rain gray town known for its sound
In places small faces unbound
If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that rain-gray towns where warmth can’t be found is just about anywhere here between the months of October and March.
So maybe the US radio ban on “Eight Miles High” was a little over-zealous. Who knows…
What I do know is “Eight Miles High” launched a completely new sound on the listening public, without which much of the music of the late 1960s would never have been written.
The Byrds opened a door for other acts to follow them through. Their popularity in the mid-1960s with songs like “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” meant enough people were prepared to take a risk buying “Eight Miles High”.
Enough of them liked it that the music industry felt free to move towards the psychedelic end of the music spectrum just in time for the early stirrings of the Flower Power revolution to meet them in the middle from the opposite direction.
The Doors, the Yardbirds, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Traffic and many, many more took the psychedelic sound head on and developed their own unique take on that musical style.
But without The Byrds to start them off, there’s at least the possibility that some of the biggest hit records of the late 1960s might never have seen the light of day.
That’s why…their contributions to popularising great folk songs by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger notwithstanding…the greatest contribution of The Byrds to the history of popular music came that day just before Christmas 1965 when they stepped into the recording studio to lay down “Eight Miles High”.
Written by Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby (later of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), here’s The Byrds with one of the hippiest, trippiest songs ever to get into the pop charts…it’s “Eight Miles High”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent it in the company of one of my favourite songs.
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/2BGNomqCxEDcXyxf8bg27k