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”.