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Published: 2002/05/21
by Alex Kocan

The Byrds Eight Miles High

This is the latest offering in our occasional, ongoing series that focuses on our readers’ individual engagement with music. This month, Alex Kocan considers a single song. If you have an idea for a spotlight record or wish to submit a piece, please send one our way- jambands@jambands.com

One of the most influential songs of the psychedelic rock era is the “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. The original version was recorded in 1966.

Today the song finds itself into compilations of the greatest hits of the 1960s. However, its reception was less than auspicious. Branded a “drug song” by American DJs and ultimately banned from many radio playlists. Such a controversy was misplaced, as the song purportedly was written about band member Gene Clark’s fear of flying and the band’s first trip to the United Kingdom.

The Byrds began life as a folk and country group. The line-up in place when they had their first hit with Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man,” was Roger McGuinn on vocals and lead guitar, Gene Clark on vocals and rhythm guitar and David Crosby on vocals and rhythm guitar. There were several changes to the line up over the years but the original combo is though by many to be the definitive one.

On first impressions it appears that with “Eight Miles High” the group created a very traditional sound for the backing track. This is especially so because of the down tempo bass introduction. However, it soon transforms as the cymbals crash and begin to build many layers of sound that do not surrender until the track’s ending.

The sound that defines the song is the electric guitar, which leads into the vocal. It is obvious where the DJs at the time could misinterpret drug influences. At times it appears that guitarist Roger McGuinn was plucking the strings at random to see if he could remember the tune.

Having said there appears to be a drug undertone there is an unmistakable innocent quality. It is reminiscent of a child picking up the guitar for the first time. McGuinn was inspired to create such a sound due to influences upon him such as the manic style of saxophonist John Coltrane.

The bass and drum kit supply the rhythmic emphasis to the piece. These instruments are the only elements that keep the song together. This tight beat allows the guitarist to experiment. Roger McGuinn is so careful to recover the timing, which has considerable impact upon the song.

There is clearly room for misinterpretation of the lyrical content and accompaniment. To start with the song is called “Eight Miles High”, which suggests drug influences. Although lines such as “and when you touch down/ you'll find that it's stranger than known” suggests that real lives are more surreal than any drug-induced hallucinations.

There are also references to youth protests. “Signs in the street/ that say where you're going / are somewhere, just being their own”. This line reportedly was written about Gene “Clark’s inability to understand” street “signs on railings.” However, the obvious connection between youth demonstrations against war would be seen here.

In this era the Byrds were imitating the Beatles’ Rubber Soul sound. They changed their name from The Jet Set apparently to keep in with the new bands being created due to the British invasion. They also had outgrown mop tops and had a wavy water effect on the band drum kit logo. This suggests they were copying part of the Beatle image but also being influenced by the California scene. It was even said by Roger McGuinn that the Byrds combined melodic pop of the Beatles with the message-oriented lyrics of Bob Dylan”.
The Byrds do not appear to have been aggressively political. However, they preached the politics of youth. They also were willing to take risks with such a song. One could argue that it may have ended the group’s career if Americans had not decided to follow the trends of the time.

The Byrds had a ability to reflect current cultural developments while drawing on variety of sounds and traditions with their work. This track characterises the typical feeling of the late 1960s counter culture. “Eight Miles High” has a day dreamy quality that is full of optimism. It is this factor that allows it to maintain its energy thirty-five years after its creation.

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