Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Byrds, "Eight Miles High" (1966)

April 30, 1966, #14

Wikipedia can just be priceless, as in this wonderful sentence: "Although commercial airliners fly at an altitude of six to seven miles, it was felt that 'eight miles high' sounded more poetic than six and also recalled the title of the Beatles' song 'Eight Days a Week.'" Because right, the song, credited jointly to Gene Clark, David Crosby, and Roger McGuinn, is about airplane rides. But that's not fair—already the article had talked about the strong and obvious drug connotations that the song bears. Me, I find the Byrds something of a blind spot in my own canon, part of a discernible pattern when you note the Everly Brothers and R.E.M. are two more. I have always respected the Byrds, had many friends gaga about them in various ways, and I understand the excitement on some levels. Yet for the most part I remain unmoved by the reality of hearing the music, except for random exceptions such as Sweetheart of the Rodeo and this strange plant that somehow took root in the top 40. I remember it freaked me out a little to hear it on the radio, that's part of its enduring appeal, especially late at night on scratchy AM radio stations. It comes sounding a little scratchy itself—prickly and rumbling, thudding, physical and awkward yet somehow insubstantial too, like cotton candy. Nothing else I'd heard felt remotely like it. Not so different from being high on hallucinogens in a way—and not so different from airplane rides either, for that matter. Wikipedia also identifies a source for this song that had never occurred to me before: John Coltrane. Oh yeah, that works—and the Byrds (which Elvis Presley would sardonically pronounce as "beards" two years later) had a hit with it. God bless them.


  1. Richard Riegel here. You've nailed it, Jeff -- "prickly and rumbling, thudding, physical and awkward" -- yet that same swerving-stutter musical line has always made the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" a record of sublime substance for me, one of my Top Ten ever. When I first heard its raucous mystery on the radio in 1966, I wondered whether it might be that "psychedelic" rock people were starting to talk about, though as I didn't take drugs myself, I wasn't sure I had the authority to say so. Even so, I hoped "Eight Miles High" might really be the start of something huge. And of course it turned out instead terminally sui generis; nothing the Byrds had done before could have predicted it, and nothing they did afterward matched it for me, especially as the band's lineup continually dissolved and any ambitious reach for the avant-garde got taken to ground, eight miles low beneath hokey western duds.

    Like you, I wasn't gaga er . . . raga for the Byrds in their time, despite my love of "Eight Miles High". The only one of their albums I owned in the '60s was "Fifth Dimension", and that was only because someone traded it to my brother, and he passed it on to me; as luck would have it, that LP included My Song. I never fully studied the Byrds until Columbia sent me their 4-CD box set in 1991, and then I finally knew what a towering and cruelly discarded genius Gene Clark had been, while the box set's liner notes alerted me to the fact that the Byrds had created "Eight Miles High" while under the influence of John Coltrane's jazz. At last it all fit together; when I first heard the song in 1966, I probably had only the vaguest idea who John Coltrane was, but in my listening maturity, he'd become a love supreme, and his sound was all over "Eight Miles High". Yes! The menage a trois of Byrds credited with composing the song fascinate me to this day. It still feels basically like a Roger McGuinn comp to me, both musically and lyrically, but I'm always glad my hero Gene Clark had a hand in there somewhere. As for David Crosby, my standard "spoiled brat/sang pretty" tagline adheres to this slice of the Byrds' canon as well.

  2. Richard again, back with a p.s.: Just found this re "Eight Miles High" on omnipotent Wikipedia: "Written mostly by Gene Clark in November 1965, while The Byrds were on tour in the U.S., the song was pivotal in transmuting folk rock into the new musical forms of psychedelia and raga rock." All right! My Man!

  3. Thanks, Richard! You are reminding me that I really need to investigate Gene Clark further -- people love him and I have always liked whatever I've heard that involves him.

  4. How do you lovers of the original feel ab the Huskers version? I always loved it, even thought it one of their best performances (and wore a t-shirt celebrating that fact threadbare), but I don't think I ever got close to the original until after I'd fallen for the Huskers version, so my perspective is warped like that.

  5. I recognized the cover of "Eight Miles High" -- and "Love Is All Around" too, for that matter -- as vintage Husker Du, but thought they were misplaced gestures. Too much tied up for me in the originals I guess. In retrospect, the Huskers roar is well suited to "Eight Miles High" but it took me awhile to get there.