One of the reasons that Roger McGuinn is one of my favorite guitarists is because of this song. Roger has said he was influenced by John Coltrane when arranging the song.
The song peaked at #14 in the Billboard 100 and #24 in the UK in 1966
Many people…including me believe this song is about drugs, but the band claimed it was inspired by a flight where singer Gene Clark asked guitarist Roger McGuinn how high they were in the sky. McGuinn told him six miles, but for the song, they changed it to eight.
Roger McGuinn on Eight Miles High
Eight Miles High has been called the first psychedelic record. It’s true we’d been experimenting with LSD, and the title does contain the word “high”, so if people want to say that, that’s great. But Eight Miles High actually came about as a tribute to John Coltrane. It was our attempt to play jazz.
This story was likely a smokescreen to keep the song in the good graces of sensitive listeners. The band had been doing a lot of drugs at the time, including LSD, which is the likely inspiration. If the band owned up to the drug references, they knew it would get banned by some radio stations, and that’s exactly what happened when a radio industry publication reported that the song was about drugs and that stations should be careful about playing it. As soon as one station dropped it, others followed and it quickly sank off the charts.
When we asked McGuinn in 2016 if the song was really about drugs, he replied: “Well, it was done on an airplane ride to England and back. I’m not denying that the Byrds did drugs at that point – we smoked marijuana – but it wasn’t really about that.”
In his book Echoes, Gene Clark said that he wrote the song on his own with David Crosby coming up with one key line (“Rain gray town, known for its sound”), and Roger McGuinn arranging the song with help from Crosby.
In the Forgotten Hits newsletter, McGuinn replied: “Not true! The whole theme was my idea… Gene would never have written a song about flying. I came up with the line, ‘Six miles high and when you touch down.’ We later changed that to Eight because of the Beatles song ‘Eight Days a Week.’ I came up with several other lines as well. And what would the song be without the Rickenbacker 12-string breaks?”
This song is often cited in discussions of “Acid Rock,” a term that got bandied about in 1966 with the release of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album. The genre covers a kind of psychedelic music that became popular at the time, and also the look and lifestyle that went with it. “Acid Rock” was hailed as a pathway to higher consciousness and derided as senseless drug music. At the end of the ’60s, the term petered out, as rock critics moved on to other topics for their think pieces.
The band recorded this on their own, but Columbia Records made them re-record it before they would put it on the album, partly because they had contracts with unions. The Byrds liked the first version better.
Don McLean referred to this in his song “American Pie,” which chronicles the change in musical style from the ’50s to the ’60s. The line is “Eight miles high and falling fast- landed foul out on the grass.” McLean could be sardonically implying that the song is about drugs, since “foul grass” was slang for marijuana.
Husker Du recorded a noise-pop version in 1985.
For decades, the story went that “Eight Miles High” was a commercial failure because it had been banned from radio due to its perceived pro-drug messages. Research presented by Mark Teehan on Popular Music Online challenges this theory. Teehan instead blames the song’s failure to chart on three factors:
First, its sound was too far ahead of its time, and radio stations didn’t know what to do with it.
Second, the departure of Gene Clark led to Columbia Records significantly shrinking the scope of the band’s advertising campaign.
Third, the success of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Kicks” further diminished Columbia’s support for the Byrds and “Eight Miles High.”
Eight Miles High
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
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
Round the squares huddled in storms
Some laughing some just shapeless forms
Sidewalk scenes and black limousines
Some living some standing alone