THE BYRDS' EIGHT MILES HIGH was the song that raised the curtain on the psychedelic era, a pioneering pop explosion that employed jazz harmony, Indian raga and drug-inspired lyrics and prepared the way for the cultural voyages of 1966.
But its genesis was inauspicious, as David Crosby and Roger McGuinn recall in the latest issue of MOJO magazine. The US quintet were on an ill-starred UK tour, where they all got flu, experienced myriad technical problems and were declared “FLOPSVILLE” by the press.
“The promoter was a terrible person – a terrible person,” Crosby tells MOJO's Michael Simmons. “He booked us into really bad gigs and sometimes two, three gigs a day.”
But there were upsides. The Byrds met fellow souls The Beatles. Paul McCartney drove them around London in his Aston Martin DB5. And the groups shared musical enthusiasms.
“I had a Ravi Shankar record with me,” says Crosby. “I gave it to George [Harrison] and he told me later that I was the one who turned him on to Indian music. That had repercussions...”
On the ’plane back to the states, singer Gene Clark started a song with roots in their recent touring experiences.
“Gene asked, ‘How high do you think this plane is flying?’” says Roger McGuinn, “and I said ‘Probably about 39,000 feet, maybe seven miles high.’ And he went ‘Seven miles high?’ The Beatles had Eight Days A Week out and he thought eight was a cooler number than seven. (laughs) I said we can make it eight – poetic licence.”
Back home, the influences of John Coltrane and Indian ragas shaped a song that would turn the heads of The Byrds' musical peers upon its release in March ’66. But circumstances dictated that Eight Miles High wouldn’t be a commercial hit.
Latching onto the song’s use of the word “high”, Bill Gavin’s Record Report, a radio industry trade sheet, claimed that lyrics were “LSD talk”. Radio stations in Washington, Baltimore and Houston banned the song outright and the single stalled at Number 14 in the Billboard chart. “It blew us out of the game,” said McGuinn.
But as Michael Simmons’ feature in the latest MOJO magazine makes clear, the impact of Eight Miles High on the path of rock and pop music remains immeasurable, even 50 years on.
Also in the issue: massive Lou Reed tribute and free CD of Lou Reed solo classics, plus Nick Cave, The Cure, The Human League, Michael Kiwanuka and Prince Buster, the man in full.