Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Byrds -- "Eight Miles High" (1966)

Eight miles high 
And when you touch down
You'll find that 
It's stranger than known
(Introductory note: this 2 or 3 lines is 100% about the music, and 0% about me.  Honest.)

"Eight Miles High" may well be the most perfect classic rock/pop song ever recorded.  Feel free to name a better one if you can.  (If you think "Stairway to Heaven" or anything by Michael Jackson is better, you're banned from 2 or 3 lines FOREVER!  I mean it -- go away!)

It's an odd coincidence that one of other songs that I think rivals the absolute perfection of "Eight Miles High" has the word "miles" in its title.  I'm speaking of the The Who's "I Can See For Miles," of course.

The Who wrote dozens of great songs, but "I Can See For Miles" is clearly their greatest accomplishment.  I don't have the same high opinion of the Byrds' overall body of work -- they were certainly not one-hit wonders, but "Eight Miles High" is so much better than anything else they did that's it's almost shocking.

Before we go any further, I'm going to share a video of a Byrds' TV performance of "Eight Miles High" so you can refresh your recollection of the song.  (Videos of old TV performances by rock bands are great because they let you see what the band looked like in performance but use the original studio recording of the music -- everyone lip-synched back then.)  

But first, here are the complete lyrics for the song.  (Note the absence of a chorus.  This song broke a lot of rules.)  I'd suggest first reading them like you are reading a poem, then following along with as the Byrds sing the song:

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

"Eight Miles High" is about the Byrds' airline flight to London in August 1965 and their subsequent UK concert tour.  Gene Clark started writing the lyrics while the Byrds were touring the U.S. with the Rolling Stones later that year.  

Clark later admitted the song was about drugs as well as the flight to London.  A radio trade journal article decrying the song's drug connotations caused many American radio stations to take it off their playlist, which is probably why it reached only #14 on the Billboard "Hot 100."  (It's astonishing to me that a song that was so radically experimental made it to #14.  AM radio music in the 1960s was really, really good.) 

Ironically, Clark left the Byrds shortly after "Eight Miles High" was released partly because of his fear of flying.  He also wasn't pleased that the group's record company had decided to make Roger McGuinn the Byrds' primary lead singer, relegating Clark to a secondary role.

After Clark's death in 1991 -- after years of drug and alcohol abuse, he died of a heart attack at age 46 -- McGuinn claimed that it was his idea to write a song about an airplane journey, and that he contributed lyrics to the song.  But McGuinn's claim seems to be viewed with skepticism by most.

Here's what Byrds bassist Chris Hillman had to say about Clark's lyrical gifts:
People don't give enough credit to Gene Clark.  He came up with the most incredible lyrics. . . . He was awesome!  He was heads above us!  Roger wrote some great songs then, but Gene was coming up with lyrics that were way beyond what he was.  He wasn't a well-read man in that sense, but he would come up with these beautiful phrases.  A very poetic man -- very, very productive.
The two primary musical influences on "Eight Miles High" were Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar (who taught George Harrison how to play that instrument) and avant-garde jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.  According to Roger McGuinn, the only recorded music that the Byrds brought along on the 1965 American tour was a tape with Ravi Shankar ragas on one side and two Coltrane albums on the other.  "We played that damn thing 50 or 100 times through a Fender amplifier" that was plugged into the electrical system of the band's tour RV, McGuinn said.

McGuinn later explained that the Coltrane's "India" was the song that inspired the famous repeated four-note guitar riff that he plays on "Eight Miles High."  Here's "India" -- the saxophone part starts about 40 seconds in:

The B-side of "Eight Miles High" -- a song titled "Why" -- was influenced more by Shankar's sitar music.  Some people thought that McGuinn was playing a sitar on that song, but he was actually playing his trusty 12-string Rickenbacker guitar through a homemade distortion booster.  Here's "Why":

"Eight Miles High" was first recorded on December 22, 1965, at RCA Studios in Hollywood.  But the Byrds' record label was Columbia, which insisted that the song be re-recorded at that company's record studio.

Here's the original version of the song.  It's very interesting, but sounds rough and unfinished in spots.  McGuinn's guitar sounds quite different:

Last but certainly not least, here's the version of "Eight Miles High" that we know today.  It begins with an ominous-sounding Chris Hillman bass line, includes McGuinn's Coltrane-style 12-string solos, and features "ghostly and uplifting" harmonies (to quote Richie Unterberger's history of folk-rock music, appropriately titled Eight Miles High).  The ending is evocative of an airplane hitting the tarmac and cruising to a stop -- the perfect finale to a truly perfect song:

Everyone from Leo Kottke to Roxy Music to Hüsker Dü to Golden Earring has covered "Eight Miles High."  Some of the cover versions are very good, but let's not kid ourselves -- you can't improve on perfection.

Here's a link you can use to order "Eight Miles High" from Amazon:

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