The defining pop-psychedelic single by the Byrds, "Five Miles High" opened up a rich new territory of musical exploration for the band -- but it was also the final single by the five-man line-up of the band, representing the final contribution of co-founder and principal songwriter Gene Clark; and for all of its bold new sounds and lyrics, it also became the group's first controversial single and, as a result, never did as well as it should have. Inspired by the band members' first flight to London, it pulled together observations about flying, filtered through a druggy ambience -- the members' condition writing the song, if not on the flight -- and the surreal experience, on arriving, of becoming international stars in just a matter of months.
Opening with Chris Hillman's most prominent appearance on bass to date and a hard rhythm guitar accompaniment, the song was immediately seized by Roger McGuinn's 12-string guitar, sounding as though it had suddenly been transformed into another instrument. McGuinn had been listening to the music of John Coltrane, and made his 12-string guitar imitate the sound of a saxophone in a soaring, searing, rippling performance (repeated to some extent elsewhere on the resulting album on the song "I See You"). The singing, laced with impeccable high harmonies around an eerily compelling melody, was strangely alluring as well, and the song had all of the earmarks of a Top Ten hit. It ran into trouble over its title, the strangeness of its sound (which made more conservative programmers suspicious to start with), and the paranoia of some parents and radio station officials, who were convinced that the song was really a paean to drug use, rather than a song about flying that just happened to have been written by one or more composers on drugs. Its impact on the radio was, thus, muted compared with airplay that it should have received, based on musical appeal and requests.
If its commercial potential wasn't fully realized, the song's circumstances also reflected a major change in the group line-up. Along with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, Gene Clark had been there at the very beginning -- before the beginning really -- and his voice and songwriting had been a seminal component of the group's image and success for its first year. One of the strangest contradictions in the internal dynamics of the Byrds, however, was that their lead singer and principal songwriter was terrified of flying. Coupled with other differences, over the direction of his songs -- which was often more romantic and ballad-oriented than the other members favored -- and the fact that, as a significant songwriter, whose worked graced the B-sides of their two biggest singles, "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (and earned as much for him in songwriting royalties as the A-sides did for Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, respectively), Clark was making a lot more money than the other members, a split with the others was almost a foregone conclusion. It happened in the early months of 1966, and "Eight Miles High" was his last work with the band as a songwriter. While McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman would rise to the occasion and fill the gap over the next two albums, the difference was felt.
Additionally, "Eight Miles High" lingered longer in the group's repertory than any other song that Clark wrote or co-wrote -- the basic single was too good to ignore and fans knew and expected the song, and as the group line-up was transformed in 1968-69, to encompass musicians who were more at home in extended jams, that's what it became, turning into the jumping off point for as much as 15 minutes of pyrotechnics by McGuinn, Clarence White, John York, Skip Battin, and Gene Parsons. "Eight Miles High" became part of a medley with "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and figured prominently on two live albums released by those later line-ups of the group. It would also later enter the repertory of other groups, including Golden Earring, and was one of the songs revived during the periodic on-stage reunions of McGuinn, Hillman, Crosby, and Clark, or some combination therein, over the ensuing decades.