The Byrds

Eight Miles High

Song Review by

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.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Fifth Dimension 1966 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 3:34
The Byrds' Greatest Hits 1967 Columbia / Legacy 3:34
Untitled 1970 Columbia 16:07
No Image 1973 CBS Records
Original Singles, Vol. 1 (1965-1967) 1980 Columbia 3:35
No Image 1980
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution
No Image 198?
Various Artists
Rhino 3:34
20 Essential Tracks from the Boxed Set: 1965-1990 1991 Columbia / Legacy 3:34
Psychedelic Mind Trip 1993
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution 3:34
American FM, Vol. 1 [Alex] 1994
Various Artists
3:36
Psychedelia [Import] 1994
Various Artists
Psychedelia: Long Strange Trip 1995
Various Artists
Life Times & Music 3:36
Definitive Collection 1995 Columbia 15:50
Psychedelia [AAD] 1995
Various Artists
AAD 3:34
Psychedelic Pop 1996
Various Artists
BMG Special Products 3:37
No Image 1996
Various Artists
Phantom
Electrifying 60's 1997
Various Artists
Coyote Records 3:35
Golden Age of Underground Radio, Vol. 2 1997
Various Artists
DCC Compact Classics 3:34
From the Earth to the Moon [Original TV Soundtrack] 1998
Original TV Soundtrack
Playtone Records / Sony Music Distribution 3:36
Spirit of America [Crimson] 1998
Various Artists
Crimson Productions
Super Hits 1998 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 3:38
Full Flyte (1965-1970) 1998 Raven 3:36
Classic 60's: Shakin' All Over 1998
Various Artists
Madacy Distribution / Time / Life Music 3:37
60's Hits [Columbia River] 1999
Various Artists
Columbia River Entertainment Group 3:34
Guitar Rock [Time-Life Box Set] 1999
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 3:37
Guitar Rock: High Voltage 1999
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 3:37
Classic '60s [Time Life] 1999
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 3:37
Positively 60's 2000
Various Artists
Capitol 3:36
No Image 2001
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 3:36
Rock Classics: The Heavyweights 2002
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 0:00
The Essential Byrds 2003 Columbia / Legacy 3:36
Havin' a 60's Party 2007
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution / Custom Marketing Group 3:35
Legends Informercial Set 2007
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 3:37
Top of the Pops: 1966 2007
Various Artists
BBC Music / EMI 3:36
Essential: The Power of Rock 2009
Various Artists
Sony Music 3:36
Sixties: Collected 2010
Various Artists
USM 3:37
Pure... Psychedelic Rock 2011
Various Artists
Sony Music 3:36
'60s Music Revolution 2012
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 3:37
The 60s: The Byrds 2014 BMG / Sony Music Entertainment 3:36
The Broadcast Archive 2017 The Broadcast Archive 13:55
Summer of Love [2017] 2017
Various Artists
Rhino 3:36
No Image
Various Artists
K-Tel Distribution
No Image
Various Artists
Mercury