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.
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
And black limousines
Some living some standing alone.
Eight Miles High, like Shapes of Things by the Yardbirds, was the first song written by the group that charted on Top 40. This lyric strikes me as the first of this collection that begins to capture the sensibility of a "head", and the Byrd's approach to language, as if written under the influence of psychedelics. Signs in the street / That say where you're going / Are somewhere just being their own perfectly describes the experience of the traditional sign failing to signify anything other than itself. Granted none of the other lyrics in Eight Miles High follow that leap of imagination, but the metaphor of flying very high combines with the astronaut fascination evident in the Byrd's album Fifth Dimension, where the song appears, and implies a sense of exploration in the song title. The title itself is eschew, because usually in flying, altitude is a matter of feet—approximately 42,000 feet, not 8 miles. But "feet" has a gravitational pull that would fight the sense of flying free.
Built upon the improvisation of a simple but dramatic four note theme (which recalls the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, the "knock of fate"), with jazz like instrumental improvisation over a strict vocal melody with varied length of line, Eight Miles High is more about breaking through the sound barrier than the profundity of its lyrics, but altogether it marks the accomplishment of the "other worldly" that Western culture was seeking with a passion, that Bob Dylan had yearned for in Mr. Tambourine Man.
I can see that lyricist Gene Clark (who was afraid of flying) wrote this song, as David Crosby witnesses, as a summary of the Byrds tour flying overseas to England. The intention was not to describe an LSD trip. However, I do believe that the drugs he was taking, whether LSD or marijuana, influenced the way Clark expressed his memories in poetry. I can hear him admonishing himself to stop being afraid of being off the ground, anticipating rejection from other members of the group for his fear. London for sure is a rain gray town, and perhaps Clark's lyric conveys that the Byrds' audience was released, unbound, from tight small faces through the group's music. The third verse perhaps records impressions after the rock show when the Byrds left the club and saw their fans huddled, laughing in the rain as the group members ran for their limousine. Round the squares not only points at the scene outside, but also to what has just happened inside, where a bunch of squares were "rounded" by the Byrds concert, their small faces made less tight. It is ironic that the lyric includes shapeless forms when the Yardbirds concurrently were on the charts with their psychedelic single, Shapes of Things. This mention of vague shapes in both tunes suggest a visionary experience. The ending line suggests a loneliness (standing alone), a state apart from the living. Having enlightened others, the poet is weighed down by his difference from his fellow flyers, the Byrds.
Nevertheless this private narrative of insecurity, which had its own lyrical originality, was transformed by adventuresome music into a quest, a casting off of fear to defy gravity and discover other worlds. At least half of the song is instrumental & improvisational, while the vocal melody is the same, repeated six times, no chorus, no B section. David Crosby, in a 1966 taped interview added to the 1996 re-issue of the Fifth Dimension album, said that the catastrophic instrumental ending made him "feel like a plane landing." It's as if members of the group wanted to buoy Clark up on their high spirits and avert the fear of a crash.
Eight Miles High, like Bob Dylan's Rainy Day Women, was competing for the airways in May 1966, but was banned on many radio stations both in the U.S. and UK for suspected drug culture glorification. Eight Miles High was also competing with the popular song titled Kicks performed by Paul Revere and the Raiders, the first anti-drug song to make it into the Top 10. Direct anti-drug hits were rarely successful until the psychedelic fashion began to fade, but songs continued to be censored for fear of their influence on children. Another single by the Byrds, 5D, and the psychedelic hit I Can See For Miles by The Who would both be censored as descriptions of an LSD experience. Another song that was banned on the air in many locations was the Rolling Stones' Let's Spend the Night Together, but for sexual connotation. The Beatles were summarily banned from the Bible Belt in August 1966, shortly after Paperback Writer / Rain's release, for John Lennon's remark that the group was more popular than Jesus.
Almost immediately after Eight Miles High, the Byrds suffered the loss of Gene Clark, their main songwriter. His fear of flying was the official reason for leaving the group. After Clark's departure, the Byrds would never visit the Top 20 with a single hit again.
According to David Crosby, in his autobiography Long Time Gone, McGuinn's twelve string guitar playing — especially the famed introductory solo to Eight Miles High — was heavily inspired by Coltrane's saxophone on India from his 1961 Village Vanguard concerts on the Impressions album released in 1963. Crosby wrote that he also exposed McGuinn to the sitar performances of Ravi Shankar, which influenced the music as well. McGuinn is very guarded about the effort that went into his translation of Coltrane's saxophone technique to guitar. Chris Hillman's bassline drives the song, while the rhythm guitar work by Crosby and fast drumming of Michael Clarke add dramatic turbulence.
George Starostin wrote on his website Only Solitaire: “Whaddaya know, it's a frickin' great tune. It doesn't sound so great if you analyze all its elements separately, though - it's the synthesis that does it. The fact that you can have this crazy free-form jazz soloing and the ethereal vocal harmonies and the half-psychedelic, half-garage bass elephant all in one place. And that the crazy free-form jazz soloing comes not from a professional jazz musician, which would make it boring, but simply from a very inspired guy, yes, who wants to sound like Coltrane but ends up somewhere in between that and Dave Davies [of the Kinks] on You Really Got Me… It's a song that has so much more real freedom oozing out of it than any direct statement of the epoch...Drugs, flying, making Coltrane shake hands with Peter, Paul, and Mary, it all goes together if you really want it. Those were the best of times, and I don't think the Byrds ever made anything that adventurous again.”
According to So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star: The Byrds Day-By-Day (1965-1973) by Christopher Hjort, Eight Miles High was responsible for the naming of the musical subgenre raga rock, when journalist Sally Kempton, in her review of the single for The Village Voice, first used the term to describe the record's experimental fusion of eastern music and jazz. However, although Kempton was the first person to use the term "raga rock" in a publication, she had actually borrowed it from the promotional press material that accompanied the Eight Miles High single.