“Eight Miles High” was written by Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn (a.k.a. Roger McGuinn), and David Crosby and first released as a single on March 14, 1966. The original five-piece lineup of the Byrds consisted of Jim “Roger” McGuinn (lead guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals), David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), Chris Hillman (bass guitar, vocals), and Michael Clarke (drums).
The song was subject to a U.S. radio ban shortly after its release, following allegations published in the broadcasting trade journal the Gavin Report regarding perceived drug connotations in its lyrics. The band strenuously denied these allegations at the time, but in later years both Clark and Crosby admitted that the song was at least partly inspired by their own drug use. The failure of “Eight Miles High” to reach the Billboard Top 10 is usually attributed to the broadcasting ban, but some commentators have suggested that the song’s complexity and uncommercial nature were greater factors.
The song’s lyrics are, for the most part, about the group’s flight to London in August 1965 and their accompanying English tour, as hinted at by the opening couplet: “Eight miles high and when you touch down, you’ll find that it’s stranger than known.” Although commercial airliners fly at an altitude of six to seven miles, it was felt that “eight miles high” sounded more poetic than six and also recalled the title of the Beatles’ song “Eight Days a Week”.
According to Clark, the lyrics were primarily his creation, with a minor contribution being David Crosby’s line, “Rain grey town, known for its sound”, a reference to London as home to the British Invasion, which was then dominating the U.S. music charts. Other lyrics in the song that explicitly refer to the Byrds’ stay in England include the couplet: “Nowhere is there warmth to be found/Among those afraid of losing their ground”, which is a reference to the hostile reaction of the UK music press and to the English group The Birds serving the band with a copyright infringement writ, due to the similarities in name. In addition, “Round the squares, huddled in storms/Some laughing, some just shapeless forms” describes fans waiting for the band outside hotels, while the line “Sidewalk scenes and black limousines” refers to the excited crowds that jostled the band as they exited their chauffeur-driven cars.
Although the basic idea for the song had been discussed during the band’s flight to England, it didn’t actually begin to take shape until the Byrds’ November 1965 tour of the U.S. To alleviate the boredom of traveling from show to show during the tour, Crosby had brought along cassette recordings of Master sitarist Ravi Shankar’s music and the jazz saxophone legend John Coltrane albums Impressions and Africa/Brass, which were on constant rotation on the tour bus. The influence of these recordings on the band would manifest itself in the music of “Eight Miles High”.
This is John Coltrane’s “India” from the album “Impressions” featuring Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.
In 1967, Ravi Shankar performed a well-received set at the Monterey Pop Festival. While complimentary of the talents of several of the rock artists at the festival, he said he was “horrified” to see Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar on stage:
That was too much for me. In our culture, we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God.
He performed at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, and found he disliked the venue. In the late 1960s Shankar distanced himself from the hippie movement and drug culture: He explained during an interview:
It makes me feel rather hurt when I see the association of drugs with our music. The music to us is religion. The quickest way to reach godliness is through music. I don’t like the association of one bad thing with the music.
Clark began writing the song’s lyrics on November 24, 1965, when he scribbled down some rough ideas for later development, following a discussion with guitarist Brian Jones, before the Byrds made a concert appearance supporting the Rolling Stones. Over the following days, Clark expanded this fragment into a full poem, eventually setting the words to music and giving them a melody. Clark then showed the song to McGuinn and Crosby, with the former suggesting that the song be arranged to incorporate Coltrane’s influence. Since Clark’s death, however, McGuinn has contended that it was he who conceived the initial idea of writing a song about an airplane ride and that he and Crosby both contributed lyrics to Clark’s unfinished draft. In his book, Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds’ Gene Clark, author John Einarson disputes this claim and ponders whether McGuinn’s story would be the same were Clark still alive.
The master recording of “Eight Miles High” was recorded on January 24 and 25, 1966, at Columbia Studios in Hollywood, with record producer Allen Stanton guiding the band through the recording process. John Einarson has noted that the influence of Coltrane’s saxophone playing and, in particular, his song “India” from the Impressions album, can be clearly heard in “Eight Miles High”—most noticeably in McGuinn’s recurring twelve-string guitar solo. In addition to this striking guitar motif, the song is also highlighted by Chris Hillman’s driving and hypnotic bass line, Crosby’s chunky rhythm guitar playing and the band’s ethereal harmonies.
“Eight Miles High” also exhibits the influence of sitarist Ravi Shankar, particularly in the droning quality of the song’s vocal melody and in McGuinn’s guitar playing. However, the song does not actually feature the sound of the sitar, despite the Byrds having appeared brandishing the instrument at a contemporary press conference held to promote the single. In a 1966 promotional interview, which was added to the expanded CD reissue of the Fifth Dimension album, Crosby said that the song’s ending made him “feel like a plane landing.”
Here is a clip from 1967 of a television version.