Many people believe this song is about drugs, but the band claimed it was inspired by a flight where singer Gene Clark asked guitarist Roger McGuinn how high they were in the sky. McGuinn told him six miles, but for the song they changed it to eight.
This story was likely a smokescreen to keep the song in the good graces of sensitive listeners. The band had been doing a lot of drugs at the time, including LSD, which is the likely inspiration. If the band owned up to the drug references, they knew it would get banned by some radio stations, and that's exactly what happened when a radio industry publication reported that the song was about drugs and that stations should be careful about playing it. As soon as one station dropped it, others followed and it quickly sank off the charts.
When we asked McGuinn in 2016 if the song was really about drugs, he replied: "Well, it was done on an airplane ride to England and back. I'm not denying that the Byrds did drugs at that point - we smoked marijuana - but it wasn't really about that."
In his book Echoes, Gene Clark said that he wrote the song on his own with David Crosby coming up with one key line ("Rain gray town, known for its sound"), and Roger McGuinn arranging the song with help from Crosby.
In the Forgotten Hits newsletter, McGuinn replied: "Not true! The whole theme was my idea... Gene would never have written a song about flying. I came up with the line, 'Six miles high and when you touch down.' We later changed that to Eight because of the Beatles song 'Eight Days a Week.' I came up with several other lines as well. And what would the song be without the Rickenbacker 12-string breaks?"
This song is often cited in discussions of "Acid Rock," a term that got bandied about in 1966 with the release of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album. The genre covers a kind of psychedelic music that became popular at the time, and also the look and lifestyle that went with it. "Acid Rock" was hailed as a pathway to higher consciousness and derided as senseless drug music. At the end of the '60s, the term petered out, as rock critics moved on to other topics for their think pieces.
The band recorded this on their own, but Columbia Records made them re-record it before they would put it on the album, partly because they had contracts with unions. The Byrds liked the first version better.
Don McLean referred to this in his song "American Pie," which chronicles the change in musical style from the '50s to the '60s. The line is "Eight miles high and falling fast- landed foul out on the grass." McLean could be sardonically implying that the song is about drugs, since "foul grass" was slang for marijuana.
Suggestion credit: Brett - Edmonton, Canada
Husker Du recorded a noise-pop version in 1985.
Suggestion credit: Paul - Glasgow, Scotland
For decades, the story went that "Eight Miles High" was a commercial failure because it had been banned from radio due to its perceived pro-drug messages. Research presented by Mark Teehan on Popular Music Online challenges this theory. Teehan instead blames the song's failure to chart on three factors:
First, its sound was too far ahead of its time, and radio stations didn't know what to do with it.
Second, the departure of Gene Clark led to Columbia Records significantly shrinking the scope of the band's advertising campaign.
Third, the success of Paul Revere and the Raiders' "Kicks" further diminished Columbia's support for the Byrds and "Eight Miles High."
Claude from Baltimore, MdAnother great cover, this one by The Thought: https://youtu.be/m8enz7Yrtwg
Scotty from Cheyenne, WyThe Ventures also did an awesome sounding version of this song on their "Go With" album. Quite unique. I'll definitely give a listen to Leo Kottke's version as well.
Curd from Heidelberg, GermanyThere's an interesting version here, using heavy sampling and modern production methods: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Rn2BEa7xqk
Ed from Keene, New HampshireIn interviews, Eric Clapton has mentioned that his solo on the Cream song "Dance the Night Away" (from the Disraeli Gears album) was inspired by this song.
Linda from Inland Empire, CaLeo Kottke's version is outstanding and it is incredible to see him play it live in concert. I have had the privilege of seeing him 22 times in concert since the mid-80s and I am always delighted when he includes Eight Miles High in his set.
Marion from Anderson, ScI think it is both about the Byrds trip to England and not being well received and the Small faces being given LSD in an orange which is the source of Itchycoo Park. I wondered if Round the square was Picadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square. David said in an interview that he played tapes of Coltrane and Shankar to affect McGuinn's lead playing.
Brad from Fairfax, VaI always thought this song was about arriving in Viet Nam after a flight in a troop transport plane. The lyrics seem to lend themselves to bewilderment in a strange land, which was at the time.... Viet Nam. I also thought the song referred to the actions/inactions of the U. S. Government during this timeframe regarding the Viet Nam war. Guess I was tuned out on this one, but I love the song and will continue to think about its serious connotations.
Jeff from Concord, CaThis is a great song. Great harmonies and great example of that famous "jangly" guitar. But...the guitar solo sucks! No rhythm, no melody. Just kind of starts and goes aimlessly. Also sounds like the guitar was dropped halfway through and then picked up and finished. Almost like a parody of a guitar solo...except that it's real.
Barry from New York, NcIn 1970 the Byrds turned "Eight Miles High" into a jam warhorse. McGuinn supported by guitar wizard Clarence White, bassist Skip Battin and drummer Gene Parsons would jam for about 20 minutes. Battin & Parsons also engaged in a bass/drum duet for a while. This arrangement can be heard on the double LP "(untitled)." Additionally the Byrds can be seen doing this during a live television appearance from Fillmore East, NYC on September 23, 1970.
Jim from London, United KingdomThe Coltrane track is India, you can hear the riff at 2:22
Elizabeth from Hoschton, GaThe line "in places small faces unbound" refers to English mod band Small Faces.
Reg from Kemptville, On, -A few minutes ago I heard on 'Randy's Vinyl Tap' that the song was originally 'Seven Miles High' but was changed because 'it sang better'.
Jim from Venice, Camark, costa mesa, Kristine Mckenna also wrote art reviews in the la times, and in august 09 i saw an article of hers in the new york times.
Jakob Carlsen from København N, DenmarkHi
Does anybody know where I can get the electronic, or what you call it, version of this song. Its hillarious:) My brother once had it on a sort of compilation of Byrds songs and they where all played on synthesizers.
Valerie from Eureka, CaI'm surfing songfacts this morning. When I was young, I went to as many concerts as I could. I paid my own way. I met as many bands as I could. All are memorable some good some bad. I met the Byrds in 1966 or 1967. After meeting them, I never listened to their music again. They were rude, snobs who forgot who put them where they were. I also spoke with a local (Providence Rhode Island) opening band for the Byrds that night. They said pretty much the same thing. The Bryds wouldn't talk to anyone backstage. They just stood around with their noses in the air. Too bad because no matter how important we might think we are, we are all basically in this dance together and none of us is any better than the other.
Roman from Barrie, Onsome of the BYRDS were into flying and chose to incorporate it in their music with songs like Eight Miles High, Mr. Spaceman, and 242 Foxtrot (the Lear Jet song). these guys were heavy duty musicians who unfortunately had to play in the shadows of Beatlemania. speaking of more birds, Neil Diamond did a movie complete with songs and soundtrack called Jonothan Livingstone Seagull.
Reed from New Ulm, MnThe song "5th Dimension" was more about acid that this one actually.
Gary from Portland, OrAn ultra-obscure late '60s Detroit garage band called The Index does a wonderfully atmospheric version of EMH. It's on youtube for anyone interested.
Somebody should do an Eight Miles High tribute CD and collect all the best versions of this masterpiece.
Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesThis was played fairly often on the university radio station I listened to in 1970. In the early autumn of that year I remember it charting very high (ha!) on their weekly survey. I assumed (and still do) that it was about going somewhere by plane -while- on drugs.
Jeff from Long Island, NyA little clarification regarding Small Faces: Rod Stewart was not in the band when the Byrds could have heard them in 1966 (or when they released "Itchycoo Park" in 1967) - he and Roonie Wood joined with three members of the group in 1969 after they left the Jeff Beck Group, at which time they renamed themselves Faces.
Alan from Greene, RiI always thought this was about flying to London. "Rain gray town" certainly is not L.A. And who cares what drugs they were on -- show of hands? McGuinn also sings about London in a beautiful song in 5/4 time.
Mark from Costa Mesa, CaI am looking for a version done by a female folk-singer-songwriter in the 80s-90s that was very original. I can't remember her name but she was playing around the LA area at the time and I remember reviews of her performance by I believe, Kristine McKenna, in the LA Times. Does anyone know who she might be?
BTW- I saw the 'Untitled' Byrds play this song in 1971 and it was brilliant!
Dave from Liverpool, United KingdomIf ever there was a Rock Family Tree worth looking at, it has to be the Byrds. They link everyone and everything that came out of the US in the late 60s, and spawned such luminaries as Crosby, Stills & Nash; Gram Parsons; Manassas; Buffallo Springfield et al.....
Fred from Laurel, MdJohn/Jasper,CAN - Yeah, I've wondered whether the Small Faces took their name from that line in this tune, or the line is mentioning the band. BTW, it was Rod Stewart & The Small Faces ("Itchykoo Park," arguably about an acid trip), and Rod later dropped the SF name (& maybe the band?) *** Also, at that time, I believe Roger McGuinn was still Jim McGuinn, wasn't he? His name change was odd, but although he's a bit wacky, he is a genius. I mean, just listen to that guitar work!
John from Dundee, United KingdomYeah obviously there is the drug conatations but McGuinn was obsessed with flying (I think he got a pilot's licence), Gene Clark hated flying. A quote from the time was that Gene left the Byrds on the steps of an aeroplane because of this. McGuinn reportedly said "You're a Byrd so you can fly". Great song, seminal song for me, being a young guitarist when it came out. McGuinn says in the sleeve notes of the album that he based the solo on John Coltraine. Seen him playing it live twice but don't think I would savour a 20 minute solo. Love the guy but JC he ain't.
Kevin from Syracuse, UtI've got to agree with TJ in Chicago. Leo Kottke's cover--at least the live version that I heard--is brilliant. It's as spare and simple as the original is frenzied and psychedelic, so in that sense the two versions are starkly different. Yet Kottke's cover is true to the spirit of the original. Kottke's voice is low, quavering, and hasn't much range but it matches and magnifies the haunting mood of the song.
Francis L. Vena from New York City,, NyThe Byrd's are probadly the most influential sucessful band no-one really talks about. Eight Miles High is a awesome song - In addition Chesnut Mare is one of the gratest acoustic arrangements ever recorded- Very few know that the Eagles are a direct outgrowth of the Byrds in addition to Buffalo Springfield. America's musical past is greatly unappreciated- Byrds,Poco, NRPS,Flying Burrito Brothers, Early Eagles,the list goes on.flv
John from Jasper, CanadaLyrically this song was a diliberately cryptic account of the band's first visit to England.You had to be in the know to understand that,ie the "small faces" referred to were an up and coming band.Of course it referrs to the altitude that planes fly at.Soon afterward it was recorded,the song was tipped off as a drug song.
Heather from Los Angeles, CaThe tune and the slow way that is the song is sung is thought-provoking. It's interesting...it's always made me listen closely to it. It makes me think of the rain...eight miles high.
Ian from Alicante, SpainThe best version of this track is from the 'Untitled' double LP where one side of one LP is @ 20 minutes long and is a live version (don't know where!)- fantastic - does anyone know if it's available on CD? Ian Alicante Spain
Tj from Chicago, IlLeo Kottke's version of this song is amazing. The song is written in a minor key and his version is very haunting. There's not much that's funny about it, or even countryish, as Elliot suggests below, other than perhaps the drumming and guitar backbeat. Kottke really gets into the spirit of the song and makes you hear the well-crafted lyrics like: "Rain grey town, known for it's sound, in places, small faces unbound..."
Dave from Atco, NmChris Hillman re-recorded this song on his album "The Other Side" in 2005. I like the bluegrass version better than the original. Chris plays mandolin, and bluegrass legend Herb Peterson produced the album. If you're into bluegrass this cd is a keeper!
Luke from Manchester, EnglandCovered very well by Roxy Music on the Flesh & Blood album
Rob from Vancouver, CanadaBill Muni was also in the band 'America'.
Sanford from Chicago, IlI saw McGuinn in a solo concert a couple of years ago -- he said that the guitar solo on this record was an attempt to sound like the sax solos of jazz legend John Coltrane.
Steve from Torrance, CaThis song was also covered by the short-lived Geffen recording artists Three in 1988. Three consisted of Keith Emerson, Robert Berry, and Carl Palmer. The modernistic, synth-heavy version that appeared on their only album also featured "updated" lyrics.
David from Plymouth, MaThis song was recorded during a time when it was unusual for anyone NOT to be on drugs. That aside, I always thought it was inspired by Gene Clark's well documented, obsessive fear of flying. As gossip has it, this phobia was the second reason for his leaving the band, the first being McGuinn and Crosby's controlling alliance. Great song and performance by this incarnation of the band at their peak.
Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScCool song!! Cool intro!! Of course it's about drugs.
Steve from Salt Lake City, UtBilly Mumy, who played the little brother in the LOST IN SPACE TV series from 1965 to 1968 was a Byrds fan.
DANGER DANGER WILL ROBINSON!!!
Dan from Lee, NhI love it, the Byrds rock on!!
Ross from Independence, MoThis is #150 on Rolling Stone's list of 500 greatest songs.
Craig from Madison, WiFounding Byrd Gene Clark who co-wrote this song eventually quit the band due to his fear of flying.
Nick from Buffalo, NyThe song is there best, that is in my opinion. I think that its timing was great and it's hidden message of round squares and shapeless forms will tell you the true meaning.
Ashley from Magnolia , DeIn my opinion, i think that not only does the song scream drugs, but if you really think about it, towards the end, it kinda notes death too.
Ken from Sugar Land , TxI Like Leo Kottke version it reminds alot of Johnny Cash's cover of Personal Jesus, just straight up music
Aaron from New York, NyAlthough the rest of the band said it wsa not a drug song, Crosby claimed the song was both about drugs and not about drugs. "Of course it was a drug song. We were stoned when we wrote it. We can also justifiably say that it wasn't a drug song because it was written about the trip to London. it was a drug song and it wasn't a drug song at the same time."
Elliott from Douglassville, PaLeo Kottke did an interesting version of this. His twelve-string playing is, as always, excellent on this song...but his vocals and the countryish tempo just don't fit this particular song - it's actually pretty funny, in the same way a song sung by William Shatner is funny.
Yorick from Columbia, MoThis song was released on Fifth Dimension in '66
Leigha from New York, Nythis song is mentioned in Don McLean's American pie "the byrds flew off of the fallout shelter/eight miles high and falling fast"