The Byrds are one of the most popular and enduring bands in rock and roll history. Although their time in the spotlight lasted for a short period in the mid-1960s, the Byrds are considered by critics as one of the most influential rock acts of their time.
Their unmistakable blend of harmony singing and Roger McGuinn's jangly 12-string Rickenbacker guitar quickly caught the attention of music fans and critics worldwide.
In 1965, the Byrds pioneered folk rock, a new genre of music that combined folk chords with rock and roll beats. They displayed this new musical format with great success on their first and second albums and the hit singles "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!".
By 1966, the band began to explore new musical frontiers, originating psychedelic rock and raga rock, with their masterpeice "Eight Miles High". The song's lyrics are about the group's experience flying to London in August 1965 and their English concert tour. This is noted in the song's 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 alluded to the title of the Beatles' song "Eight Days a Week".
According to the band's chief songrwriter Gene Clark, the lyrics were primarily his creation, with contributions from David Crosby and McGuinn. The line, "Rain grey town, known for its sound" — is a reference to London as the epicenter of the rock music explosion and home of the British Invasion, which was then dominating the U.S. music charts.
Other lyrics in the song that reference the group's time in England include: "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 writ of copyright infringement because of the similarities in their names.
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 crowds that jostled the band as they exited their cars.
While the idea for the song had been formulated during the band's flight to England, it did not take shape until the Byrds' November 1965 tour of the United States. Crosby had brought along cassettes of sitarist Ravi Shankar's music and the albums Impressions and Africa/Brass by John Coltrane.
These albums played on repeat during the tour, and these Indian and jazz music influences would show themselves in the music of "Eight Miles High" and "Why", its B-side. Both of these songs were influential in the development of of psychedelic rock, psychedelic pop and raga rock.
Clark began composing the song's lyrics on November 24, 1965, sketched out a couple of ideas for the tune after a discussion with guitarist Brian Jones, prior to the Byrds a concert appearance supporting the Rolling Stones.
In the days that followed, Clark eventually turned his rough ideas into a full song. Clark then shared the song with McGuinn and Crosby. McGuinn suggested that the song be arranged to incorporate Coltrane's jazz influence. However, since Clark's death in 1991, McGuinn has stated that it was his idea of writing a song about an airplane ride and that he and Crosby contributed lyrics to Clark's unfinished draft.
The master recording of "Eight Miles High" was completed on January 24 and 25, 1966, at Columbia Studios in Hollywood. John Einarson has commented that the influence of Coltrane's saxophone playing and his song "India" from the Impressions album, can be heard in "Eight Miles High"—mainly in McGuinn's repeating twelve-string guitar solo. Another highlight of the tune is Chris Hillman's throbbing bass line, Crosby's rhythm guitar playing and the band's smooth harmonies.
An earlier version of "Eight Miles High" was recorded with Al Schmitt at RCA Studios in Los Angeles on December 22, 1965, however, Columbia Records refused to release the recording because it was not produced at a Columbia-owned studio. McGuinn and Crosby both agreed that this version of the song was more spontaneous,and better than the released version. Crosby commented, "It was a stunner, it was better, it was stronger. It had more flow to it. It was the way we wanted it to be."
This original version of "Eight Miles High" would not be heard until the release Never Before, an archival album from 1987. It was also included as a bonus track on the 1996 Columbia/Legacy CD reissue of Fifth Dimension.
"Eight Miles High" was released on March 14, 1966, in the U.S. and May 29, 1966, in the UK, reaching number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number 24 on the UK Singles Chart. The song was also featured on the band's third album, Fifth Dimension, released on July 18, 1966.