Saturday, March 15, 2008

Eight Miles High, The Byrds (1966)

The most evocative psychedelic record of the 60s, to me, is generally believed to be one of the first, Eight Miles High, written and performed by the Byrds. A cornucopia of complexity, it had many distinctive features, not the least of which were the spectral voices in alternating unison and harmony against the mesmerizing riffs of Roger McGuinn's then-unconventional 12-string guitar and Chris Hillman's throbbing bassline.

This is another one of those songs where just hearing the first notes triggers an immediate magic carpet ride back to my turbulent adolescence. The almost menacing intro, followed by "eight miles high, and when you touch down, you'll find that it's stranger than known" signaled a radical departure from the group's previous hits, such as Turn, Turn, Turn and Mr. Tambourine Man, which were Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan covers, respectively.

McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke and Hillman distinguished themselves with music that seemed a hybrid of British Invasion and contemporary folk. In fact, their first tour of the UK positioned them as America's answer to the Beatles. Unlike the Beatles, however, they all had cut their teeth in the California folk scene and, knowing next to nothing about amplified instruments, might have seemed an unlikely pioneer of this new genre. In the liner notes to the Byrds box set There Is A Season, Tom Petty writes, "Without a single member with a rock background, they came from folk trios, bluegrass, Christy Minstrels and beatnik coffee houses. It was almost like a lab experiment, mixing the elements and seeing what came out."

What came out in Eight Miles High was an acknowledged homage to John Coltrane and the emerging influence of Ravi Shankar. The Byrds' first foray into psychedelia was surrounded by controversy from the outset, with baffled radio stations banning the record in the belief that the title was referring to drugs - which it probably was to some degree. (As with so many of these songs, the real story of what the song was "about" takes different forms depending on the source. There's an entire discussion about the song's genesis that can be read online in Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock by Richie Unterberger.)

It's interesting to me now how unsettling I found the shifts in the output of many groups circa 1966. It might seem strange, but I still remember being filled with foreboding, at age 14, as I witnessed the metamorphosis of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Byrds, just to name three, from their comparatively clean cut origins to new realms that were fraught with allure, yes, but still on some level, danger.


karmasartre said...

I still can't quite get my brain around that guitar lick. It always sounds brand new, I think because it is so unique. I've heard Roger/Jim do it solo on acoustic (PBS)? and it was equally mesmerizing. I have a vague memory of the song starting with Gene Clarke's fear of flying. You have really captured the feel of the experience.

hfencl said...

Love the foreboding reference...I think I was getting that too, to some degree! Nicely written!

Mombi said...

It's interesting transition for me as well - growing up appreciating the cleaner-cut selections from The Beatles, The Byrds, etc. and as I've gotten older (and no... not done any psychadelic drugs!) grown into the more "dangerous" content as you call it.

This is one selection that I wasn't previously familiar with, so I have to thank you for introducing me to it. It's an interesting fusion of the genres you mentioned!