‘Stranger Than Known . . .’

Originally posted August 19, 2008

Considering the Byrds’ great anthem, “Eight Miles High,” takes one in a number of directions.

The song was written by Byrds Gene Clark, David Crosby and Jim (now Roger) McGuinn, with credit at the time – 1965 – going to Clark for the lyrics and Crosby and McGuinn for the music (with Crosby taking credit for one line of the lyrics). That’s according to Wikipedia, which notes that since Clark’s death, McGuinn has claimed credit for the song’s concept as well as some of the lyrics.

Authorship aside, when the song was recorded and released, the Byrds insisted that it was about the group’s trip to England in 1965. And the surreal lyrics were an approximation of a travelogue from a strange and distant land. Clark said the title was a reference to the altitude of the airplane that brought the Byrds to England.

But as has been noted many times in many places, including Wikipedia, commercial air traffic flies at about 35,000 feet, or closer to seven miles high. To which Clark retorted, as I read somewhere long ago: “Eight Miles High” sounded better.

Well, it does. But even if the reference to literal altitude was a starting point, Clark and the rest of the Byrds cannot have been unaware of the winking reference to a different type of high. It may not have been the original source of the phrase, but the drug reference was almost certainly one of the reasons the song was written, recorded and loved. It’s pretty tame stuff as we sit here in the first decade of the next century, but forty years ago, even a winking reference like “Eight Miles High” was enough to get one’s record banned from airplay, and there were some stations that did not air the record for just that reason.

And the record only went to No. 14. Two of the group’s singles to that point had reached No. 1: “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season).” Sandwiched between those two on the group’s Top 40 chart is “All I Really Want To Do,” which barely made the chart, edging to No. 40 for one week. And after “Eight Miles High,” the group got only three more singles into the Top 40: “Mr. Spaceman” at No. 36, “So You Want To Be A Rock ’N’ Roll Star” at No. 29 and “My Back Pages” at No. 30.

So one can read – based simply on the charts – that “Eight Miles High” was the end of the Byrds as a strong chart presence. Now, there were personality conflicts and personnel changes galore in the group, and those were no doubt part of the reason the group’s presence in the Top 40 changed. How much influence should be laid to each bit of truth is one of the unknowns forty years later. I’m sure the surviving Byrds have something to say about it, and maybe I’ll read their accounts of those times eventually.

One other connection popped into my head as I listened to “Eight Miles High” last evening: Just as Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone” provided the name for a group of scuffling London-based blues players, so did “Eight Miles High” – in legend, at least—provide inspiration for another collection of musicians. I’ve read a number of times that the phrase “In places small faces unbound” inspired Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, Jimmy Winston and Kenney Jones to name their group Small Faces.*

Wikipedia, on the other hand, says, “the group took their name from a remark by a female friend of Marriot’s, who noted that the band members all had ‘small faces’. The name stuck in part because of the mod slang usage of the word ‘face’ to mean a popular, trendsetting individual.” If that’s the case, then we have here another instance of the truth being decidedly less intesting than the legend. In matters of rock & roll, I guess it’s entirely up to each individual to decide whether to hold to the truth or embrace the legend.

(The mention of the Small Faces almost always cues in my brain their hit, “Itchykoo Park,” which went to No. 16 in the U.S. in early 1968. The record contains one of the more insistent earworms in my life: “It’s all too beautiful” repeated again and again. Then, of course, there’s the “What did you do there?” followed by the exultant “I got high!” And we’re back to pharmaceutical references again.)

Whether “Eight Miles High” was originally meant to refer to drugs or to travel is a question that likely will no longer be answered; again, legend will trump fact no matter what anyone says. It’s an odd song in its construction, of course, with the Byrds’ version being influenced by the music of India as well as – according to McGuinn – by John Coltrane’s saxophone work. Those unique qualities may be why there aren’t a lot of cover versions of the song.

According to All-Music Guide, there are currently eighty-seven CDs available that have a recording of “Eight Miles High.” More than half of those recordings are by the Byrds, usually the original version but sometimes the much longer (16:07) version that showed up on the 1970 album Untitled.

Among those who’ve covered “Eight Miles High,” there are some interesting names: Crowded House, the Folkswingers (whose album was posted here recently), the Floorjivers, Les Fradkin, Golden Earring, Joe Goldmark, Rufus Harley, Hüsker Dü, Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, R.E.M., Roxy Music, the Leathercoated Minds, the Magic Mushroom Band, Shockabilly, Dave Stewart, the Ventures, and various individual members of the Byrds.

I’ve heard a few of those versions, and – as is par for this course – have never heard at all of some of the performers and groups in that list. The first cover I heard of “Eight Miles High,” however, remains one of my favorites. It was on one of the few albums my sister owned that I have not yet been able to replace on either LP or CD: Leo Kottke’s Mudlark, released in 1971. (In the past twenty years, I’ve never seen a copy of the LP in any used record store; the CD is available online fairly easily, and I’ll no doubt go that route soon.) The rip of the song I’m offering here is one I found at the Groovy Fab forum about a year ago.

I’m also providing a rip of Kottke performing “Eight Miles High” live in December 1968 at the No Exit coffeehouse, which was located in the basement of the student union of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The performance was recorded by Alan Peterman, who offers “Eight Miles High” and six other songs from the performance at his own website. (Despite the low bitrate, it’s worth a listen.)

Leo Kottke – “Eight Miles High” [Mudlark, 1971)

Leo Kottke – “Eight Miles High” [Live at the No Exit, 1968)

*I may have read that tale about the Small Faces’ moniker somewhere, but it’s demonstrably false, and I should have known that, as the Small Faces predate the Byrds’ tune. The “small faces” reference was instead a nod to the British group. Note added August 3, 2011.

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