The Byrds’ 20 best songs

Famous fans and The Byrds themselves choose their greatest tracks

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1 EIGHT MILES HIGH
From Fifth Dimension (July 1966). Single March 1966. UK chart: 24. US chart: 14
A daring ascent into raga-rock, fusing modal jazz, Indian music and nascent psychedelia. Sounds as timeless and progressive today as it did in 1966.

ROGER McGUINN: We were on tour in the United States. We were always on tour! We were in the Midwest and we stopped at some town to visit a friend of David Crosby. David’s friend had copies of John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Impressions, which had the track “India” on it. I had a cassette recorder and recorded both Coltrane albums on one side of a blank cassette and some Ravi Shankar on the other. We strapped the cassette deck to the Fender amp on the bus and listened to both sides of that tape over and over again on that tour. This went on for a month, and we were so steeped in this music that by the time we got back to LA it all just spilled out, almost like we’d been brainwashed by Coltrane and Shankar.

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“Eight Miles High” is out there. It’s spatial. I was trying to emulate Coltrane’s saxophone with my Rickenbacker. It’s got a lot of what Coltrane was going for on “India”, which was to capture the elephants in India with his wails, and there’s that tabla beat. He was trying to incorporate Indian music into jazz, and we were trying to incorporate his attempts to do that into a rock’n’roll song. So there’s a lot of things going on.

Gene Clark came up with a lot of it, but he didn’t write the whole song. The airplane thing was my idea, I was always into planes and spaceships. Gene and I were talking about the trip we’d taken when we’d gone to England on tour, and the fact that the altitude was 37,000 ft, which is seven miles high. He didn’t like the number seven, because the Beatles had “Eight Days A Week” out and he thought that was much cooler. So we changed it to “Eight Miles High”, even though commercial airliners didn’t go to 42,000 ft. They do now, some of them. When radio stations heard it they thought, ‘Wait a minute, they can’t be talking about planes because they don’t fly that high. They must be talking about some other kind of high!’ Then the Gavin Report came out with a tip sheet for radio and they banned the record because they thought it was a flagrant drug ad. Some of the band still like to pretend that it is. Crosby will always say, ‘Yeah, it’s about drugs, man!’ But it’s not. It’s about touring the UK: the British press, the cars, the girls in the crowds, the weather, the street signs on the side of the buildings which we weren’t used to and couldn’t find. It’s about cultural shock.

CHRIS HILLMAN: What I’m most proud of about The Byrds is that within 18 months we went from covering Bob Dylan to making “Eight Miles High”. We had grown as musicians. We stumbled into something without really thinking, which is how you should make music. It was so creative. It was a truly exciting time. People talk about the guitars and the lyrics on “Eight Miles High”, but Michael Clarke played brilliantly on that, and what about the singing? David was just a beautiful vocalist, as were Gene and Roger. They would double the lead and David would come in with a vocal that was just beautiful. It would have been interesting to have seen where we would have gone had we all stayed together, taking “Eight Miles High” as a launching point. Where would we have gone? It wouldn’t necessarily have ended up at Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.

I have to pay credit to Columbia, they really didn’t put a lot of pressure on us over what we recorded. The only pressure was that we had to do two albums a year no matter what, but they weren’t too strict about content. The business was still pretty artistically orientated. The label supported “Eight Miles High” until it stopped getting played on the radio, which really killed it. That meant it fell off the charts. It’s amazing to think that it didn’t make the Top 10, but I felt so lucky to be in that band at that time. From ’65 to ’67, I think, was the best of The Byrds. Magic. And “Eight Miles High” might just be the best of the best.

The History Of Rock – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – goes on sale in the UK on July 9. Click here for more details.

Meanwhile, the July 2015 issue of Uncut is in shops now – featuring the Rolling Stones, 13th Floor Elevators, Jim O’Rourke, Ringo Starr and more!

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