Innovation with The Byrds:  Eight Miles High, IDEO and David Kelley—neo-DeMarcoian Banter

The Byrds were an iconic band when I was growing up, although they were well before my time, the music is in a sense timeless. The song Eight Miles High was always one where there seemed there was this confluence of a million things all happening at once and as I did some “research” I found the song to be an amazing example of innovation at work.  

img_0377A while back, I spent some time out at Stanford’s and ran into David Kelley who founded the design firm IDEO.  IDEO studied innovation in 100 companies and found six insights in cracking the innovation code and when we apply those principles to the Byrds piece—the concept of innovation is illuminating. 

1: Purposefulness:  A clear, inspiring reason for the organization to exist

2: Experimentation:  Trying out new ideas, and making evidence-based decisions about how to move forward

3: Empowerment:  Providing a clear path to create change in all corners of the organization by reducing unnecessary constraints 

4: Looking Out:  Looking beyond the organization’s walls to understand customers, technologies and cultural shifts

5: Collaboration:   Working together across organizational functions to approach opportunities and challenges from all angles

6: Refinement :  elegantly bridging vision and execution 


Purposefulness: The nucleus of the Byrds formed in early 1964, when Roger McGuinn (known as Jim McGuinn until mid-1967), Gene Clark, and David Crosby came together as a trio. All three musicians had a background rooted in folk music, with each one having worked as a folk singer on the acoustic coffeehouse circuit during the early 1960s.

McGuinn had also spent time as a professional songwriter at the Brill Building in New York City, under the tutelage of Bobby Darin. By early 1964, McGuinn had become enamored with the music of the Beatles, and had begun to intersperse his solo folk repertoire with acoustic versions of Beatles’ songs. While performing at The Troubadour folk club in Los Angeles, McGuinn was approached by fellow Beatles fan Gene Clark, and the pair soon formed a Peter and Gordon-style duo, playing Beatles’ covers, Beatlesque renditions of traditional folk songs, and some self-penned material. Soon after, David Crosby introduced himself to the duo at The Troubadour and began harmonizing with them on some of their songs. Impressed by the blend of their voices, the three musicians formed a trio and named themselves the Jet Set, a moniker inspired by McGuinn’s love of aeronautics.

Experimentation: On December 22, 1965, the Byrds recorded a new, self-penned composition titled “Eight Miles High” at RCA Studios in Hollywood. However, Columbia Records refused to release this version because it had been recorded at another record company‘s facility. As a result, the band were forced to re-record the song at Columbia Studios in Los Angeles on January 24 and 25, 1966, and it was this re-recorded version that would be released as a single and included on the group’s third album. 

The song represented a creative leap forward for the band and is often considered the first full-blown psychedelic rock recording by critics, although other contemporaneous acts, such as Donovan and the Yardbirds, were also exploring similar musical territory.  It was also pivotal in transmuting folk rock into the new musical forms of psychedelia and raga rock.

During his time with the Byrds, McGuinn developed two innovative, experimental, and very influential styles of electric guitar playing. The first was “jingle-jangle” – generating ringing arpeggios based on banjo finger picking styles he learned while at the Old Town School of Folk – which was influential in the folk rock genre. The second style was a merging of saxophonist John Coltrane‘s free-jazz atonalities, which hinted at the droning of the sitar – a style of playing, first heard on the song “Eight Miles High.”

Looking Out: “Eight Miles High” is often sited as the first psychedelic rock song, as well as a classic of the counterculture era.

Of course Eight Miles High was a drug song. It does refer to the altitude of that flight, but it was a deliberate double entendre.” —David Crosby

McGuinn’s groundbreaking lead guitar playing on “Eight Miles High” saw the guitarist emulating free form jazz saxophone as influenced by John Coltrane, and in particular, Coltrane’s playing on the song “India” from his Impressions album. It also exhibits the influence of the Indian classical music of Ravi Shankar in the droning quality of the song’s vocal melody and in McGuinn’s guitar playing.  The song’s subtle use of Indian influences resulted in it being labeled as “raga rock” by the music press.

According to Roger McGuinn: 

Eight Miles High has been called the first psychedelic record. It’s true we’d been experimenting with LSD, and the title does contain the word “high”, so if people want to say that, that’s great. But Eight Miles High actually came about as a tribute to John Coltrane. It was our attempt to play jazz.”

“We were on a tour of America, and someone played us the Coltrane albums Africa/Brass and Impressions. It was the only music we had, for the whole time on the bus. By the end of the tour, Coltrane and Shankar were ingrained.”

“There was one Coltrane track called India, where he was trying to emulate sitar music with his saxophone. It had a recurring phrase, dee da da da, which I picked up on my Rickenbacker guitar and played some jazzy stuff around it. I was in love with his saxophone playing: all those funny little notes and fast stuff at the bottom of the range.”

“The previous year, 1965, we’d been on a trip to England. It was our first time on a plane, and I had the idea of writing a song about it. Gene asked: “How high do you think that plane was flying?” I thought about seven miles, but the Beatles had a song called Eight Days a Week, so we changed it to Eight Miles High because we thought that would be cooler. ….some DJs did the sums and realized that, since commercial airliners only flew at six miles, we must have been talking about a different kind of high. And all the stations stopped playing it.” 

Collaboration:  The song was written by Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby, and first released as a single on March 14, 1966.  It is interesting to note that the band can’t even seem to really agree on who really came up with the song.  As happens so often with innovative work—it’s difficult at best to truly find the originator of the work.  McGuinn even notes, “In later years, Gene started to fantasize that he wrote the whole song. That wasn’t the case: it was a collaborative effort between myself, Gene and David Crosby.

Clark began writing the song’s lyrics on November 24, 1965, when he scribbled down some rough ideas for later development, following a discussion with guitarist Brian Jones, before the Byrds made a concert appearance supporting the Rolling Stones. Over the following days, Clark expanded this fragment into a full poem, eventually setting the words to music and giving them a melody. Clark then showed the song to McGuinn and Crosby, with the former suggesting that the song be arranged to incorporate Coltrane’s influence. Since Clark’s death, however, McGuinn has contended that it was he who conceived the initial idea of writing a song about an airplane ride and that he and Crosby both contributed lyrics to Clark’s unfinished draft. In his book, Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds’ Gene Clark, author John Einarson disputes this claim and ponders whether McGuinn’s story would be the same were Clark still alive.

Refinement :  Bridging vision and execution—the failure of “Eight Miles High” to reach the Billboard Top 10 is usually attributed to the broadcasting ban, but some commentators have suggested that the song’s complexity and uncommercial nature were greater factors.

Latching onto the song’s use of the word “high”, Bill Gavin’s Record Report, a radio industry trade sheet, claimed that lyrics were “LSD talk”. Radio stations in Washington, Baltimore and Houston banned the song outright and the single stalled at Number 14 in the Billboard chart. “It blew us out of the game,” said McGuinn.

Research presented by Mark Teehan on Popular Music Online challenges the broadcasting ban 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.”

To say the Byrds were out to change music might be a stretch— and despite not reaching the Top 10—the song that raised the curtain on the psychedelic era, a pioneering pop explosion that employed jazz harmony, Indian raga and drug-inspired lyrics and prepared the way for the cultural voyages of 1966 and to this day has left a mark on Rock and Roll history to include being mentioned on Don McLean’s umber 5 song of the 20th Century—American Pie.

The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast

“Eight Miles High,” which as mentioned some say is about drug experimentation, “high” quote-the-byrds-flew-off-the-fallout-shelter-eight-miles-high-and-falling-fast-don-mclean-98-88-76being a euphemism for the euphoria induced by certain substances. The “fallout shelter” reference is more than likely a direct attempt to comment on the threat of nuclear war and how it shaped a generation, although some insist it’s slang for a drug rehabilitation clinic. Then again, “falling fast” can refer to a drug comedown or a bomb falling, so who knows.

Bottom Line—an innovative song, that changed to music scene and continues to mark an era in Rock Music History. 

Eight miles high
And when you touch down
You’ll find that it’s
Stranger than known
Signs in the street
That say where you’re goin’
Are somewhere
Just being their own
Nowhere is
There warmth to be found
Among those afraid
Of losing their ground
Rain gray town
Known for its sound
In places
Small faces unbound
Round the squares
Huddled in storms
Some laughing
Some just shapeless forms
Sidewalk scenes
And black limousines
Some living
Some standing alone
Songwriters: Daivd Crosby / Gene Clark / Jim Mcguinn

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