Many people believe this song is about drugs, but the band claimed it was inspired by a flight where singer Gene Clark asked guitarist Roger McGuinn how high they were in the sky. McGuinn told him six miles, but for the song they changed it to eight.
This story was likely a smokescreen to keep the song in the good graces of sensitive listeners. The band had been doing a lot of drugs at the time, including LSD, which is the likely inspiration. If the band owned up to the drug references, they knew it would get banned by some radio stations, and that’s exactly what happened when a radio industry publication reported that the song was about drugs and that stations should be careful about playing it. As soon as one station dropped it, others followed and it quickly sank off the charts.
When McGuinn was asked in 2016 if the song was really about drugs, he replied: “Well, it was done on an airplane ride to England and back. I’m not denying that the Byrds did drugs at that point – we smoked marijuana – but it wasn’t really about that.” In his book Echoes, Gene Clark said that he wrote the song on his own with David Crosby coming up with one key line (“Rain gray town, known for its sound”), and Roger McGuinn arranging the song with help from Crosby.
In the Forgotten Hits newsletter, McGuinn replied: “Not true! The whole theme was my idea… Gene would never have written a song about flying. I came up with the line, ‘Six miles high and when you touch down.’ We later changed that to Eight because of the Beatles song ‘Eight Days a Week.’ I came up with several other lines as well. And what would the song be without the Rickenbacker 12-string breaks?” This song is often cited in discussions of “Acid Rock,” a term that got bandied about in 1966 with the release of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album. The genre covers a kind of psychedelic music that became popular at the time, and also the look and lifestyle that went with it. “Acid Rock” was hailed as a pathway to higher consciousness and derided as senseless drug music. At the end of the ’60s, the term petered out, as rock critics moved on to other topics for their think pieces. The band recorded this on their own, but Columbia Records made them re-record it before they would put it on the album, partly because they had contracts with unions. The Byrds liked the first version better. Don McLean referred to this in his song “American Pie,” which chronicles the change in musical style from the ’50s to the ’60s. The line is “Eight miles high and falling fast- landed foul out on the grass.” McLean could be sardonically implying that the song is about drugs, since “foul grass” was slang for marijuana. Husker Du recorded a noise-pop version in 1985. For decades, the story went that “Eight Miles High” was a commercial failure because it had been banned from radio due to its perceived pro-drug messages. Research presented by Mark Teehan on Popular Music Onlinechallenges this 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.