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Eight Miles High and When You Touch Down – Hopefully, Never!

May 28th, 2012 by David Kronemyer · 5 Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: “Eight Miles High” is one of the greatest songs of all time.  It influenced me significantly and from what I can discern from multiple sources had major social-cultural impact also.  It doesn’t help that I idolize the Byrds and McGuinn is one of my musical heroes ever since I can remember walking around campus at Muirlands Junior High School with a 45 RPM copy of “Turn Turn Turn” tucked into my binder.  There are different versions of the song’s provenance depending on whom you ask.  Gene Clark says he wrote it with Brian Jones.  David Crosby says he contributed significantly to the lyrics.  No question but that McGuinn principally was responsible for the arrangement, probably using a melody devised by Clark.  Chris Hillman shows remarkable equanimity about the issue.  He certainly should have gotten a co-writer credit, having devised the opening bass riff.  At least in The Doors everybody shared co-writing credits.  This always seems to me to be the best policy.  After all, in a tight-knit performing aggregation, everybody is responsible for at least some aspect of the finished work.

Anyway, I got busy over the weekend tracking down cover versions of the song, of which there are several dozen floating around the www.  My philosophy about cover versions is that I don’t believe most of them should exist unless they differentially contribute to our understanding of the song, in that they illustrate or shed light on the writer’s(s’) intentions; or, materially enhance our appreciation of it.  Other criteria (particularly important with the Byrds) are whether the band sings in tune, and whether the arrangement makes sense.  In many instances you have the former but not the latter, or vice versa.  In his article “Authenticity in Musical Performance,” Steven Davies argues: “A performance of X is more rather than less authentic the more faithful it is to the intentions publicly expressed in the score by the composer,” which “underdetermines the sound of a faithful performance.”*  Davies only has it half right.  His formulation does not allow for creative extrapolations, which (even though they may venture far from the author’s original intention) nonetheless expand our aesthetic concept of the work.  My concept of an “authentic” performance includes both of these elements.  Here are the results of my research.

1.  Versions by The Byrds.  I want to accord reverential acknowledgement to versions by members of the band, to the extent possible.  There is the original iconic rendition on Columbia Records, which remains the standard by which all others are judged.  I have come to think this is because it genuinely is the best, not simply because we have become habituated to it.  The harmonies are perfect and the guitar playing by Crosby and McGuinn is inspired.  I wish Crosby had not used a distortion effect on his guitar.  Also, the two instrumental breaks could use a little bit more structure, but hey they are what they are, I guess they were striving for a free jazz-improv Coltrane-type feeling.  I particularly like the way McGuinn’s 12-string weaves its way in and out of the mix due to frequency-sensitive compression.  The notes are selectively lengthened by milli-second intervals between other notes, making it especially ringing and prominent.  This was the sound that launched a thousand ships and primordially was responsible for psychedelic rock.

There are two other studio versions by the Byrds: one recorded at RCA Studios, and an instrumental-only.  Byrds lore has it that Columbia rejected the RCA version because it wasn’t recorded at their proprietary studio.  As with most of the rumor and innuendo surrounding the song, who knows whether this is true.  Crosby has opined he thinks the RCA version is superior.  Well, it’s not.  It’s a lot more ragged and pales next to its immediate successor.  The instrumental version is dispensable.

There are several live versions with different personnel (McGuinn is the common member) circa 1970.  These all are lengthy and don’t particularly resemble the song, however they are very good insofar as late 1960s – early 1970s extended jams go.  The Byrds were one of the country’s top touring bands during this period.  Without inadvertently disparaging the accomplishments of other members of the group, listening to them again, I am amazed at the punch and vigor with which Gene Parsons hits the drums.  He really is a virtuoso performer.  There is a video on YouTube, which focuses primarily on him during a long break.  You can’t watch it without being impressed at his skill.

2.  Versions by Members of the Byrds.  One might think there would be a lot of these, but there aren’t.  Roger McGuinn now performs an astonishing solo version, interweaving the song with something from Andres Segovia.  I think it’s the same excerpt Robbie Krieger played on “Spanish Caravan.”  There are several functionally equivalent iterations of McGuinn playing his version on the www.  All were filmed by people holding up their iPhones at shows and suffer from poor audio (and, needless to say, poor visual) quality, so stick with the one he released on his own label.

McGuinn’s dexterity is outlandish.  His aesthetic sensibility now is that of a latter-day troubadour or traveling minstrel – almost timeless.  He has a special picking technique, where he holds a flat pick between his thumb and first finger, primarily for downstrokes, and then he has finger picks on all the rest, primarily for upstrokes.  He plays incredibly fast without making any mistakes.  I’ve tried doing this and it’s complicated.  I use a thumb pick, which frees up the first finger, and I have finger picks on all four fingers.  I’ve played this way forever and gotten reasonably good at it, but no way could I match McGuinn’s speed, dexterity, stamina and endurance.  I’m not quite sure how he does it!  He plays a guitar he specially-designed with Martin that has 7 strings.  The extra is a high-octave G string.  This makes a lot of sense because that’s one of the most evocative strings on the instrument.  About the only modification I would add (which I’m sure he thought about) is that he might have considered having a double D string as well.  I want one of these guitars very badly so I suppose I’ll just have to keep saving up for it.  In the meanwhile I could just de-string the redundant strings on a conventional 12-string, but then the spacing between the strings wouldn’t be right.  I formerly had a Rickenbacker McGuinn limited-edition electric 12-string, which resembles a 370, but sold it.  This fine instrument has three pick-ups instead of two, but the middle one constantly got in my way, so I had difficulty playing it.  Its distinguishing feature was a built-in compressor, which helps you get that McGuinn-like sustain sound.  Fortunately a company called JangleBox now makes a superior version of the same compressor, so now I can achieve the same outcome using a 360-12 (two pick-ups with plenty of room in between) instead.  I never would play a 12-string (for that matter, a 6-string, too) without a compressor, to even out pick attack.  Fact of the matter is I mainly now use other 12-string electrics.  Even though I have long fingers, the strings on the Rick are pretty close together!  Greg Back put some TV Jones pick-ups on a Gretsch 6075 for me, and it never has sounded better.  I use a Vox Starstream XII a lot, together with an Ultrasonic XII, a Gibson ES335/12 and a Guild Starfire XII.  Then there’s the Shergold Modulator, a monster of an instrument with a neck that’s as long as Peter Dinklage is tall.

Chris Hillman’s version is excellent with a relaxed, less urgent feel.  His sensitive, insightful, wistful and somewhat melancholic bluegrassy arrangement has beautiful singing and beautiful playing.  He presents it as having seen everything there is to be seen, wise to the ways of the world.  I slightly know Chris from his days with the Desert Rose Band on the Curb label.  I’m not sure if I’d rate it higher or lower than McGuinn’s.  Listen to both of them back-to-back and evaluate this issue for yourself.  As with McGuinn, avoid the live versions.  While this is slightly off-topic, a good segue after Hillman singing Eight Miles High is Dolly Parton’s version of “Stairway to Heaven.”  I’m one of the last people in the world who would enroll as a Dolly Parton fan, but if you haven’t heard her performing this, please do so.  It’s amazing (and, as it turns out, anomalous).

Gene Clark’s legacy is unfortunate.  Insofar as I can tell there is only one recorded version of him performing the song, which is a travesty, not so much for the performance, but because the audio/video tape seems to have melted somewhere along the way so the whole thing cuts in and out, gets blurred, is disastrously out of focus, drops out, etc. – almost every infirmity you could think of happened to this poor tape.  I would rather it not exist because it actually contaminates one’s recollection of Gene and the song.  He did an amazing rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man” in a wordly, resigned kind of way for his album “Fyrebird.”  I’m surprised he didn’t cut Eight Miles High at the same time.  I should ask Carla Olsen or Saul Davis about this.  Fyrebird originally was released on Takoma Records, long after the label’s classic era with John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke.  I was minorly involved with it, when it was distributed by Allegiance Records (Bill Valenziano and Marty Goldrod) through Capitol.  One day it mysteriously was taken over by MS Distributing out of Chicago, which later even more mysteriously vanished into thin air.  Its assets subsequently were acquired by Fantasy Records, which then was acquired by Concord.  I had two passes at Fantasy, which for a period of time constantly was for sale.  The first was when I was with Capitol, where a financial analyst named Neil McCarthy turned it down for $35 million.  The next was when I was consulting with JVC, where they turned it down for $100 million.  Del Costello, the label’s General Manager, was for it.  However, corporate management in Japan wasn’t.  I think this is close to the price Concord eventually paid.  I don’t know if Fyrebird was included in the sale, it may just have been a license deal.

Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s version is horrible, they’re singing out of tune and the arrangement is chaotic, so you can forget about that.  This is unfortunate given the band’s provenance.  Crosby did a version with his early-2000 era band CPR.  I also was minorly involved with this record.  I wish it were better because the singing isn’t that great – surprising for Crosby, who’s an outstanding vocalist, and a perfectionist at that.  The musicianship is of high quality.  I should ask Crosby about what happened here.  Then there is somebody called the Rogers/Nienhaus Band, evidently made up of former members of the Byrds in one of their later incarnations.  Their web site looks promising.  It loads with a pristine direct-to-soundboard recording of “Turn Turn Turn.”  However, insofar as I can discern, they have not recorded Eight Miles High (except again for a mediocre audience-member-filmed YouTube version).  If I am wrong on this point I would like to be corrected, as I would like to hear it.

3.   Cover Versions.  Which brings us to the cover versions, properly understood as such.  I divide these into two categories: those worth listening to, and those that aren’t.  The ones worth listening to further divide into several classes, ranging from excellent to the weird and bizarre.  Humdrum ones, which I would advise avoiding, include: Crowded House (sloppy singing and musicianship, even with McGuinn playing backup; I wish it was otherwise, seeing as how I was minorly involved with the band when they were on Capitol); Husker Du (some folks on-line like it, but its noisy thrash-punk aesthetic is completely antithetical to the spirit of the song); The Index (mediocre in both departments); Leo Kottke (a depressing, dispirited version) and Roxy Music (Bryan Ferry’s patented crooning is histrionic and melodramatic, I can’t imagine what he was thinking).  In the good-to-excellent department, versions worth listening to, are: Byrds1967; Cannata (a low-key version with some backwards tape and echo effects); Steve Hillage (instrumental only, nice use of organ); The Killermeters (a simplified chord structure and syncopated vocal phrasing); the Leathercoated Minds (? I wonder what that feels like) (I almost disqualified this one because the lead is way too busy with too many notes and actually detracts) (I am apprised this actually is an alias for J.J. Cale?); Les Fradkin (a nice, aggressive, hard-hitting sound); The Magic Mushroom Band (although the vocal harmonies are buried in the mix, it has an interesting droney-slide guitar-type sound in place of the 12-string, almost like what Steve Howe does with Yes, and some strange chant-like vocal effects); and Rockfour (though the singing is good, on the verge of being disqualified for ragged playing).

There also is a version by a K-Tel cover band variously called Graham Blvd. or The Hit Co.  By “K-Tel cover band” I mean in the style of a group of studio musicians who have been recruited to cut a version of the song for use primarily on compilation records or in movies or TV shows.  K-Tel Records was a company, which in the 1960’s – 1990’s featured corny and misleading TV ads to sell records posing as versions by the original artists, but they really weren’t.  K-Tel (or whomever) thereupon can dispense with the pesky musicians and record company who own the original version.  All they have to deal with is the publishing, and in the case of records, there’s a compulsory license so you don’t have to worry about getting any kind of clearances at all.  A little-known fact is that Priority Records, initially famous for the California Raisins, was founded by Bryan Turner, Mark Cerami and Steve Drath on a K-Tel business model.  Turner, Cerami and Drath started off at K-Tel, and Priority’s original funding came from a company called R-Tek, owned by the same people who owned K-Tel.  Priority later accumulated a noteworthy assortment of rap artists, and eventually was sold to Capitol.

Having just disrespected the aesthetic integrity of these types of productions, I have to say the Graham Blvd. version is pretty good.  The drums are muscular, the musicianship excellent, and the singing first-rate.  In fact, I probably would rate it near the top of the stack of cover versions.  The Hit Co. version has the same singing, much of the same instrumentation, but different drums.  It is less impressive and can be dropped from consideration.  There is an even more preposterous self-confessed Karaoke version by a band nominally called Done Again.  Although the singing is a little off – maybe by design – the musicianship is pretty good, especially the lead player, who really is good.  So, I’d retain it, albeit under advisement.

There are some more unusual covers.  In this department I would include Neil Merryweather (I still have his “Word of Mouth” record on Capitol).  The phasing-sound on the guitar intro and the filter/EQ effects on vocals reveal how dated the record is.  In the plus column, the first line of each couplet is a single beat rather than two, it has a strange but effective vocal drop effect on their tail ends (e.g. “stranger than known,” “being their own,” “losing their ground,” “small faces unbound,” “just shapeless forms” “standing alone”), and a nice speed-up on the instrumental breaks.  It kind of reminds me of the Joyride’s version of “The Crystal Ship.”  In this category I also include The Moffs, which shifts to three-fourths time on the same lead-ins (e.g. “eight miles high,” “signs in the street,” “nowhere is,” “rain gray town,” “round the square,” “sidewalk scenes”).  They also use the organ as a prominent instrument.  I would have liked more of a Vox sound for the organ (imagine the Strawberry Alarm Clock) rather than a Hammond sound, but this is just a quibble.  Imagine what it would sound like crossing Merryweather with The Moffs, maybe I should do a mash-up.  Then, a French band called the Michel Drucker Experience uses an interesting sample-hold effect throughout the song to emphasize the rhythm.  Their performance is far from successful due to poor execution.  However, it suggests to me there probably is room for a good electronica-dance remix, or perhaps an electro-acoustic version with interesting synthesizer technique.  A version by a band Astrali from Turin, Italy is sung entirely in Italian; while enthusiastic, it’s a mono recording and whomever had their fingers on the reverb dial did not hesitate to use it excessively.

For covers that really start to get different, I recommend The Postmarks, which is how I imagine the Cocteau Twins would sound if they sung it.  The version by The Kennedys is excellent and I also recommend their other albums.  Surprisingly there are no girl-group Bangles-type covers.  The Bangles rendered a brilliant version of “A Hazy Shade of Winter.”  It would have been just as easy for them to cover Eight Miles High.  Seeing as how the Bangles no longer are around, this suggests to me there probably is room for a version in that style.

4.         Weird Versions.  There are three weird versions of the song I would like to give special mention.  One is by the Ventures, of all people.  It is somewhat stilted tiki-lounge fashion, but despite that has an eerie slinky solo by Nokie Edwards (I believe he played it though again I will stand corrected if I am incorrect on this point).  Another is by a group called the Folkswingers, which features a period-appropriate sitar and fuzzy guitar.  The last is by some bachelor-pad studio band called The Soulful Strings.  God knows who was behind this.  The album on which Eight Miles High appears also has a version of “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones.  I actually like it, though it does tend to creep you out after a few plays.

5.         Lengthy Versions.  There are long workout versions by Golden Earring and Lighthouse.  Although they are not without their moments, Golden Earring should stick to “Radar Love” (and the even-better “Candy’s Going Bad”).  Lighthouse was one of those horn bands in the late 1960s – early 1970s along with Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, the Sons of Champlin, Buddy Miles Express, the Electric Flag, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., etc., not to forget in memoriam the lamented Chase.  One of their singers – the one who sings the high parts – is extremely annoying in my opinion, almost as much so as Geddy Lee.  It’s like he’s got a clothespin on his balls, or something like that.  Please understand I’m a big Rush fan, I have all of their albums and listen to them frequently (OK, occasionally), however you will agree with me that his singing is a little bit shall we say unusual.  Although it goes on too long (and disregarding the high singer part), the Lighthouse version isn’t bad.  The horns make a nice addition, and the guitarist plays a perfectly executed albeit meandering solo at the end.  If somebody knows the name of the singer and the guitar player, please let me know, I can’t figure out exactly who they were from the lengthy personnel list of the band at various times in its career.

I put all of the recommended versions on my iPhone, so now I can listen to them repeatedly, immersing myself in the wonderful phantasmagorical genius of Eight Miles High.  I let it sweep over me like a wave, passing through me like a transcendental rainbow, transporting me to another world.

*Davies, S. (2002).  Authenticity in musical performance.  In A. Neill & A. Ridley (Eds.), Arguing about art: Contemporary philosophical debates (2nd ed.), pp. 57 – 68.  New York, NY: Routledge.

This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared on musicindustrynewswire.