Gotcha Covered: “Eight Miles High”
For a song that’s been so often reduced to ’60s Montage Cliche #00001B (Note: Please use only in case of rights restrictions for the Youngbloods’ “Get Together”), the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” is still something of a miracle — a successful translation of avant-garde jazz into pop music, a harmonic convergence where every singer and player is at their best, and a song that actually feels more resonant when you discover it’s not about drugs. (Well, OK, maybe a little about drugs, but more significantly about homesick alienation in the middle of a crowd.) And while there’s been some custody disputes over who actually contributed what to the song — the late Gene Clark, shortly to leave the band, claimed majority authorship, while Roger McGuinn and David Crosby later claimed they simply finished his first draft — at this point it feels like one of those songs that wound up belonging to any succession of artists who found a way to take it through — and past — its proto-psychedelic origins.
The funny thing about “Eight Miles High,” in fact, is that it wound up being interpreted through the lens of nearly every single subgenre of rock music from metal to UK indie — including hardcore punk, of course, in the form of Hüsker Dü’s peerless cover (more on which is below; here’s where I note that the passing of Grant Hart is what spurred this edition of Gotcha Covered in the first place). For a song so deeply associated with psychedelic rock that it’s regularly cited as the movement’s origin point, “Eight Miles High” found purchase anywhere that a band either felt like spiralling out into the exosphere with improvisation or needed a melodic, instant-hook pop classic to filter through their sensibilities. Here’s how it made it beyond the Summer Of Love, and across dozens of summers afterwards.
Golden Earring (1969)
For a band most casual music fans in the States know for approximately two songs — 1973’s “Radar Love” and 1982’s “Twilight Zone” — the Netherlands’ Golden Earring had the kind of career that seems almost unbelievable in its length and breadth. They released their first LP Just Earrings in 1965, their most recent one Tits ‘N Ass (yeesh) in 2012, and have been running with more or less the same core band members since 1970, which is absolutely preposterous. Just not as preposterous as this 19-minute version of “Eight Miles High” that they released as a side-length title track of an LP in 1969, one of the most ceaseless and exhausting attempts in recorded history to try and put forth the idea that, hey, maybe this song isn’t about flying in an airplane, y’know? It runs a pretty noodly course, starting with some solid zone-out psych jam potential — George Kooymans’s and Gerry Hay’s guitars aren’t exactly virtuoso, but there’s some good interplay for a bit, and there’s a nice bit of loud-quiet-loud dynamic going that keeps the uptempo momentum at a decent jogging pace for about eight minutes and change. Aaaaaaand then, whoops, here comes the drum solo. “Moby Dick” it ain’t — Sieb Warner, in his first and only album with Golden Earring, plays the drums like a button-mashing ’90s pre-teen trying to figure out how to play Street Fighter II for the first time — and when Rinus Gerritsen comes in on bass to sort of clumsily spar with him it sounds absolutely hapless. In this sense, the maniacal, full-throttle 16-minute marathon jam version the Byrds recorded live the following year for their (Untitled) album isn’t just a band finding spectacular new ways to explore their own work — it’s a necessary corrective.
Rufus Harley (1970)
I’m not sure if there’s ever been a more unlikely instrument to make its way into the world of jazz than the bagpipe. And if there has been, it’s unlikely that whoever played it did it in as transcendently surprising a way as Rufus Harley did with his. Harley had already familiarized himself with nearly every instrument in the woodwind family by his mid-20s, but it was the appearance of nine pipers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland’s Black Watch in John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession that gave Harley the musical epiphany to incorporate the bagpipe into his repertoire. He played that supposed incongruity to the hilt — he performed in both dashikis and kilts, and when complaining neighbors in his Philadelphia neighborhood called the cops on him for practicing too loud, his route for plausible deniability was telling the police, “Do I look Irish or Scottish to you?” But it’s not just the cultural crossover that seems unreal, especially compared to how it actually sounds to hear the bagpipe played in a jazz context: You can detect the affinity with clarinets and oboes in the notes, but there’s always that intense ambient drone in the background that lays an almost diabolically mournful tone under everything. Of course, that’s why it works — especially in a nod to the cosmic here, where a backing band working in a classic turn-of-the-’70s soul jazz idiom (and at a breakneck pace, at that) gives him a lot of room to play with the possibilities of the borderline atonal.
Leo Kottke (1971)
Leo Kottke’s 12-string fingerpicking style was so distinctly stirring as both a display of technical mastery and a calling up of American folk’s stranger ghosts that he made his way just fine for three albums as a purely instrumental solo guitar act. But Mudlark, his ’71 major-label debut for Capitol, was a radical change of pace, and not just because it was his first album with a full band: After the instrumental opener “Cripple Creek,” his version of “Eight Miles High” is where he starts to sound serious about being a singer. Kottke never much liked the sound of his own voice, which he infamously compared to “geese farts on a muggy day” in the liner notes of his 1969 debut 6- And 12-String Guitar. But this seems kind of harsh — at its best, his baritone has a no-bullshit resonance that lets its understatement work to his benefit. Not that it matters much, since his guitar playing was spectacular enough that he could mutter half-assed Borat impressions through a broken talkbox and still come away converting even the most folk-apathetic listener. Imagine Roger McGuinn’s Coltrane/Shankar/Szabo tangle-of-wires guitar-raga intro — also played on a 12-string — carefully pulled apart and rearranged to cascade in the breeze instead of careening toward deep space and you’ve got at least something of a notion — a foggy one, maybe, but one unbounded by the familiar riffs he happily avoids.
Neil Merryweather (1974)
It’s not quite accurate to call glam the hooky little bastard offspring of psychedelia — different drugs and all — but colorfully dressed tongue-in-cheek nonconformists heavy into sci-fi and hi-tech distorto-rock will always have at least a few things linking them across the void from one phase to the next. Winnipeg’s Neil Merryweather had one of those careers, building a discography throughout the ’60s and ’70s that mutated from psych to glam to hard rock to prog and back with little regard for format or niche — if the cape fits, wear it. Though his discography has some compelling sprawl to it, the two albums he and his band Space Rangers recorded for Mercury — 1974’s Space Rangers and 1975’s Kryptonite — are his two most pigeonhole-proof, and arguably his best, even if the label botched the marketing on them completely. Space Rangers in particular is a sort of glam-as-psych pinnacle, and his manic-but-sleek version of “Eight Miles High” is a stunner: Neil drops a bassline densely raw enough for Hawkwind-era Lemmy, that guitar dogfights in the exosphere with the most state-of-the-art synthesizers 1974 had to offer, and the falsetto harmonies sound like they’re not waiting for touchdown to arrive at their destination — they’ve got wings of their own.
Roxy Music (1980)
On from glam through disco-laced art pop, just a stone’s throw away from the ascent of acts like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, here’s Roxy Music. Sorry for the Top Of The Pops-style intro, but it’s worth thinking over the context of where Bryan Ferry and (increasingly sparse) company where at during the turn of an ’80s that was starting to look a lot more like them. Flesh + Blood was one of those commercial hits that turfed out critically — save an enthusiastic review from Greil Marcus, who hailed it as the comeback of “summer music” — and hasn’t earned much retrospective enthusiasm since, maybe because the Blitz Kids out of London were in the process of remaking and remodeling the Roxy sound in newer, more striking ways. With guitarist Phil Manzanera and oboe/sax player Andy Mackay the only other original core members besides Ferry in the band, Roxy’s “Eight Miles High” feels like it might as well belong on one of Ferry’s own cover-heavy studio-band albums, an outtake from The Bride Stripped Bare, maybe — except without that album’s post-breakup melancholy. Still, taken in isolation and without memories of Country Life or Siren interfering, it’s got a good-enough groove that disappointment doesn’t entirely have to go hand in hand with dislike. And hearing Manzanera and Mackay play that riff in tandem sounds pretty electrifying.
Hüsker Dü (1984)
Here’s an idea: What if the scenario played at in the lyrics of “Eight Miles High” was intensely terrifying? That first scraping guitar note drawing tight like piano wire around the neck, followed by a fusillade of noise 150% as fast and infinity-times as serrated as the original, and Bob Mould howling like he’s both defiantly demanding his survival and struck with pure horror at the same time: Nowhere is there warmth to be found/ Among those afraid of losing their ground. If you want to hear the difference between living and standing alone put into as breath-snatching a way as possible, this 7″ A-side that Hüsker Dü released might actually be (depending on your mood, the weather, and how down you are for “Something I Learned Today”) the most blistering example of what made them great circa ’84, as well as the greatest cover version out of all these. And while we’re still thinking about what we lost when Grant Hart passed, listen to the way he makes what’s an extremely demanding and proficient drumming technique sound like he’s just barely in control — it’s some real Philippe Petit highwire shit, and those blastbeats are the moments he stands on one leg, 110 stories above the ground.
Crowded House Feat. Roger McGuinn (1989)
There’s playing a cover, and then there’s playing a cover with one of the song’s original writers and performers sitting in. Thanks to a suggestion from their manager, previous Gotcha Covered subject Crowded House wound up with Roger McGuinn as their support act during the West Coast leg of their Temple Of Low Men tour in 1989, a meeting that McGuinn’s wife/manager Camilla recounted as a fortunate one. The members of Crowded House requested after their first soundcheck to join McGuinn onstage during the last few songs on his set so they could play some Byrds songs with him, despite it necessitating Crowded House arriving onstage before McGuinn’s set actually ended and supposedly making for an awkward segue of an entrance. But the performances went spectacularly, and Camilla quickly developed the habit of recording all of them for future reference — one of which, the second of two shows at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, was snapped up by a Capitol A&R and released as a set of bonus tracks on an EP release of their single “I Feel Possessed.” This hybrid group — who called themselves Byrd House, because of course they did — played this in their sets between “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” and they do such a bang-up job of capturing the original that it’s forgivable if the unaware actually mistake this for a performance from one of the Byrds’ ’89/’90 reunion concerts.
If the Hüskers’ post-psychedelic take on “Eight Miles High” was an interpretation based in breathless, cornered catharsis, Ride’s feels like the moment where you give into the tumult and start finding yourself in awe of it. Released in 1990 on the tribute album Through the Looking Glass – 1966, Ride’s version sloughs off the UK press’s early notion of so-called “shoegaze” as a self-absorbed pedal-fetishist exercise in introversion — it sounds, for all the world, like the sound of paying attention to everything around you but yourself. It’s faithful but modernized, more or less the idea of 1966 with the distortion capabilities of 1990, intense without necessarily being menacing. The wild bit: When they finish the third verse with more than a minute to go and figure out where they could take this whole enterprise without the benefit (or the crutch) of a fadeout. Eight miles turns out to be nothing but a decent start.