‘They didn’t understand’: Roger McGuinn says jazz, not psychedelia, sparked Byrds experiments

Roger McGuinn doesn’t have a problem with people calling the early Byrds efforts “folk rock.” Just don’t label later experiments like “Eight Miles High” as “psychedelic.” There’s more to them than that.

As for folk rock, McGuinn says: “I think it’s descriptive. I don’t see anything wrong with it.” But he adds: “We didn’t want to be stuck in that category, that genre. So, that prompted us — once they’d labelled us — to experiment with jazz, with John Coltrane and with Ravi Shankar.”

And that’s how they got to “Eight Miles High.” The track was, in fact, the subject of a radio ban over supposed drug references — a situation that has been widely cited for its failure to reach the Top 10 in 1966. The song, written by Gene Clark, McGuinn and David Crosby and featuring a memorably frenetic riff, did become the Byrds’ third and final Top 20 hit.

“When we came up with ‘Eight Miles High,’ with that riff, we were trying to emulate Coltrane’s saxophone playing,” McGuinn says, in this talk at Monmouth University. “They didn’t understand that it was jazz inspired, so they called it psychedelic.” As for those so-called illicit undertones? “If you ask me what it’s about,” McGuinn adds, “it’s about a trip to England and the cultural shock we experienced.”

“Eight Miles High” was part of the Byrds’ third studio album, Fifth Dimension, which became the last to feature the late Clark.

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