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Most of this blog is related in some way to the music, books and films produced by Gonzo Multimedia, but the editor has a grasshopper mind and so also writes about all sorts of cultural issues which interest him, and which he hopes will interest you as well.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

How High Did the Byrds Fly?

Turns out the group were just six miles up when three of their members wrote their 1966 hit “Eight Miles High.” Here’s why the song title lifted them higher.

Quite a few years back, I was writing an article for a BJT sister publication on how airspace is organized. I recall musing about how altitude “layers” were assigned by aircraft types in the early days of flying. Small personal aircraft usually stayed below 12,000 feet; larger turboprop commuter liners dominated the “teens”; airliners tended to operate between 21,000 and 33,000 feet; and hot-rod business jets worked the heady altitudes above that, as high as 51,000 feet. My point was that all that categorization had since become obsolete, as aircraft of all types had grown more versatile over time.

Because I’m a 1960s-music fan, this retro-vision on airspace also got me thinking about the Byrds’ 1966 hit “Eight Miles High.” Most listeners assumed they were winkingly referring to drugs, at least as a double meaning, and I’ve no doubt that’s at least partially correct. But I did some arithmetic and wondered whether songwriters Gene Clark, David Crosby and Roger McGuinn were also subtly referring to a business jet ride. Eight miles high is 42,240 feet—definitely above airliners of the time and up where the early Lear Jet 23s flew.

I decided to investigate, using a then-fresh innovation called the Internet. Lo and behold, the Byrds had a website, but it contained no reference to the meaning behind the song title, other than disclaimers that it was absolutely not about drugs (wink, wink). Then I saw a little section of the site titled “Send Roger a note.”

OK, why not?

I explained to Roger (or more likely some lackey hired to read all his emails) that I was writing about airspace for a magazine called Aviation International News and I thought “Eight Miles High” would make a fun reference if, indeed, the song was about flying in a business jet—most likely a Lear Jet, which by then dominated the market and had become to bizjets what Kleenex is to facial tissue. (In the ’60s, the aircraft—named for company founder and colorful innovator Bill Lear—was still written as two words. It wasn’t compressed to the current “Learjet” until after subsequent corporate buyouts.)


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