The Avant Hook: The Byrds, “Eight Miles High” (1966)

New and cool is one thing but avant-garde is something else. If a piece of popular music contained a hook that really sounded and kept on sounding like a challenging, exploratory leap outside the normal—rather an unlikely “if,” under the pop and hook norms of instant gratification and superfamiliarization—then we’d have a ready way of starting all over with music itself, rethinking what it might be, falling in love with it as a stranger. I propose to call this magic device an avant hook.

Mid- to late-60’s rock is the obvious place to look for bold experiments. Now thoroughly time-tested, most of them will have long since subsided into ordinary coolness, or embarrassment, or the status of a historical footnote. There are so many candidates that the first ten I think of may differ totally from the first ten that occur to someone else—except we would almost certainly both draw from The Beatles. I can’t pretend to determine the canon, but let me touch on a few categories of avant-opportunity to put the topic in some kind of shape.

Instrumentation.  The sitar (“Norwegian Wood”) soon became an accepted member of the rock family of voices. The theremin (“Good Vibrations”) did, too—an eccentric old sci-fi uncle later surrounded by synthesizer cousins. The genre-busting use of the London Bach Choir in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” did, in fact, open up the genre (consider “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”).

Recording and sound treatment.  Running the tape backwards (“Rain”) is now normal rock vocabulary. So are feedback (“I Feel Fine”), distortion (“You Really Got Me”), and flanging (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), though arguably these are all direct enhancements of what rock sound was always going for.

Lyrics.  Free-association notebook-dumping word-collaging (“I Am The Walrus”) is now commonplace—in indie rock, even expected. (There’s an element of choice here: you can either just have fun singing “Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe” or you can wander into strange places thinking about it.)

Meter.  Odd meter, as in the short measure of three beats alternating with measures of four in “All You Need Is Love,” can be stubbornly avant, though we tend to be impressed with how well it works in a rock context after all (as discussed in an an earlier post).

Parts.  The spoken “Number 9” loop in “Revolution 9” still seems so out of the grain of normal music that I would count it as an avant hook if it were in a real song. (This sort of nontonal ingredient is well accepted in fine art music since the 60s, but always with the effect of enlarging and then subdividing the domain of music—that is, it registers as an interesting item in a Music Sphere 2 outside normal Sphere 1.) The beautifully edited sound effects in “Good Morning Good Morning” I like a lot more, especially at the end (choosing to listen to this part as music, not as sound effects).

But what impresses me most now in this 60s riot of avant-reaching is another part—Roger McGuinn’s Coltrane-inspired 12-string guitar part in “Eight Miles High”—on the basis of its permanently strange notes. The notes are strange not because they’re dissonant (in fact they belong to modal scales) but because they’re frantically close together in time, expressing that urgent Coltranean ambition to touch all bases at once.[1]

“Eight Miles High” start

This element in “Eight Miles High” always gets called “psychedelic,” which somewhat obscures what is happening. “Psychedelic” is a kind of experience. It’s valued as an avant experience, to be sure, as it removes the conscious subject from the ordinary world to somewhere farther out. Music that’s weird in the right way, along with drugs and light shows and poetry ranting, can stimulate such experience. But the music being played is quite a different thing from a music-triggered experience—think of the difference between responding to it by playing air guitar and by contemplating the caverns of your soul. The avant hook is not the avant experience. It is what the composer, player, and producer have come up with. What knocks us out of the ordinary is being confronted with their unexpectable action.

Once those notes start spilling out so rapidly, playing air guitar is too difficult, but I’ve been brought onboard in action mode by that simplistic introduction in the first three measures, the Bump-Bum-BUM-bum-BUM-bum bass line and the deedle-ee, deedle-ee guitar line. I can’t help but do those things, and then the shock of transition from the easy to the hard seals the hook.


[1] See “Sheets of Sound” in Wikipedia.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Ways of Starting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Avant Hook: The Byrds, “Eight Miles High” (1966)

  1. Vick says:

    Good links!

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