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Best 60s Bands: 15 Legendary Groups That Shaped Rock Music
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List & Guides

Best 60s Bands: 15 Legendary Groups That Shaped Rock Music

Across an astonishing ten-year period, the best 60s bands made some of the most pivotal developments in rock music.

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It’s difficult to refute claims that the 60s was a golden decade for music. An astonishing period in history, it not only saw credible pop enter the mainstream for the first time, but it also proved that music could be an art form with the power to change the world. It all began with The Beatles, Merseybeat and the British Invasion – yet, as it transpired, that was only the beginning. As the decade matured, so did the music, with pop gradually giving way to progressive-minded rock, and visionary records such as The Beatles’ Revolver and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds shifting the focus from singles to albums. From then on, new genres such as psychedelia, hard rock and prog all produced a litany of glittering stars, which makes compiling a list of the best 60s bands a challenge. Read on and see if you agree with our choices…

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out the best 60s bands, below.

15: Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd would develop into one of rock’s biggest acts during the 70s, but they achieved so much during their formative years that they warrant inclusion in any self-respecting list of the best 60s bands. Initially fronted by the mercurial Syd Barrett, the Cambridge quartet quickly found success, their dark, whimsical psych-pop chiming with 1967’s Summer Of Love and resulting in both the band’s debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and their glorious second single, See Emily Play, both going Top 10 in the UK.

As Barrett struggled with fame and chose to withdraw from public life, his bandmates brought in guitarist David Gilmour, and Pink Floyd changed direction. Issued in 1968 and 1969, respectively, the albums A Saucerful Of Secrets and Ummagumma chronicled the group’s shift from psychedelia towards the atmospheric, prog-rock sound with which they would make their fortune during the 70s.

Must hear: See Emily Play

14: The Monkees

The 75 million records they sold worldwide means that, based on their commercial yield alone, The Monkees deserve to be rated among the best 60s bands. Yet the US quartet had to fight for their credibility. Effectively one of the music industry’s first “manufactured” bands, the four group members – Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz – were brought together in 1966 to star in the NBC sitcom The Monkees, and the songs they recorded were initially provided by such Brill Building songwriters as Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, under the auspices of Don Kirshner, head of the group’s record label, Colgems.

Controlled by Kirshner and featuring the cream of the era’s LA-based session musicians, The Monkees’ initial releases (the singles Last Train To Clarksville and the Neil Diamond-penned I’m A Believer, and the albums The Monkees and More Of The Monkees) all topped the US charts, though the band members would eventually gain some control of their music, recording self-penned material on their acclaimed third album, Headquarters. The Monkees’ popularity waned after their TV show was cancelled, in 1968, but they secured their legacy with the release of their wonderfully satirical leftfield movie, Head: a cult classic written and produced by Bob Rafaelson and a pre-fame Jack Nicholson.

Must hear: Last Train To Clarksville

13: The Stooges

The Stooges initially made little impact outside of their native Detroit, Michigan, but their immense influence on future generations more than brokers their inclusion among the best 60s bands. The result of legendary frontman Iggy Pop’s desire to marry the different strands of the music he loved (the tough urban blues of Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker; the no-nonsense anthemic thrust of garage-rockers such as The Kinks and The Sonics), The Stooges’ self-titled, John Cale-produced 1969 debut album effectively drew the blueprint for punk with its dirty, repetitive guitar riffs, nihilistic attitude and desire to go out on a limb.

These qualities ensured the album initially flew under the radar, but The Stooges – and it’s follow-up, Fun House – was later cited as an inspiration by artists as diverse as Alice Cooper, David Bowie (who co-produced The Stooges’ third album, Raw Power, and would help launch Iggy Pop’s solo career in the mid-70s), Sex Pistols, The Fall and Joy Division. Indeed, the best Stooges songs remain seminal anthems of disaffected youth, with No Fun, I Wanna Be Your Dog and Little Doll still causing nascent bands to make amps bleed to this day.

Must hear: No Fun

12: Fleetwood Mac

The later (and better-known) incarnation of Fleetwood Mac – featuring Stevie Nicks and the much-missed Christine McVie – made its mark on the 70s and 80s thanks to the enduring quality of such multi-million-selling blockbusters as Rumours and Tango In The Night. However, these colossal records shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that, in a rather different guise, Fleetwood Mac had already experienced the peaks and troughs of fame before becoming one of the best bands of the 70s.

In the latter days of the 60s, the group was a rather different beast. Though still underpinned by the stalwart rhythm section of John McVie (bass) and Mick Fleetwood (drums), the Fleetwood Mac that made their live debut at the Windsor’s National Jazz & Blues Festival, in 1967, was primarily blues-based. This first in a long run of Fleetwood Mac line-ups also featured two guitarists and composers, Jeremy Spencer and the group’s prodigiously talented, if mercurial, founder, Peter Green, with a third – Danny Kirwan – enlisting during 1968.

Brilliant, if volatile, this version of the group nonetheless made albums (their self-titled debut, 1968’s Mr Wonderful, 1969’s Then Play On) and classic singles (Man Of The World; the blissful, chart-topping instrumental Albatross; Green’s sinister The Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown)) which secured their reputation as one of the best 60s bands long before Green quit in May 1970.

Must hear: Albatross

11: Grateful Dead

Can any other of the best 60s bands really hold a candle to Grateful Dead when it comes to embodying the idealism and countercultural aesthetic of that remarkable decade? That’s surely a rhetorical question, for the legendary San Franciscan outfit, led by guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia, went their own sweet way right from the start.

Making their live debut at one of Ken Kesey’s infamous Acid Tests in San Jose, in December 1965, the band were at the very heart of the hippie movement, openly supporting the usage of LSD and encouraging their loyal fans, known as “Deadheads”, to bootleg their concerts as they pleased. On stage, the Dead were renowned for indulging in lengthy, often free-form jams, but they could be more succinct on record. Their self-titled 1967 debut album reflected the band’s blues roots, while their classic 1968 single Dark Star – extended into a true tour de force in concert – and the band’s gold-selling third album, Aoxomoxoa, traced a growing confidence and accessibility which would blossom on Garcia and company’s rootsy early 70s classics, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

Must hear: Dark Star

10: Sly And The Family Stone

Led by the brilliant, if unpredictable, Texan-born Sylvester Stewart (aka Sly Stone), San Francisco’s Sly And The Family Stone are unquestionably one of the most groundbreaking outfits among the best 60s bands. The first major American rock act to feature a racially-integrated, mixed-gender line-up, they formed late in 1966 and pioneered a potent “psychedelic soul” sound all their own, blending elements of soul, funk, R&B, rock and psychedelia.

Regulars in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 during the late 60s, with evergreen hits such as Dance To The Music, Everyday People and Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), the Family Stone also released critically-acclaimed albums such as Life and 1969’s excellent Stand!, which married hard-hitting social commentary with a dynamic pop sensibility. Arguably one the biggest bands in the US by the end of the decade, they played rapturously-received shows at both the Harlem Cultural Festival and at Woodstock during the summer of 1969, and retained their popularity during the early 70s thanks to further landmark releases such as 1971’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and 1973’s Fresh.

Must hear: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

9: The Kinks

First breaking through in 1964, with aggressive, R&B-influenced rock hits such as All Day And All Of The Night and the chart-topping You Really Got Me, The Kinks initially seemed like North London’s answer to the Merseybeat craze instigated by the rise of The Beatles. However, after frontman Ray Davies developed his highly individual style of songwriting, The Kinks found their own voice and went from strength to strength.

In parallel with a string of era-defining hits such as Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Sunny Afternoon and the sublime Waterloo Sunset, the band released a string of terrific albums, from 1966’s Face To Face through to 1969’s Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire), all of which were stuffed with brilliantly observed songs reflecting the British way of life both past and present. All the above served to cement The Kinks’ reputation as one of the best 60s bands, though inspired further releases, including Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One and Muswell Hillbillies, ensured their imperial phase spilled over into the 70s.

Must hear: Waterloo Sunset

8: The Velvet Underground

Like The Stooges, The Velvet Underground sold precious few records during their lifetime, yet if this list of the best 60s bands was to be based purely upon cool factor, then this singular New York City quartet, led by Lou Reed, would surely sit at its apex. It didn’t hurt that the Velvets had the patronage of Andy Warhol, yet the music the group made was truly astonishing on its own terms.

Reed could draw on his past as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records when dreaming up gloriously melodic songs such as Sunday Morning, Pale Blue Eyes and Sweet Jane, but he also fearlessly tackled taboo subjects such as drug use (I’m Waiting For The Man, Heroin) and S&M (Venus In Furs), while his multi-instrumental wingman John Cale had no qualms about dragging the band ever deeper into avant-garde territory on the likes of Black Angel Death Song and the terrifying, 17-minute Sister Ray.

Then still an unsung hero, Reed quit the group following completion of their fourth album, Loaded, but the Velvets’ passage to cult status began in earnest after the mainstream success of Reed’s second solo album, the David Bowie- and Mick Ronson-produced Transformer, with the likes of Joy Division, The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Smiths and many, many more later singing the praises of a group who remain the epitome of rock’n’roll cool.

Must hear: Sweet Jane

7: The Who

Ray Davies wasn’t the only ambitious young, London-based singer-songwriter to emerge in the aftermath of the initial British Invasion of 1964-65. Indeed, to the south-west of Davies’ Muswell Hill manor, in Shepherd’s Bush, The Who’s Pete Townshend – then barely pushing 20 – had already written several of his band’s career-defining songs, among them I Can’t Explain and My Generation.

Like The Kinks, The Who also drew upon R&B and soul influences, yet while they will forever be associated with the 60s mod movement, Townshend and his team developed on their own terms. Classic (and often provocative) singles such as the blistering I Can See For Miles and the masturbation-related Pictures Of Lily served notice of Townshend’s intent, but it was the transatlantic Top 5 success of The Who’s fourth album – the audacious, double-disc rock opera Tommy – which forever set in stone The Who’s reputation as one of the best 60s bands.

Must hear: Pinball Wizard

6: The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Jimi Hendrix was so prodigiously talented that it’s tempting to say he would have been a superstar regardless of who he played with. However, all the best 60s bands required a special chemistry to make such a seismic impact, and, in that respect, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was no exception. They had a head start with the charismatic and virtuosic Hendrix out front, but it’s unlikely their music would have taken off so quickly without the help of jazz octopus Mitch Mitchell on drums and the underrated Noel Redding playing the crucial anchor role on bass.

Indeed, it was their almost supernatural understanding of each other that allowed the three musicians to cut their classic early singles (Hey Joe, Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary) and their landmark first two albums (Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love) in just a matter of days. With hindsight, it’s also telling that Hendrix struggled to make things gel with both the expanded band he later employed at Woodstock and with his short-lived Band Of Gypsys project; he assembled a new line-up of the Experience (with a returning Mitchell and Billy Cox replacing Redding) during the final six months of his tragically short life.

Must hear: Purple Haze

5: The Doors

In a 1968 interview with The New York Times, The Doors’ frontman, Jim Morrison, famously described his band as “erotic politicians”, and there’s no doubt that the legendary Lizard King’s sex appeal and photogenic good looks did his band’s profile no harm whatsoever. Ultimately, though, The Doors were about more than one individual. Indeed, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore were responsible for the virtuosic, jazz-inflected psychedelic music that framed Jim Morrison’s highly literate lyrics and gave the group their edge. Prior to Morrison’s fatal final sojourn to Paris, in 1971, The Doors racked up one of rock’s most covetable catalogues, with all six of the original four-piece’s studio albums, from their seminal, self-titled debut album of 1967 through to their formidable swansong, 1971’s LA Woman, providing numerous examples of the group’s collective command of rock’n’roll at its most erudite, sensual and inspirational.

Must hear: Light My Fire

4: The Beach Boys

Due to the fact that they already had a strong identity and a string of hits to their name (Surfin’ USA; Surfer Girl; and Fun, Fun, Fun among them), The Beach Boys were one of the few homegrown US acts able to retain their commercial foothold during the British Invasion. However, while their songs had thus far reflected Californian youth culture’s love of surfing, cars and romance, the group proved they were in it for the long haul with 1965’s The Beach Boys Today!, a mature, orchestrated work which reflected the ambition of the band’s visionary sonic architect, Brian Wilson.

Indeed, Wilson was on a roll creatively, with The Beach Boys’ next release, May 1966’s audacious, widescreen Pet Sounds, widely regarded as his band’s masterpiece. The album contains many of The Beach Boys’ best-loved songs (Wouldn’t It Be Nice; Caroline, No; God Only Knows), and it’s now widely regarded as one of the greatest pop albums of all time. However, Wilson was stung by Pet Sounds’ lukewarm reception in the US (it peaked at No.10), and his declining mental health forced him to relinquish much of his control over The Beach Boys’ creative decisions. Despite further critical success with early-70s albums such as Sunflower and Surf’s Up, the group would never again hit such heights. But with sales of over 100 million records worldwide, their inclusion among the best 60s bands is mandatory.

Must hear: Good Vibrations

3: Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin undoubtedly experienced their greatest success in the 70s, but it was the phenomenal work they put in during the last 18 months of the 60s which cleared the path for their take off and subsequent ascendency to rock-god status.

The group still weren’t officially known as Led Zeppelin when they made their live debut, in Gladsaxe, Denmark, in September 1968, yet just weeks later they were helping forge the template for heavy metal with their seminal, self-titled debut album. Fast-forward a few months more and Led Zeppelin were already on their second US tour, headlining cavernous venues such as San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in the spring of 1969, and by October that same year they were topping both the UK and US charts with their multi-million-selling second album, Led Zeppelin II, which featured one of the best Led Zeppelin songs of all time, Whole Lotta Love. When all that is taken into account, you can only reach one credible conclusion: Led Zeppelin’s place among the best 60s bands really has to be reserved at all costs.

Must hear: Whole Lotta Love

2: The Rolling Stones

Though the likes of The Kinks and The Who also made a good fist of it, only one of the best 60s bands were really capable of stealing The Beatles’ crown. Though starting out as blues purists on the London club scene, The Rolling Stones gained significant ground on their chart rivals after frontman Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards’ songwriting partnership blossomed, resulting in self-penned mid-60s smashes such as The Last Time, the Eastern-flavoured Paint It, Black and the iconic, fuzzbox-driven (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

Beginning with 1966’s Aftermath, the Stones also established themselves as serious album artists as the decade continued, and while they were (perhaps unfairly) derided for their psych-pop odyssey Their Satanic Majesties Request, late-60s masterpieces Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed brought the group right back into contention. Their decade ended in turbulence with the death of multi-instrumental founder member Brian Jones in July 1969, a tragedy followed by the murder of fan Meredith Hunter at the band’s disastrous free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway, in December of the same year, but the Stones weathered the storm and remain a going concern to this day, despite the loss of founding member and drummer Charlie Watts in August 2021.

Must hear: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

1: The Beatles

The Beatles may have come from the humblest of beginnings, and it took them more than half a decade of toil to make themselves household name, but when they did, they went – to use John Lennon’s famous quote – to “the toppermost of the poppermost”. Indeed, the Liverpudlian foursome went on to become one of the most influential bands of all time, with their music not only shaping the course of the 60s, but also leading to the recognition of pop music as a legitimate art form.

We could spend all day listing the band’s achievements, but suffice it to say that it’s probably the speed of The Beatles’ artistic development which remains especially astonishing. The very fact that John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and, to a lesser extent, George Harrison) wrote their own songs was almost unprecedented in the early 60s, but that they were regularly writing songs to the standard of Please Please Me, She Loves You and A Hard Day’s Night immediately set them apart. However, even then it wasn’t a given that The Beatles would mature into the band capable of making albums such as Revolver and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – revolutionary records combining rock, psychedelia and a level of songwriting sophistication that has rarely been matched since.

As has been documented to the point of overkill, it finally went pear-shaped, and The Beatles split early in 1970. By then, however, the group had asserted their place among the best 60s bands, and they’re still the act all great pop groups try to emulate today.

Must hear: A Day In The Life

Looking for more? Check out the best 60s songs.

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