The swinging 60s might be more than half a century ago now, but their revolutionary impact still remains to this day. Whether you were Team Beatles or Team Stones, the two bands still stand as arguably the biggest this country has ever produced, but there were more to these years than just John and Jagger. From the hit machine and conveyor belt of in-house stars produced by Motown to the burgeoning, melon-twisting dawn of psychedelia, it was a decade of exploration and experimentation. Here are the tracks that defined it… Words by Matthew Horton, Tim Chester, Priya Elan. 100 best tracks of the ’60s – Spotify playlist
100 Send Me A Postcard
Dutch psych rockers Shocking Blue would score a US Billboard Hot 100 No.1 with 1970’s ‘Venus’ (covered so memorably by Bananarama 16 years later), but ‘Send Me A Postcard’ is a darker proposition altogether, singer Mariska Veres evoking Julie Driscoll or Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick as she hollers over fuzzed guitar and the obligatory swirling organ.
99 Ring Of Fire
This paean to the grisly aftermath of an unforgiving curry – or tribute to love’s steamy embrace, whatever you fancy – was written by Johnny Cash’s future wife June Carter with Merle Kilgore, and originally recorded by June’s sister Anita. Cash boosted it with the mariachi horns that give it its overriding, buoyant character.
98 I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)
The opening track on Lenny Kaye’s ‘Nuggets’, his essential compilation of late-60s garage and psych rock, ‘I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)’ was written by professional songwriting team Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz but musses up its classic structure with needling, distorted guitar from Ken Williams – recorded backwards – and a growling lead vocal from James Lowe.
97 My Girl
They might have done the gritty thing with ‘Ball Of Confusion’ and ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’ or tried overwrought testifying on ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’, but the Temptations song that gets reeled out most these days is this soppy, doo-wopping poem to a girl who makes everything all right. Written and produced by Smokey Robinson with Ronald White, it features David Ruffin’s first – silky smooth – lead vocal.
96 Twist And Shout
Written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns – later to produce Van Morrison’s early solo recordings – ‘Twist And Shout’ would of course become best known for The Beatles’ moptop-shaking version. Here The Isley Brothers continue their own shouting theme (after 1959’s ‘Shout’), taking The Top Notes’ ‘Shake It Up, Baby’ and giving it some welly, eventually climbing into the US Top 20.
95 Stop In The Name Of Love
From the immortal songwriting/production team of Holland Dozier Holland, ‘Stop In The Name Of Love’ got its title from a rather melodramatic plea to a girlfriend by Lamont Dozier. Whether she stuck around is hazy, but – after Berry Gordy requested the tempo be raised – The Supremes bagged a fourth US No.1 with the song as Diana Ross gave it her beseeching all.
94 To Love Somebody
‘To Love Somebody’ was originally intended for Otis Redding , but he died before he could tackle Barry and Robin Gibb’s latest masterpiece so the Bee Gees recorded it themselves. Although its chart performance was modest, the song has deservedly been covered on countless occasions by everyone from Jimmy Somerville to Leonard Cohen. That’s some vocal range.
93 White Room
Like many Cream songs, ‘White Room’ was written by bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce with the English poet Pete Brown. It was the lead single from the blues-rock supergroup’s third album Wheels Of Fire and sees them veering towards more expansive psychedelia, with Eric Clapton’s wah-wah guitar chattering away in the verses. It’s since been covered by The Vines and speed-metallers Helloween.
A chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic, the signature tune of Michigan-born rock’n’roller Del Shannon is instantly memorable for its “wah-wah-wah” vocal hook and the pizzicato rises and falls played by Shannon’s sidekick Max Crook on his Musitron or clavioline, a primitive synthesiser that also makes a distinctive appearance on The Tornados 1962 Joe Meek-produced No.1 ‘Telstar’.
91 The Witch
The debut single from Tacoma, Washington’s The Sonics is creepy as its title suggests, romping along on a honking riff intercut with frenzied surf guitar freakouts. Home state radio backing made ‘The Witch’ a major local success and allowed the band to chuck out a few more grimy garage rock sides before a split in 1968 and a place in grunge folklore.
90 Wooden Ships
Mellow as yellow custard, folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Wooden Ships’ hides its anti-war message in plain sight, drifting by on noodly guitars, caressed by Stephen Stills’ delicate organ-playing. Stills and David Crosby wrote the song with Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner and both bands released the song in 1969 as the Vietnam War reached its hopeless peak.
89 Tin Soldier
Perhaps it doesn’t quite get the props it deserves, but ‘Tin Soldier’ is a blistering shot of rock-soul that sounds meaty now – let alone in 1967. Written to woo singer Steve Marriott’s future wife Jenny Rylance, it was offered to PP Arnold who declined but turned up to the Small Faces’ sessions to add fire and ballast to the chorus.
88 She’s Not There
With the groovy panache of a jazz track, ‘She’s Not There’ gave St Albans rockers The Zombies a No.12 UK (and Top 10 US) hit with their debut single. Songwriter Rod Argent drives the song on with his electric piano while Colin Blunstone strains for the vocal as the song gives early warning of The Zombies’ accomplished pop skills, later realised on legendary album ‘Odessey And Oracle’.
87 So Long, Marianne
Laughing Len once sang in a honey-smeared pop register before trilbies and dodgy accountants had taken their toll. Here on his debut album ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’ he bids farewell to Marianne, his love and muse throughout the 60s, with a pristine bit of poetry and a typically stately and swinging folk-pop arrangement.
86 Bonnie And Clyde
Fresh from persuading Serge Gainsbourg not to release their version of ‘Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus’, Brigitte Bardot again teamed up with the oily old goat to release this wonderfully louche, hypnotic (and occasionally tuneless) tribute to the gun-toting outlaw couple. It’s been covered by sometime Go-Go Belinda Carlisle and sampled by Kylie Minogue.
85 Dancing In The Street
The story goes that Martha Reeves’ peerless call to party was actually an incitement to riot as black residents of Harlem fought pitched battles against white police officers in its month of release. But the dates don’t work and there’s too much joy in this kinetic blast of a record. It wasn’t even ruined by Mick Jagger and David Bowie in 1985. OK, it nearly was.
84 We Gotta Get Out Of This Place
A product of the Brill Building hothouse of pop songwriters, ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ was initially marked up for The Righteous Brothers, who would’ve got the brooding right but never had the grubby, throaty force Eric Burdon brings to the job, nor The Animals’ stealthy blues groove. In the end this just missed out on the UK top spot to The Beatles’ ‘Help!’
83 Bus Stop
This one came from the end of Graham Gouldman, later one quarter of 10cc, who was inspired by gazing at the – yes – bus stop on his way to work. It’s performed on a bleak scale by Manchester’s finest The Hollies but is an ever-turning song of hope about the nice young lady in the queue who, by August, “was mine“.
82 Cinnamon Girl
Neil Young’s first single with backing band Crazy Horse is a nice juxtaposition of the prim harmonies of Buffalo Springfield and Young’s later searing rock. While Young sings as politely as before, the guitars riff and buzz with menace, setting out a whole new stall. ‘Cinnamon Girl’ was later covered by Smashing Pumpkins and Motörhead.
81 I’d Rather Go Blind
The late, great Etta James had hit the skids by the late-60s, frittering away a decent career with a devastating heroin addiction – but there was enough faith in her voice to give her another go on her recovery. Working at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, James delivered ‘At Last’ and this, a real body blow of a standard that loses none of its emotional heft no matter how often it’s covered.
80 Eight Miles High
Originally called ‘Six Miles High’ in reference to the altitude of a commercial flight, ‘Eight Miles High”s less specific title had people thinking about drugs, and the song was duly banned in the States. Still, it’s a remarkable record, reminiscent of free jazz in its loose approach as The Byrds’ West Coast harmonic rock falls apart all around them.
79 Green Onions
The Stax house band found themselves with an iconic record themselves here, a simple 12-bar blues that thrives on in-built cool. Against the walking bass, it’s Booker T. Jones’s Hammond organ that steals the show, providing a slink that habitually pops up in adverts and movies including Get Shorty and American Graffiti. Anything that requires a swagger, basically.
78 Dazed And Confused
Led Zep’s debut album belter has a murky history. The writing credit might be axeman Jimmy Page’s, but it’s widely accepted that it was “inspired” by folk singer Jake Holmes’s song of the same name, that The Yardbirds – featuring one, um, Jimmy Page – used to play. Provenance aside, this intense brooder sees Page bowing his guitar as Robert Plant simmers with Black Country lust.
77 Where Did Our Love Go?
More Holland Dozier Holland action with a song first earmarked for Motown labelmates The Marvelettes, who turned it down. Their loss was The Supremes’ gain as the foot-stomping ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ made No.1 in America, No.3 over here and in 1981 got tacked onto Soft Cell’s Tainted Love to make a camp 12″ megamix.
76 For Your Love
Still a teenager, this was another 60s smash written by future 10cc-er Graham Gouldman in his downtime. More pop than the bluesy Yardbirds were used to, it was too much for purist Eric Clapton who left to join Bluesbreakers, but ‘For Your Love’ still has a frenetic power and an edge that suggests Clapton was hasty. He probably hasn’t looked back though.
75 Wild Thing
Chip Taylor – brother of US actor Jon Voight – wrote ‘Wild Thing’, which was originally recorded by The Wild Ones. But it was Hampshire rockers The Troggs who made a proper go of it, detuning the guitars, throwing in an ocarina solo and attacking it with Reg Presley’s growling bravura – all in the service of grabbing a US No.1 single.
74 Crimson And Clover
The bestselling single from the band that gave us UK No.1 (and later Billy Idol single) ‘Mony Mony’, ‘Crimson And Clover’ occupies a strong, silent place in rock history. It was billed as a change of direction for Tommy James and lives up to it, burning slowly but intensely with its tremolo guitar signature and James’s yearning vocal.
73 Build Me Up Buttercup
Co-written by then Manfred Mann singer – and also writer of ‘Handbags And Gladrags’ – Mike D’Abo, ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ is still a ubiquitous wedding and movie soundtrack favourite 40-odd years on. This is down to a striking, cod-Motown bounce, a hair-raising vocal from Colin Young and, yeah, that There’s Something About Mary outro.
72 Nothing But A Heartache
The Flirtations started life as The Gypsies before switching coquettishly in the mid-60s and trading the US for the UK in search of hits. They were signed up by Wayne Bickerton – later the svengali behind The Rubettes – and, after some near misses, clocked up a minor hit with this dramatic slice of Northern Soul, a Top 40 entry back in their native States.
71 Eleanor Rigby
Quite the switch in style after ‘Paperback Writer’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was released the same day as its parent album ‘Revolver’ and had ‘Yellow Submarine’ on the flip to lighten the mood – but it was a seismic shift on The Beatles’ part, dealing primarily in gloom, the banal, and underpinned by a severe string quartet. Some fascinating kitchen sink realism from Paul McCartney.
It’s hard to believe the (slightly craggy) Peter Pan of country Willie Nelson was around and writing this old standard at the start of the 60s, but there he was and here was Patsy Cline delivering the performance she’d end up remembered for, a raw, honest but understated turn that came just two years before her death in a plane crash.
69 Alone Again Or
This mysterious, mariachi horn-drenched kickstarter from fantastic 1967 album ‘Forever Changes’ was almost not on it at all. Bryan MacLean worked it up for Love’s 1966 debut album, but didn’t get around to completing it for another year or so – and this time he barely appeared on it, finding his vocal wiped in favour of Arthur Lee’s harmony lines.
68 A Change Is Gonna Come
Sam Cooke said ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ came to him in a dream, but it was a natural product of the times too – in particular Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered just a few months before Cooke recorded the song. Whether it inspired Cooke or not, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ is infused with the belief and determination of the civil rights movement.
67 I Can’t Explain
The Who’s debut single – if we gloss over The High Numbers’ ‘Zoot Suit’ – is built on a clean, metallic riff that has cropped up time and again in rock (and dance) music. Influenced by The Kinks’ ‘All Day And All Of The Night’, Pete Townshend’s choppy guitar has inspired The Clash and The Hives, while the song has been covered by David Bowie.
66 River Man
Not released as a single until 2004, ‘River Man’ was, in the troubled Nick Drake’s eyes, the centrepiece of his debut album ‘Five Leaves Left. It’s presented in a jazzy 5/4 time and with string arrangements by bandleader and arranger Harry Robinson – a composer of horror film scores and Lord Rockingham’s XI’s No.1 single ‘Hoots Mon’ –is exquisite and haunting.
65 The Tracks Of My Tears
Smokey Robinson was the quite the Motown mogul, becoming a VP after encouraging Berry Gordy to set up the label in the first place, then piling on hit after hit as a writer/producer and lead singer of The Miracles. ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’ is one of their most enduring songs, a chest-bursting ballad that somehow failed to make the US Top 10.
64 The Sound Of Silence
Sometimes ‘The Sounds Of Silence’, sometimes ‘The Sound Of Silence’, depending on which year you’re standing in, Simon And Garfunkel’s first US No.1 started life on the flop debut album ‘Wednesday Morning, 3am’ before being retooled for success without the duo’s permission by producer Tom Wilson. They didn’t complain about the results, and the song found its true resonance in 1967’s The Graduate.
Steamy and frantic, this funky cut from 1967 debut album ‘Are You Experienced?’ is just about as pop as Jimi Hendrix ever got. He lays on the lasciviousness, works up some groovy licks and spouts the smut while drummer Mitch Mitchell earns his wage with a clatter of rolling fills and general rabid hastiness. Covered in 1988 by Red Hot Chili Peppers, who could hardly have resisted.
62 House Of The Rising Sun
‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ was only The Animals’ second single but it made their name, topping the charts at home and in the US. Producer Mickie Most had selected this traditional New Orleans folk song – an unusual choice for a consolidating hit, but one which was handled in style by the weathered howl of Eric Burdon and Alan Price’s ebbing and flowing Hammond organ.
61 Unchained Melody
Hard to wipe that image of Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and the potter’s wheel in 1990’s Ghost, but ‘Unchained Melody’ was almost a cliché even as far back as 1965, having been subjected to numerous versions already. This is the lasting take though, pretty much a solo performance by Bobby Hatfield while the other Brother Bill Medley produced (although Phil Spector took the credit).
60 The Shirelles, Will You Love Me Tomorrow?
Imagine how racy this was in 1960, with a young girl considering whether to get it on with her boyfriend in an age of prurience yet to be wholly swept away from rock’n’roll. Its power and frankness – as well as it being a splendid song from the supreme pair of Carole King and Gerry Goffin – took it to the top in the US and kickstarted the girl group era.
59 Dance To The Music
‘Dance To The Music’ is a day-glo riot of pulsating horns, fuzzed-up guitars and zany organ, dressing up what’s essentially an “introducing the band” mid-concert jam. But the musicianship and full-force funk makes it transcend the throwaway, as Sly Stone, guitarist Freddie Stone, bassist Larry Graham and hornsmith Cynthia Robinson all get a go on lead vocals and sweep the world up in the fun.
58 River Deep Mountain High
Phil Spector put his all into this signature Ike and Tina effort – considering it his best work – only to see it flop in the States. The shock saw him bow out of the music industry for a couple of years, but ‘River Deep Mountain High’ still stands up as a formidable chunk of rock-soul, introducing Tina’s colossal pipes to a mainstream audience and doing tidy business in Europe even if it stalled at home.
57 Summer In The City
New York proto-hippies The Lovin’ Spoonful achieved a US No.1 with this epic, whipping up some urban heat with close, minor-chord verses before bursting free with a tingling chorus. It was actually written by non-member Mark Sebastian (brother of TLS singer John) along with bassist Steve Boone and was treated to a vast cover from Isaac Hayes in 1995.
56 What A Wonderful World
A UK No.1 single in 1968, ‘What A Wonderful World’ found a new, memorable lease of life in the 1987 Robin Williams movie vehicle Good Morning, Vietnam – but it so nearly never fell into Louis Armstrong’s hands. The veteran bandleader and jazz trumpeter was second choice to Tony Bennett, but he ‘made it his own’, delivering a song of hope to a backdrop of domestic upheaval.
55 In My Life
Is it a harpsichord? Is it a half-speed electric piano? Is it… actually, yes, it’s a half-speed electric piano. One of George Martin’s few purely musical contributions to the Beatles canon adds a strange, but successful, touch to John Lennon’s understated piece of whimsy about his childhood – in Lennon’s view, the most mature piece he’d written by that point.
54 (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
That towering riff – for one thing, it came to Keith Richards in a moment of clarity after briefly coming round from an alcoholic stupor; for another, Richards always planned to replace it with a horn section. In the meantime he hepped up his riff with a fuzzbox to keep it warm until the real players came along. Well, thank goodness they never did.
53 Bad Moon Rising
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s sprightly Cajun blues was apparently a bit of soothsaying inspired by recent political occurrences. Singer John Fogerty claims he wrote it the day Richard Nixon won the presidency, and that it was designed to reflect the unease in the air. Prescient indeed. Over here record buyers saw it as a jolly pop tune and sent it to No.1.
52 Psychotic Reaction
Teenage garage rock crew The Count Five used to stride out on stage dressed as Count Dracula (geddit?) before laying waste to their output including this seminal tune. Based around the dirtiest of fuzzy riffs and piercing harmonica, ‘Psychotic Reaction’ moves from glam stomp to psych wig-out and was highly regarded enough for rock critic extraordinaire Lester Bangs to name a book after it.
51 People Get Ready
Featuring Curtis Mayfield on glorious lead vocals and sparing, funky guitar, ‘People Get Ready’ is a calm and spiritual call to join the fight – be it for civil rights or simple religious salvation. Trading lines with Mayfield is tenor Fred Cash, and there are strings and brass arranged by Chicago soul producer Johnny Pate to create a gorgeous love train that’s leaving today.
Shocking in both its lyrical frankness and its musical sparseness, ‘Heroin’ was Lou Reed at his most cliff-edge doomed and romantic. Spitting the lyrics with a bit too much realness, the music spins into a frenzied “high” aided by Moe Tucker’s jiggling percussion and John Cale’s freakish viola. Hauntingly brilliant.
49 Jumpin’ Jack Flash
According to legend this track was inspired by Keith Richard’s gardener (along with the effect of quaffing too much acid ), The Stones’ ‘…Jack’ was led by Richards’ propulsive, open tuned guitar riff which he likened to “levitation.” Meanwhile Jagger’s vocal was the perfect blend of bullish and petulant.
Proto-Krautrock duo the Silver Apples flew miles ahead of the pack with this stunningly unique track. Aided by a rudimentary synthesizer and a non-traditional song structure, ‘Oscillations’ appropriately enough, spoke of the beauty of the new, in an effortlessly forward- looking way.
47 I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better
Led by Jim McGuinn’s distinctive 12-string Rickenbacker, and Gene Clark’s pitch perfect lilt, this was originally the b-side to ‘All I Really Wanna Do’. With its gentle jangle and angelic harmonies this track set the template for all future alt-country jams.
46 Some Velvet Morning
Like an American version of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, Nancy and Lee were a sultry pairing who radiated with danger and mysterious sexual allure. No less than on the mythology referencing ‘Some Velvet Morning’ which has gone on to become a much covered alternative duet (perhaps most famously by Primal Scream and Kate Moss).
45 Waterloo Sunset
A shimmering slice of 60s Britannica which honed in on a vision of the capital via the narrative grace of Ray Davies. Dave Davies’ lilting guitar chords corralled the tale of “Terry and Julie” (Terence Stamp and Julie Christie) and future histories yet to be written with a waltz-like grace and a timeless charm. Everyone from Blur to The Libertines owes a reasonable debt to this slice of wistful British storytelling.
44 Venus In Furs
Based on the counter-culture novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the VU’s tale of S&M curdled with its own bedraggled charm, thrusting forth with John Cale’s droning viola and Lou Reed’s dully ceremonial vocal. Gothic before “goth” existed.
43 (Reach Out) I’ll Be There
Penned by Motown dream-team of Holland/Dozier/Holland, Levi Stubbs sang this track with an urgency which was said to mimic Bob Dylan. The result was a Motown classic that pulsated with the knowledge of the depths of desperation and loneliness which found its beating, soulful heart beneath in the broad swells of the music.
42 I’m A Believer
Penned by Neil Diamond and played by session musicians, ‘I’m A Believer’ was a brilliant slice of 60s boyband pop, claiming its rightful place atop the US Billboard charts for seven glorious weeks. A cheery bolt of daydream escapism, amongst a background of social upheaval.
41 Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag
Following a legal battle with his label King Records, a reinvigorated James Brown re-emerged revitalized. Showcasing his new, JB Horns assisted new direction with a slick funk loop, the song would signal a new turn not just for Brown but for R’n’B music as a whole.
40 See Emily Play
With its use of backwards tape, reverbed piano and hop-scotching rhythms this track was a psychedelic masterpiece from the tie-dye pen Syd Barrett. A scrambling epic, the truth of “Emily”’s existence ( was she real or just a hallucination?) was never revealed, adding to the track’s infamy.
39 You Can’t Hurry Love
Based a gospel song (‘You Can’t Hurry God’), this provided The Supremes with their seventh number one and became a signature Motown track. Written and produced by the in house team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the shimmering song was their attempt to re-construct the previous Supremes hit ‘Come See About Me’, but the joyous results were above and beyond those limitations.
38 Then He Kissed Me
A Phil Spector co-write and production, it featured his legendary ‘Wall Of Sound’ stylings. The innocent, fairy tale romance nature of lyrics that cradled at young love like a Disney movie (Spector was helped by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry) so touched Brian Wilson that he covered the track with The Beach Boys two years later in 1965.
37 (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher
Originally done by vocal group The Dells, Jackie Wilson re-recorded the track in Chicago with members of the Motown in house band, The Funk Brothers. For many, it’s the epitome of a “feel good tune” with it’s sunny backing vocals, chugging guitars and Wilson’s ecstatic vocals, so happy that he’s found “The One.”
36 White Rabbit
A heady bolero that divvied up Alice In Wonderland references with not-so-subtle winks at drug assisted mind expansion. Grace Slick perfectly captured the mid-60s hope that narcotics could change perceptions and the world. A counter-culture classic.
35 Time Of The Season
The closing track on seminal 1968 LP ‘Odyssey And Oracle’, ‘Time Of The Season’ was perhaps The Zombies finest moment. Although the band broke up shortly after this song’s release, the arid R’n’B stylings of this track would live on decades after their demise. Inspired by Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and the very real Summer Of Love, it was anchored by Colin Blunstone’s coolly soulful vocals and Rod Argent’s galloping keyboard solo.
34 Stand By Me
A hymn-like universal anthem which King penned with songwriting legends Leiber and Stoller, that was not only later to be covered by Jimi Hendrix but also used for the classic coming of age film of the same name and would become a by-word for 50s nostalgia.
33 You’re Gonna Miss Me
A rip roaring slice of garage rock, this classic was made by Rory Erkison’s squawking vocal style and harmonica solo. The result was spine-tingling and urgent, it would later feature on the ‘Nuggets’ compilation and with its dizzying energy was way ahead of its time.
A lover letter to a real life dancer and traveler but also to the ethereal beauty of Montreal, this track began as a poem (‘Suzanne Takes You Down’) before being recorded by Judy Collins. Forthright and literate with a flowery orchestration from producer John Simon, Cohen’s definitive version appeared on the troubadour’s classic debut ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’.
31 Wichita Lineman
Penned by Jimmy Webb (who also wrote ‘Galveston’), this was another tale of blue-collar blues. Framed by producer Al DeLory’s wistful orchestration, Campbell’s honey-soaked croon perfectly captured the sadness of a long distance telephone lineman.
30 The Weight
Inspired by the films of Bunuel and quasi- Biblical in its lyrical bent, ‘The Weight’ became an anthem of American counterculture (see its use in Easy Rider and later Girl, Interrupted). Dylan’s backing band charmed generations of drifters with this future country-rock classic.
29 Louie Louie
By the time The Kingsmen came to record their version ‘Louie Louie’ was already a firm cult classic. Originally written by Richard Berry in 1955, The Kingsmen put the track through the inner garage band grinder and created this walloping jive. As the ultimate stamp of grungy approval it would later be squished into submission by Iggy Pop.
28 Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay
Recorded just 6 weeks before his death and released posthumously, this track was Redding looking back at a life that had seen him move to San Francisco from Georgia to seek stardom. Its reflective mood was retrospectively haunting and the whistling solo was a happy accident – Redding meant to finish the lyrics before his fateful plane crash.
27 Gimme Shelter
Released at the butt end of the 60s, Jagger and Richards captured the changing moods of the time, as race riots, Charles Manson and Vietnam had soured the hippie dream. A stabbing at their infamous Altamont gig added an extra dimension of bitter twang as the soulful crisis of the track signaled the end of an innocent era.
26 My Generation
Taking in a timeless sense of youthful disaffection via a countercultural, Mod lens, Pete Townshend’s age-defying ditty distilled what it feels like to be young, energised and in the prime of life into 3:18 minutes of bristling hedonism. According to legend, Who manager Kit Lambert suggested that Roger Daltrey stuttered in order to sound “like a kid on speed.” Either way, it’s still a clarion call for a youth in revolt.
25 For What It’s Worth
Stephen Stills’ famous protest song is not, as many mistakenly believe, an anti-war missive. Instead it was penned in reaction to the police shutting down various clubs on the Sunset Strip, enforcing strict curfews and inciting several riots. That it’s been re-appropriated as a soundtrack to the chaos of Vietnam just proves the incendiary power of what is really quite a sedate track.
24 She Loves You
From the frantic tumble of toms and urgent harmonies of the ten second intro onwards this track doesn’t mess about. Two and a half minutes of world class pop later and it’s gone, but in your head forever. While any number of The Beatles’ early tracks could sit pretty in this list, ‘She Loves You’ has a taut, economic charm that wallops you upside the head and scarpers before you know what’s hit you.
23 Son Of A Preacher Man
It’s hard to believe that this perfect soul pop nugget was turned down by no less than Aretha herself, but following Dusty’s sultry take on the track she was quick to correct the error of her ways. It was too late, however, as Ms Springfield’s slinky horn-packed effort had already written itself into the history books. Nice bell work on the cymbals too.
22 Kick Out The Jams
It’s easy to underestimate the raw power and sheer importance of the Motor City Five, who let’s not forget were writing punk tracks seven years before the Pistols. Less breaking boundaries than headbutting them into submission, the MC5 exploded into a clueless ’69 with their debut album of the same name, and this nitrous calling card would stamp firm their legacy forever.
21 You Really Got Me
Trying to trace the roots of heavy metal? Many musicologists trace them to the red raw chords of this track, the ludicrously heavy third single from The Kinks and the one that sent them stratospheric. Unleashed in 1964, at a time when even The Beatles were still trading in ‘Eight Days A Week’-style pop hits, this track was a sexually-charged bolt from the blue that still sounds as vital and untamed 50 years later.
20 Space Oddity
We were sure Rick Wakeman wouldn’t make it anywhere near this list, but here he is, sat behind the Mellotron for Bowie’s classic early single. “Ground control to Major Tom” it begins, introducing the world not only to the first of his many characters but in many cases to the man himself. An evocative, inventive and timeless masterpiece.
19 A Whiter Shade Of Pale
Hammond organs, Milton-inspired lyricism (“trip the light fandango”) and nods to Bach might not seem the perfect recipe for a hit, but 1967 was a more forgiving place than 2012, and Procul Harum’s debut single was a mega, mega hit. Since covered over 1,000 times, it’s the most played song in public places as well as the most played song on British broadcasting ever.
18 I Want You Back
Originally planned as a backing track for Gladys Knight and the Pips, this slice of songwriting perfection caught the ears of Motown producer Berry Gordy as the ideal vehicle to catapult his new group into the world. And from the opening piano slide onwards introductions don’t come much better.
17 These Boots Are Made For Walking
With the backing of The Wrecking Crew (including the twin electric and double bass lines of Carol Kaye and Chuck Berghofer that give the track its distinctive sliding runs), Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood created a classic. Since covered by everyone from Megadeth to Jessica Simpson.
While Otis Redding originally had a hit with this track in ’65, it would take two years, a phenomenal soul voice, some backing “sock it to me”s and a formidable “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” breakdown to really set the track on fire. Two Grammys and countless covers later and it’s entered our musical lexicon as shorthand for girl power, soul power and, well, respect.
15 I Wanna Be Your Dog
Has disenfranchisement ever sounded as guttural, raw, and downright cool as this? Heavily distorted guitars, incessant piano stabs and of course Iggy’s desperate drawl combine on one of the most visceral tracks laid to acetate. Throbbing, pounding, and dripping with latent energy it epitomises the lurid appeal of The Stooges at their very best.
14 Paint It Black
On which pounding drums, Jagger drawl and the first sitar to feature on a Number One record combine for an indie disco favourite for now and all time. One of the few tracks composed by Nanker – Phelge, which was the collective pseudonym the Stones used when all five of them – Jagger, Jones, Richards, Watts and Wyman – contributed to the writing (and more importantly shared the royalties).
13 Whole Lotta Love
Is there a track in the world as gloriously filthy as this? The writhing and riff heavy opener to Led Zeppelin’s best album (‘Led Zeppelin II’) never received a UK single release but shifted millions of copies in the US. Theremins, drum solos, saucy sex-obsessed gasps – on paper in shouldn’t work. But this is Led Zep, so of course it does.
12 God Only Knows
This song fires twin darts at your heart from the beginning. A maudlin French horn heralds the start before those timeless words “I may not always love you” pin you to the wall. You’re at Brian Wilson’s mercy from then on as he tips out tumbling drums and sweet harmonies relentlessly for the next three minutes. Simon from Biffy Clyro has the lyrics tattooed across his chest and it’s Paul McCartney’s favourite song, which say it all.
11 California Dreamin’
It’s a simple idea, really. I live in New York, which is cold and sucks, and I’d be warm in LA. As with all great pop, though, it’s the way you express it, and with the help of producer Lou Adler (and an additional flute break) The Mamas and Papas turned a wistful thought into one of the greatest pop tunes ever.
10 I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Smokey Robinson did it first. Gladys Knight followed him up, while Creedence Clearwater Revival turned it into a brilliant folk rock freakout. The Slits, meanwhile, post-punked the shit out of it. Marvin’s is The One, though. Released initially against the wishes of Motown man Berry Gordy, its lyrics are an embittered document of an infidelity, but its vocals are pure honeyed, Marvin sweetness. Misery never sounded so good.
9 Like A Rolling Stone
In 1965, Bob Dylan was about to pack it in. Having finished an exhaustive tour of England he’d lost interest in the music game, but the creation of this track – one of his finest moments made even better with Al Kooper’s signature organ line – reinvigorated his love for music. Of course the six minute monster went on to become a worldwide hit and one of the most influential pieces of music of all time.
8 Suspicious Minds
Yet another sterling pop track based on a dysfunctional relationship, Elvis’ final Number One was initially a flop for another songwriter, Mark James. It took a 4am – 7am session at Tennessee’s American Sound Studio with Chip Morman to birth The King’s final calling card. This sped up live version is one of the all-time great performances.
7 Sympathy For The Devil
‘Beggars Banquet’’s opener was Jagger and Richards at their finest; the former swiping bits of Baudelaire for a dance with the devil and the latter suggesting it be set to a samba rhythm. “Please allow me to introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste”. As invitations to the dancefloor go, they don’t come more compelling.
6 I’m Waiting For The Man
Mid-1967, as the Summer Of Love approached, and The Small Faces’ got ready to meet their Nice, over the pond the Velvets were tripping up to Harlem to score $26 worth of smack. A prosaic and somewhat depressing trip turns irrepressibly chic in their hands, however, and this standout from their eponymous debut would eventually become a signature song.
5 Leader Of The Pack
The Shangri-Las were a cut above most early ‘60s girl groups, a bit more aloof, a bit cooler, a shade more chic, and it was hard for teenage boys to hear this tale of a cool, renegade motorbike gang member who gets Betty against her parents’ wishes without wanting to be him. Until he died in massive accident, that is. Tragic storytelling at its succinct best.
4 All Along The Watchtower
Such a great cover of the Dylan classic that Bob himself tweaked his own version upon hearing it, Jimi’s guitar epic had a slow and painful gestation period. Bassist Noel Redding got fed up during the sessions and walked out, and Hendrix redid his guitar parts umpteen times, moving from four track to eight track to 16 track as he went. His pain, our gain.
3 Good Vibrations
While the charms of this track are obvious upon exposure, its studio legacy is just as important. Thanks to Brian Wilson’s fervent experimentation, endless takes and overdubs, a pretty hefty cash injection from Capitol, and of course that electro-theremin, ‘Good Vibrations’ really showed producers in 1966 – and in every year since – what could be achieved within those soundproofed walls.
2 Be My Baby
Brian Wilson probably won’t mind sitting pretty one stop below this track – he thinks it’s the finest pop song ever written. The greatest exponent of producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, this sugar-sweet, heart-busting hit by The Ronettes was a true collaboration between producer and muse (singer Ronnie Bennett and Spector would later marry). Wilson reportedly listened to this track 100 times a day, and thanks to its irresistible charm and deceptive simplicity, it wouldn’t be much of a hardship.
1 A Day In The Life
If there’s one year that sums up the sixties the best, it’s 1967. And if there’s one, prolonged moment that epitomises the spirit and feeling of the decade, it’s the summer of ’67. And if you had to distill the entire ten years’ worth of musical endeavour into one album, it would be The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.