The 20 Best Rock Anthems Of The 1960s
By | September 21, 2022
The 1960s were an era where music was changing drastically. In just a few short years electric guitars and bombastic drums overtook the quiet sounds of acoustic guitars and vocal groups, which means that every young person who picked up a six-string did their best to strum out a rock 'n roll anthem.
The following '60s rock anthems are in no order, they're just songs pulsating, groovy songs that we can't turn off whenever we hear them on the radio. From early mod-rock hits to destructive psychedelic tunes that continue to blow our minds, these rock anthems stand the test of time. If only we could hear them again for the first time...
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
This is the single that launched the Rolling Stones into the stratosphere and turned them into more than just another Beatles clone during the British Invasion. With "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," the Stones told audiences that they wanted more than to hold their hands.
Subtext aside, this song kicks you in the head from the first moment that the distorted riff spills out of your speakers. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like hearing this groovy track for the first time in 1965.
Listen: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones
Jimi Hendrix was from another planet. Sure, he may hail from Seattle, but his look, sound, and entire vibe was from somewhere outside the solar system. Released in 1967, "Purple Haze" is the second single from the Jimi Hendrix Experience and it's more than just a straightforward rocker. It's a song that creates an entire world for the audience to fall into.
Even from his earliest moments with the Experience, Hendrix was all about experimentation in the studio and onstage. This '60s anthem doesn't just make you want to stomp your feet. It makes the listener want to dig deeper and hear more.
Listen: "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix
Whole Lotta Love
If we're going riff for riff with rock bands in the '60s then there's no beating Jimmy Page's intro to "Whole Lotta Love." This entire track is built around the pulsating groove that opens the song and doesn't let up until the band and the audience is completely spent. According to legend, Page wrote the riff to the song while vacationing on his houseboat in the summer of 1968, although Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones claims that the whole song came from an on-stage jam during a performance of "Dazed and Confused."
Listen: "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin
John Fogerty and Creedence kicked out so many hot jams in their short career that it's hard to pick just one, but "Proud Mary" has had such a long life beyond its initial appearance on the group's second album, "Bayou Country." Written by Fogerty following his discharge from the National Guard, the song draws on southern stories that reach back to the 19th century. Rock music scholar Michael Campbell writes:
The song is a seamless mix of black and white roots music ...'Proud Mary' is, of course, a steamboat traveling up and down the river. Fogerty's lyric sketches out a vivid picture of the protagonist finding a comfortable niche in a community of outsiders ... The story connects back to Mark Twain; it brings the myth [of 'the rambling man and life along the Mississippi'] into the sixties.
Listen: "Proud Mary" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Born To Be Wild
"Born To Be Wild" stirred something within the American psyche when it was released in 1968. The call get to head out on the highway and look for adventure isn't just a cool set of lyrics, it's a set of words that speak directly to the heart of the American spirit. At the time of its release "Born to be Wild" was right in line with the new feeling breaking across the country.
In the late '60s, Americans were quitting their jobs, growing out their hair, and getting away from their small lives. Hearing the song today still makes us want to run free and not look back.
Listen: "Born to be Wild" by Steppenwolf
A Hard Day's Night
Even though the sound of The Beatles would grow and change over the years, "A Hard Day's Night" remains a rebellious anthem of the '60s. More than just the theme song to a movie about the lads from Liverpool, "A Hard Day's Night" is a tireless anthem about the need to cut loose when you've been run ragged.
In 1994, McCartney explained that the misspoken title comes from something Ringo said off-handedly one day:
The title was Ringo's. We'd almost finished making the film, and this fun bit arrived that we'd not known about before, which was naming the film. So we were sitting around at Twickenham studios having a little brain-storming session … and we said, 'Well, there was something Ringo said the other day.' Ringo would do these little malapropisms, he would say things slightly wrong, like people do, but his were always wonderful, very lyrical … they were sort of magic even though he was just getting it wrong. And he said after a concert, 'Phew, it's been a hard day's night.'
Listen: "A Hard Day's Night" by The Beatles
She's Not There
There's something so cool and off-beat about the debut single from The Zombies. Its jazzy vocal lines and swinging intro is so different than the rest of the music from the '60s that it's hard not to be enamored with "She's Not There." Not only is the vibe of the song different from a lot of music that was released during the decade, but the entire sound was something else. Why? It's likely because of the band's use of the Hohner Piano, a type of electric piano that's rarely heard on recordings these days.
Listen: "She's Not There" by the Zombies
They didn't create garage rock, but with "Gloria" the band fronted by Van Morrison blew the doors open on rock 'n roll. A simple pop song with an irresistible hook, "Gloria" would often go on for as long as 15 or 20 minutes thanks to Morrison's love of ad-libbing.
Luckily for the listener that amount of time isn't allotted on a vinyl single, which makes the 2:38 track the perfect way to get into one of the coolest sounds of the '60s.
Listen: "Gloria" by Them
Light My Fire
The Doors were a unique presence in the 1960s. They were a rock band for sure, but they also included elements of jazz and psychedelia not yet seen in music coming out of America. The thing that makes "Light My Fire" such a great anthem is the way that this very weird song manages to appeal to so many different sections of the audience in just a couple of minutes (or eight minutes if you're listening to it on the LP).
One of the more interesting things about "Light My Fire" is the fact that it was written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, not Jim Morrison, something that kind of drives Krieger crazy. He told Guitar World:
Jim had been writing all the songs and then one day we realized we didn't have enough tunes, so he said, 'Hey, why don't you guys try and write songs?' I wrote 'Light My Fire' that night and brought it to the next rehearsal ... It's always kind of bugged me that so many people don't know I was the composer.
Listen: "Light My Fire" by The Doors
Sunshine Of Your Love
There may be no other band that defines '60s English rock n roll like Cream. The band didn't last long, but "Sunshine of Your Love" persists across time as a crowning achievement of psychedelic rock. This song has shaped music in ways that we can't even comprehend, from the heavy riffs that continue to dominate rock music to the jungle-themed drum patterns that became a necessity in the 1970s. Poet and lyricist for Cream, Pete Brown says that the lyrics to the song are inspired by bassist Jack Bruce whipping out the monumental riff to this song:
We had been working all night and had gotten some stuff done. We had very little time to write for Cream, but we happened to have some spare time and Jack came up with the riff. He was playing a stand-up – he still had his stand-up bass, because he’d been a jazz musician. He was playing stand-up bass, and he said, ‘What about this then?’ and played the famous riff. I looked out the window and wrote down, ‘It’s getting near dawn.’ That’s how it happened. It’s actually all true, really, all real stuff.
Listen: "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream
Piece Of My Heart
Is there anything as soul-stirring as the moment when Janis Joplin sings, "Come on! Come on! Come on!" in "Piece of My Heart?" We'd argue no. No there is not. The goosebumps that we feel when Joplin hits that note are unique unto themselves. There's a longing and passion in her voice that is undeniable, but the song also just straight-up rocks.
"Piece Of My Heart" unfortunately became the biggest hit of Joplin's short career, and it helped to make 1969 the year when she went from a little-known San Francisco singer to one of the brightest stars in the world, all set to burn out before fading away.
Listen: "Piece of My Heart" by Big Brother & Holding Company
With A Little Help From My Friends
Like many of the most beloved songs from the 1960s, The Beatles are behind "With a Little Help from My Friends," but it's Joe Cocker's version that we're drawn to time and time again. Released in 1968, Cocker's version of the song re-arranges the original into more of a plaintive soul anthem about being down and out and looking to your friends for help when you need them most.
In 2014, Paul McCartney said of Cocker's stunning performance of his famous tune:
I was especially pleased when he decided to cover ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ and I remember him and Denny Cordell coming round to the studio in Saville Row and playing me what they’d recorded and it was just mind blowing, totally turned the song into a soul anthem and I was forever grateful for him for doing that.
Listen: "With a Little Help from My Friends" by Joe Cocker
Walk, Don’t Run
The Ventures may not be the first band you think of when you think about rock music in the 1960s, but they perfected the genre of surf rock beyond simple tunes plunked out on cheap instruments to virtuosic performances that still resonate today. While The Ventures have a ton of fantastic tunes under their belt, the fuzzed-out thrum of "Walk, Don't Run" remains a banger of the grooviest decade.
Listen: "Walk, Don't Run" by The Ventures
Time Has Come Today
Without a doubt, "Time Has Come Today" is one of the most well-known songs of the '60s. It continues to be heard in film, television, and commercials, but it's not just its commercial use that makes it an amazing '60s anthem. There's something soul-stirring about this song that makes us feel like everything is possible. Whether or not The Chambers Brothers were trying to get that across is a moot point, because this is one of the few songs from the '60s that makes us feel like we're living in infinity.
Listen: "Time Has Come Today" by The Chambers Brothers
Santana is more than just a rock guitarist. He's a soulful musician who combines rock, jazz, psychedelia, and whatever esoteric grooves he comes across into one big musical soup. "Evil Ways" is Santana's interpretation of a song by Willie Bobo, a Latin percussionist, but in the hands of the great guitar god of the '60s, this song becomes something else entirely. It's not just a track that fits within the grooves of a piece of vinyl, it's a magic spell conjured on wax.
Listen: "Evil Ways" By Santana
Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Initially written for Nina Simon in 1964, its reinterpretation in the hands of The Animals turns the song into a foot-stomping anthem of heartbreak. According to Eric Burdon, the lead singer for The Animals, "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was never something that they would have covered in a million years but the group fell in love with it the moment they heard it and knew that they needed to put their very specific touch on it.
In the hands of The Animals, this song has stood the test of time and remains a track that defines the modish, psychedelic sounds of the era.
Listen: "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by The Animals
It's safe to say that there are two sides to The Beatles - the fun-loving lads from Liverpool of their early days, and the thoughtful, challenging Beatles of the late '60s. "Come Together," the opening track on "Abbey Road" is the apex of the group's final form. This track moves along at a slow, grinding pace that draws in the listener as John Lennon sings about "toe jam football" and "walrus gumboot."
There are so many standout songs from the discography of The Beatles that can be considered anthems, but the refrain of "Come Together" explains itself as the reason it belongs on this list.
Listen: "Come Together" - The Beatles
In 1965, The Who cracked the world of rock 'n roll wide open with their vicious attack on the very idea of getting older. "My Generation" is a blast of youthful energy that only lasts for a few minutes but sticks in your head forever. Written about the idea of trying to find your place in society as a young person, "My Generation" doesn't pretend to be for everyone. With Roger Daltry's stuttering vocal lines and the uptempo power of Pete Townsend and company, this is a song from the '60s that remains as powerful as when it was released.
Listen: "My Generation" by The Who
The Stooges may have only released one album in the 1960s, but they made a stamp on the era with their wild performances and straightforward take on the psychedelic rock 'n roll of the era. Every song on the band's debut album is a hard-hitting smash, but "1969" is something else altogether. With its Bo Diddley drum beat and guitar line lifted straight from The Byrds, it takes acceptable rock 'n roll classics and turns them on their heads - which is exactly what The Stooges set out to do.
Listen: "1969" by The Stooges
(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
Initially recorded by Paul Revere & the Raiders, it was turned into an honest-to-goodness Top 20 hit by The Monkees. No matter which version you listen to, the song is the ultimate kiss-off track, and the fact that it thrums along with a killer groove makes it all the better. If you were a young person when The Monkees released their version of this iconic track you most likely heard it when the group was "romping" around in their episodes, but even if you're dyed-in-the-wool Gen Z it's impossible to deny the power of this song.
Listen: "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone": The Monkees