5 Classic Rock Songs That Defined the “Summer of Love”

Did the Summer of Love vibes inspire the wonderful music produced in the warmest months of 1967? Or did the music will the Summer of Love into existence? It’s a chicken-and-egg debate that probably won’t ever be properly settled. It’s best instead to talk about the music itself, especially in terms of the songs we immediately think of whenever someone discusses that magical time.

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This list could have been much longer if we listed every single iconic song that captured the public’s imagination back then. But let’s narrow it down to five of the tunes that best defined the Summer of Love—and let the arguments begin.

1. All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles

Who else but The Beatles would get the call to represent Great Britain in 1967 on the first-ever worldwide satellite broadcast? And who else but The Beatles would come up with a song so apropos to the moment as “All You Need Is Love?”

John Lennon rose to the occasion by writing the song, but The Beatles added to the degree of difficulty by recording it live as they played it on the broadcast. Some people might find the idea naïve, while others have spent their lives trying to follow in the spirit of that moment in everything they do. Lennon seems to be saying there is no need to worry about all the trivial aspects of life—everything will work itself out, he believes, if love is in tow. It’s not their most complex song and it’s not their finest performance (George Harrison’s brief guitar solo peters out before it’s quite done). But if you were to try to explain The Beatles’ overlying message to a stranger via one song, this would be a great choice.

2. “Purple Haze” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

The world at large was only just learning about what Jimi Hendrix was capable of when “Purple Haze” started to trickle out onto the airwaves in the summer of ’67. And maybe they weren’t quite ready for him—especially in America, where the single didn’t even reach the Top 60.

But “Purple Haze” burned a path through the music community, and gained Hendrix a massive amount of respect from other rock stars. After all, who wouldn’t be envious of what he could do? As a guitarist, he concocted an all-time great riff here while devising all kinds of squeals and squawks to color every nook and cranny of the recording (producer Chas Chandler played a big role here as well). The songwriting was idiosyncratic and uncanny, with the title phrase suggesting all kinds of images and possibilities. And Hendrix proved a captivating singer as well, fearlessly attacking the melody while still emanating an alluring aura. Listeners who wanted to kiss the sky as Hendrix instructs might have utilized some hallucinogenic help to do so, too, but all they really had to do was listen.

3. “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane

Grace Slick joined Jefferson Airplane in 1967 for their second album. In addition to bringing her mesmerizing stage presence and powerful vocals to the table, Slick brought along something else: material. She had written and performed two songs with her former band, The Great Society, that she then imported into Jefferson Airplane for their Surrealistic Pillow album. They would both turn out to be smash singles.

“Somebody to Love” was a typically driving rocker, but “White Rabbit” was something quite unusual, especially for AM radio. With a Spanish bolero beat and lyrics that borrowed from Alice in Wonderland, it wasn’t a song that one would have expected to hit big. But with Slick intoning it with a hypnotic intensity, “White Rabbit” drew listeners into her surrealistic story. It’s a tale about cutting loose of the older generation and their perceived useless solutions. Instead, it implores listeners to forge their own identity, even if it takes a scary journey to get there—a message to which thousands of youngsters could relate in ’67.

4. “Light My Fire” by The Doors

The Doors’ debut single, “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” was a bit of a dud at radio, meaning that a lot was riding on the buzzy L.A. quartet’s second shot at a hit. “Light My Fire” was a seven-minute behemoth on the band’s self-titled debut album. An edited version, though, which cut the band’s improvisational moments in favor of a lean-and-mean verse-and-chorus approach, was fashioned for radio.

And it worked. “Light My Fire” became a No. 1 smash for three weeks in the Summer of Love. In that shortened version, Morrison’s brooding intensity carried the load. But those who knew better grooved to the full version because of how it captured the band as a whole. And that was only right, since each member played a role in the creation of the song, with guitarist Robbie Krieger coming up with the original idea, drummer John Densmore driving the rhythm, and keyboardist Ray Manzarek delivering psychedelic majesty on the organ while Morrison helped with the lyrics. “Light My Fire” ignited a whole lot more fans for The Doors at an extremely competitive time in pop music history.

5. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum

It was christened “baroque pop,” the marrying of classical influences to rock song structures. And nobody did it quite as well as Procol Harum, with the apotheosis of their approach coming on their very first single.

[RELATED: Behind the Song: Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”]

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” is striking from its first moments, with Matthew Fisher miming Bach on the organ while the band settles in behind him. Procol Harum employed a lyricist in Keith Reid, who tended toward the cryptic; he conjures a series of masterful images that convey powerful feelings (even when they don’t make a ton of sense taken together). Singer Gary Brooker milks them for every last bit of soul he can. It’s fascinating that one of the most successful songs of the Summer of Love, which was noted for its freewheeling attitude toward drugs, seems to lament a night of losing control of one’s faculties. Maybe the fans didn’t notice the message, so lost were they in the beauty of Procol Harum’s creation.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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  1. Wow, Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” didn’t make the list? I can’t think of a song that more embodied the Haight-Ashbury vibe that swept across the country in the late 1960’s and, of course, defined the counterculture’s meaning for 1967’s Summer of Love.

    I’d also include Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” on the list.

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