The 5 Most Influential Classic Rock Bands of the 1960s

The ‘60s was the decade that stamped rock music as a cultural force that wasn’t the flash in the pan its earliest critics insisted it would be. For a while, those critics were vindicated when rock and roll struggled at the start of the decade; this was due to many of the top ‘50s artists falling on hard times in one way or another.

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But a new phalanx of rock bands was just about to enter the battlefield—and change it forever. It’s next to impossible to narrow down the list of influential rock bands from the decade down to a chosen few. But we’re here to give it a shot anyway, with the bands listed chronologically in the order of their first album release.

1. The Beach Boys (1962)

The remainder of this list has an across-the-pond flavor, but the influence of the all-American Beach Boys must be acknowledged. Featuring brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, along with Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston, this was largely a family affair (Love was the Wilsons’ cousin).

[RELATED: 5 Deep Cuts from the Beach Boys]

The familial connection was most obvious in the group’s lush vocal harmonies. Yet The Beach Boys were also one of the first auteur-driven rock bands, led by Brian Wilson’s otherworldly musical acumen. This drove the band to expand upon their early surf-rock beginnings to explore territory that somehow became more soulful the more out-there it went. Pet Sounds set the tone for all misunderstood masterpieces to come, just as Smile would be the template for all heralded but unfinished rock projects that followed it. Add to the fact that The Beach Boys opened the door for a West Coast music scene that would dominate rock for the next couple of decades, and you can see why these guys had to be on this list.

2. The Beatles (1963)

Very simply, it’s impossible to imagine how the overall popular music scene would have transpired without the Fab Four. They set the standard in so many ways, and one of those ways that doesn’t get mentioned enough is their ambition. Had they simply settled for repeating the early success of their punchy pop singles, they still would have been legends. But they were a restless bunch, always interested in pursuing the next sound or the next idea.

Every time the rest of the music world seemed to catch up with them, they moved ahead again and forced another mass reaction. As a result, future artists would always have their example of boundary-pushing and experimentation in their minds, which helped push popular music forward long after the four men had moved on from the monolith that The Beatles, as an idea, had become. We’re all much richer for what they left behind, and we’re lucky other artists have such a high bar to shoot for when trying to match their impossible standard.

3. The Rolling Stones (1964)

They were positioned as a sort of bizarro-world Beatles when they first burst onto the scene, rude and sneering, where the Fab Four were polite and smiling; sloppy compared to neat; dangerous compared to genteel. A lot of it was nonsense, and the two bands had more in common than most realized at the time.

In fact, it wasn’t until the latter part of the decade when The Rolling Stones started to truly separate and embraced their true calling as elucidators and embracers of the seedier, grittier side of life. The turning point: the 1968 single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” where the Stones left behind their brief foray into the baroque and found their bluesy wheelhouse, one that would take them through a streak of increasingly masterful albums. If you wanted to be a rock star and preferred portraying harsh realities instead of lofty ideals in your music, you likely gravitated to the Stones.

4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967)

They only released three albums, and they feature two members who get somewhat lost to casual fans of rock history (though they shouldn’t—the contributions of bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell were integral to the success of Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland).

Regardless of their small output and short of amount of time together, the Experience had Jimi Hendrix leading the way, and it’s impossible to estimate the size of his footprint on all the rock music that followed in his wake. Even though there had been guitar heroes that preceded him in the genre, Hendrix simply blew up all existing boundaries for how the instrument could be used in rock music. No matter how many times you listen to the classic songs from those three records, you’re likely always surprised again and again by the unwieldy, thrilling paths of his lead lines. And that’s not to mention his penchant for bringing indelible riffs to the table whenever the mood struck him.

Let’s also not forget his ability as a songwriter to provide the stable (if trippy) foundations that would allow for his flights of fancy on the axe. The Jimi Hendrix Experience gave rock, and everyone who would play the music afterward, the gift of endless musical possibilities.

5. Led Zeppelin (1969)

Led Zeppelin barely slipped in under the wire for this list, as they released their first two albums in the final year of the decade. Such was the impact of those records that they just can’t be denied a spot. Zeppelin found a way to cohere the blues with the more melodic rock forms of the British Invasion and guitarist Jimmy Page’s studio wizardry to create something completely new. (Even the Stones couldn’t claim that, as their music was more of an amalgamation of roots forms than an advancement on them.)

It’s probably not accurate to credit Led Zep with the creation of the heavy metal genre, as their music was always a bit more limber than what bands like Black Sabbath would produce. But their version of hard rock was one that would be aped, but never quite duplicated, for all the years since that monumental one-two punch they released in ’69.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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