It should come as no surprise that we’re big fans of 60’s music here at The Fire Note. That decade not only produced some of our favorite bands and records of all time, but its influence can still be felt today.
We also enjoy finding the needle in a haystack—those albums we discover that not many people know about—so that we can then share them with you.
So without any further ado, here are 15 albums from 1966-69 we think any fan of the era should hear—and they aren’t the usual suspects…
When the Zombies dissolved in late 1967, lead songwriter/keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White still needed a way to express their musical selves. While they later became known for their hit single “Hold Your Head Up,” Argent’s 1969 debut is still very much in the Zombies vein, with plenty of vocal harmonies, catchy songwriting, and keyboard acrobatics—it’s no wonder they later went prog.
Key Track: “Schoolgirl”
Named for the cover of Simon & Garfunkle’s “59th Street Bridge Song” that appears on the album, Harpers Bizarre were indeed a strange band. Mixing the sunshine harmonies of the Beach Boys and The Mamas & The Papas with 1920s pop standards, musicals, and tracks from the likes of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, they were a one of a kind one-hit wonder whose back catalogue, and this, their most consistent album, are more than worth investigating.
Key Track: “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”
If you’re a fan of the original Nuggets compilation, you’ve probably heard the Remains via “Why Do I Cry” and their best slice of garage snarl, “Don’t Look Back.” Both of those tracks, and many other lost garage classics like the Dylan/Stones mashup “Lonely Weekend” or the thundering “Once Before,” appear on their sole LP. These guys opened for The Beatles on their final American tour—need I say more?
Key Track: “Don’t Look Back”
Picking up where Brian Wilson left off with Pet Sounds, the Left Banke’s debut is full of lush orchestration, gorgeous harmonies, and haunting melodies. While the entire album is excellent, there’s a reason it’s named after the two singles that spawned it. Heaven-like, classically-influenced pop on the “God Only Knows” tier.
Key Track: “Pretty Ballerina”
American GIs in Germany, dressed like monks (bald spot and all), in a band that has an “electric banjo” player—if you think The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat is a pretty wild record by 1968 standards, prepare to be blown away: Black Monk Time is the audio equivalent of an amphetamine-fueled bar brawl. Track names like “Shut Up” and “I Hate You” only hint at the angst in these grooves.
Key Track: “Complication”
Soft Machine were the driving force behind the so-called “Canterbury Scene,” a group of bands which also included Caravan, Gong, and others who played an eclectic blend of psychedelic, progressive, and jazz fusion. On their debut album, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge mix avant-garde sound collage with their own heady brand of psychedelic rock. It’s no wonder they frequently shared the bill at the UFO club with another little band called Pink Floyd, and opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience on their ’68 American Tour.
Key Track: “Hope For Happiness”
The brainchild of early Beach Boys collaborator Gary Usher, Sagittarius was a “studio band” in the style of Pet Sounds: orchestral arrangements and layers of vocal harmonies swirl into a dreamy wall of sound. There are only a few truly “psychedelic” moments, but they are classics—the avant-garde bridge of “My World Fell Down,” for example, or the trippy “The Truth Is Not Real.” Many of the tracks were sung by pop-producer/sonic-wizard Curt Boettcher, but more on him in a minute…
Key Track: “My World Fell Down (Single Edit)”
Everybody knows the Elevators’ legendary “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” and many psych fans also know their debut Psychedelic Sounds album. But the follow-up might be even better. Featuring tracks like the epic, eight-minute opener “Slip Inside This House,” a dreamy take on Dylan’s “(It’s All Over Now) Baby Blue,” and the blistering “(I’ve Got) Levitation,” Easter Everywhere is one acidic mind trip you won’t soon forget.
Key Track: “Step Inside This House”
Before he was aiming to be the next Beatles with ELO, and even before he joined The Move, Jeff Lynne was the mastermind behind psych-popsters The Idle Race. Fans of Paul McCartney’s “granny music” in the Beatles (“When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Maxwell’s Sliver Hammer,” etc.) should look no further. A concept album about a child’s birthday party with some of the catchiest hooks and appealing production this side of Abbey Road Studios, the Idle Race’s debut is a true lost pop classic.
Key Track: “I Like My Toys”
The ISB are one of the original “psych-folk” bands—by Hangman’s, their third album, the duo of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson had expanded their sound considerably, incorporating anything and everything with strings (and a few things without) into their wobbly, wonderful world. Traditional English folk melodies clash with earthy psychedelic arrangements and lyrics about minotaurs, witches, and amoebas, making for a totally unique experience.
Key Track: “A Very Cellular Song”
Prior to shortening their name, inventing glam-rock, and taking the world by storm with “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” Tyrannosaurus Rex were a psych-folk duo in the ISB tradition, and their early albums are often credited with launching the “freak folk” movement. Marc Bolan sings in his trademark bleat about wizards, unicorns and sea monsters over whimsical and strangely beautiful tunes that sound like they’re straight out of Middle-Earth.
Key Track: “The Seal of Seasons”
At the same time he was working on Gary Usher’s Sagittarius project, Curt Boettcher was busy assembling a pop super-group. Produced by Boettcher in conjunction with future superstar producer Keith Olsen, Begin is the epitome of late 60s sunshine pop (with a touch of psychedelia): the album packed full with stacks of harmonies, impeccable arrangements, and earworm melodies. It was a flop on release, but Columbia’s unprecedented $100K investment (in 1960s dollars!) was worth it from a music fan’s perspective: 60s pop doesn’t get any better than this.
Key Track: “To Claudia On Thursday”
After leaving his post as lyricist for the Beach Boys’ legendary SMiLE project, Van Dyke Parks went and created his own masterpiece. One of the most expensive albums WB had released up to that point (sound familiar?), Song Cycle is a truly unique album that is hard to describe—pop, rock, folk, psychedelia, baroque, avant-garde and traditional music create musical collage that serves as a cross-section of American music in the 1960s. Groundbreaking, bewildering at times, but NEVER boring.
Key Track: “Vine Street”
Tomorrow deserve to be in the top tier of 60s rock bands, and why they aren’t is anybody’s guess. Featuring a pre-Yes Steve Howe on guitar and genius songwriter Keith West on vocals, the band’s sole LP is a Revolver meets Sgt. Pepper classic, full of exhilarating psychedelic rock, sonic experimentation, and creativity. If backwards guitar, sitar, and unforgettable riffs appeal to you (and if they don’t why are you reading this?), get Tomorrow today.
Key Track: “My White Bicycle”
Okay, so this one might not be as obscure as the others, but as the inspiration for this entire list, it deserves a spot at the top. If all you know of The Zombies is “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There,” you only know the tip of the iceberg. Odessey & Oracle is a true classic, every single track an absolute masterpiece of 60s baroque pop. The album was mostly recorded at Abbey Road around the same time The Beatles were working on Sgt. Pepper, and it sounds like it. Now that you’re done reading this list, what are you waiting for? The Mellotron will be your new favorite instrument.
Key Track: “Care of Cell 44”
-Feature by Simon Workman