I Played The Surf!

Len Cirelli played keyboards for the Rockin’ Ramrods from 1965-1968.

Heading south from Boston, I could smell the ocean and feel the sea breeze immediately upon turning off the highway heading for Hull, Massachusetts, and Nantasket Beach. The Surf Ballroom was located just beyond the tacky amusements and timeworn bars on the left, just across the street from the waves of the ocean. Driving past the old wooden roller coaster and merry go round, I could feel the excitement and smell the sticky pink cotton candy, steaming hot dogs and irresistible beach pizza.

Pushing through the heavy glass doors to the Surf, you walked up a small flight of stairs to a short landing and then up a large flight of stairs to the Ballroom. There was no elevator, but a myriad of musicians gladly lugged their own amplifiers, guitars, organs and drums up those famous stairs in pursuit of their dreams. Memory fades a little more each year, but I still vividly remember ascending those stairs; there was a coat room on the left, the dressing rooms and office behind the coat room, and there was a bar on the right which sold only soft drinks.

The Surf Ballroom was huge. The hardwood floor stretched out endlessly, bordered by just a few scant tables. Heavy blue curtains adorned the walls and provided a backdrop to the stage, which was five or six feet high and stretched the entire length of the back wall. There was no house sound system and no fancy lighting; bands who were lucky enough to play there had to supply their own, but no one really minded – it was all about the music then.

The first time I went to the Surf, I saw the Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” fame. That night the house band was The Rockin’ Ramrods. Little did I know that night that I would become a member of that very band. There was usually a line of locals out front but I got in pretty quick. The place was packed with what seemed to be at least 300 sweaty and swarming teenagers and it was nearly impossible to push my way through them to the stage, where I stood and watched the bands that, to this day, still play their music in my head.

The Ramrods played their set and looked so “cool” on the stage! Every guy in the place wanted to be on that stage. The Kingsmen came out and went right into “Louie Louie” – it’s ambiguous lyrics and pounding beat uniting the audience into one sweaty surge of teenage rebellion. Everyone of us, with or without a partner, danced until that ancient wooden floor succumbed to the sensation and swelled up and down unable to resist our beat. No one judged what the other was wearing, or whether their dancing was weird, or even whether they danced at all. Nothing mattered but the music, the mood, the mob. All anyone had to do was be there to enjoy the ambience and be swept away by the teenaged tide.

The only apparent attempt at security seemed to be a couple of old guys who worked in the office, and yet, in all the years I went to the Surf either to hear the music or to play there with the Ramrods, I don’t recall a single incident where security was needed; beyond one night when someone shot off a few firecrackers, I don’t recall there ever being any fights, drugs, or need to call the police. That was the magic of the music. Bill Spence, owner of the Surf and manager of the Ramrods, seemed to be an honest guy who, like anyone, wanted to make money, but also wanted the kids to have a good time. The Surf had a good reputation as being a safe place so parents had no problem dropping off their kids for a few hours of fun.

Over time, I got to see and play on the same stage as many groups who went on to claim their fame. The most memorable, for me, was the Doors. If I shut my eyes and let my memory run, I can still see a painfully young Jim Morrison in leather pants, humping the mike stand and looking stoned. Perhaps the most talented band I saw at the Surf was The Rascals. They were so impressive that I did not even want to play after they were on! Other groups I remember seeing included the Ventures, The McCoys, The Left Bank, Tommy James and the Shondells, The Turtles, The Swinging Medallions, and countless local bands “out of Boston” whose names may no longer be known, but who at least had their shining moments on the same stage at the Surf as the Rock and Roll greats.

Now the boardwalk amusements are gone and only a few rag-tag beer soaked bars remain. The Surf closed, and the grand old building changed hands many times and was forced to morph into many other uses over the years, but it was never again the vibrant and successful dance club it was when I walked it’s crowded floor and stage, but I know this for sure: beneath that building, buried in the ocean sand, are memories of faded and famous rock dreams, of romance, of good times we may never experience again except in our haunted dreams of youth. The Surf Ballroom is true and authentic Americana and should be honored in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In an era when conservative “ban the book Boston” had few places to offer where young minds and bodies could see the top rock bands of the day perform live, Bill Spence and the Surf dared to provide such a place and to promote the music and talent of that remarkable time in Rock and Roll history. I will forever feel privileged to have been a part of it all and will never miss the opportunity to say, proudly and nostalgically, “I played at the Surf.”

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