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In the early ’60s, Ralph Fatello walked the shoreline of Lynn with his father. As they traveled Nahant Beach, a tropical storm loomed. Not long before, Fatello had seen black and white footage of surfing on television, and he eyed the coast. “I was freaking out about wanting to move to Hawaii,” Fatello recalls. “My dad said, ‘If you had a board, you could actually surf those waves.’”
For those familiar with the northshore town of Lynn, Massachusetts, it may come as a surprise that the city of sin, where you never go out the way you came in, could serve as a source of inspiration to the natural world. It’s part of a region that brags about being the home of roast beef sandwiches.
But it’s also a part of the coast that’s surprisingly surfable. From Swampscott to Nahant to Revere Beach to Hull and Nantasket Beach, you’ll find a number of surfsites providing actual, if inconsistent, beach breaks.
Today, Fatello is 67 years old and has been surfing the Boston area and his current home of Hampton, New Hampshire, since 1964. It’s the same year The Beatles came to America, and the year Fatello decided he wanted a surfboard and a guitar. Along the way, he’s documented five decades worth of surf scene on camera, and straddled Boston’s surfing and punk subcultures.
The cross-section of punk and literal surfing isn’t something we talk about too often in Boston, despite the amount of bands we label as “garage rock” or “surf punk” or “surf-influenced garage.” Bands like Beware the Dangers of the Ghost Scorpion! align themselves through twang and straight riffage. Others like Black Beach or Atlantic Thrills are evocative in nomenclature. Providence’s Neutrinos titled their EP Surf Cult and, in typical winking fashion for the band, pose on social media with a boogie board and sunglasses. The current bands, and countless more on both the local and national level, rip and shred — but we don’t worry about if surf punks actually surf. And to be fair, we’re not exactly conducting polls.
Part of this is because from the very moment rock and surf famously cross-pollinated, any search for authenticity has been sort of besides-the-point. Fatello points to when surfing spread to New England, in the early-’60s; when who rode the waves wasn’t actually as important as the songs about the coast itself.
“Everything came together with the surf craze and The Beach Boys,” says Fatello. “Although only Dennis [Wilson] surfed. The rest were kooks. That’s not a derogatory term per say, it’s just a term for someone who can’t surf. The funny thing about surfing is you start out as a kook and end up as a kook. You can’t get to your feet fast enough.”
Still, the culture of surfing has long held a salty appeal, even for those less interested in the physical efforts. New England may be far from palm trees and crystalline tropical waters, but the urge to hit the waves — or make like we hit the waves — has a long-running history in our music scene.
“That vision of cinematic beachiness is wedged in all our minds and surf music does something to unlock that,” says Eric Penna of Boston-born, California-based band Trabants. “The timeless mystery of moody songs, led by reverb drenched guitar melodies touches people on an emotional level. That’s also why we have surf music in Boston. Because, let’s face it, compared to SoCal, Boston is basically Moscow, right?”
Fatello played in a number of bands through the ’70s and ’80s (and still plays music today), and he’s known primarily for his band VINNY (pictured up top at the Rat; photo by Jerome Higgins courtesy of Fatello). But Fatello also played guitar on The Gremies’ record “No Surfin’ in Dorchester Bay”, released in 1980. Bandmates included Richie Parsons and Frank Dehler of Unnatural Axe, and Jeff “Monoman” Conolly of Lyres.
For the album cover’s now-infamous artwork, shot by Kathy Chapman, Fatello had to teach Parsons how to stand on a surfboard. Fatello joked he wondered if he’d get some sort of disease stepping in the water.
“We went to Tenean Beach in Dorchester,” recalls Parsons. “And the first thing Ralph said was, ‘This isn’t a beach, that’s not sand, and why are there pigeons here!?’”
Parsons also pulled his brother Moose into the band, on sax. “We practiced a short set of material once or twice and played twice, then Boston Rock reported our plane had gone down over the Neponset River and we all perished,” says Parsons.
The short-lived band was his first time playing with anyone other than Unnatural Axe.
“They wanted to have a legitimate surfer in the band, that’s why they asked me,” Fatello says. “Richie didn’t know how to stand so I had to say, ‘You bend your back leg, stand like this.’ Richie was such a freaking kook that he spelled gremmies wrong on the record. He had it with one ‘m.’”
Fatello decodes the surfspeak: “Gremmie is a young surfer. Today they call young surfers groms. Back then you were a gremmie. There were gremmies and ho-dads. Today it’s groms, grommets. Little grom.”
If you were to take a look through The Surfin’ary: A Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak, compiled by Trevor Cralle — and we highly suggest you do — you’d find that a vast majority of “surfspeak” is designed to differentiate between surfers and the norms. Basically, it’s a gatekeeper of a culture consumed by signifiers of secrecy. The tome defines ho-dads as: “1) a derogatory term for a nonsurfer, 2) a surfer who rarely goes in the water but still talks, acts, and dresses as if he were a minor god of the sport, 3) a greaser, sort of a hot rodder with long hair and sideburns, 4) a street person as opposed to a beach person.”
The fourth definition calls to mind the music video for one of Boston’s best almost-had-it-all bands, The Blackjacks, and their 1984 release “Dreaming of Saturday Again.” In the video, the band charges across Mingo Beach in Beverly, Massachusetts, clad in black tanks and skinny black pants, brandishing their guitars and bass at each other like weapons, snarling into the camera while surf crashes behind them.
Fatello directed the music video. “I did that thing for like, $300 or $400. Those guys had never been out in the sun before,” he says. “I thought I’d have to perform CPR if they all had heatstroke.”
Despite the fact that he knew many surfers, Fatello doesn’t seem particularly surprised that there wasn’t more crossover between the two worlds. “If you want to surf around here, you really have to suck it up and deal with the elements,” says Fatello. “It’s not for everyone. And there was this really territorial scene happening in the ‘70s. They don’t want you surfing ‘here,’ this place is ‘secret.’ Really heavy stuff going down. People surfed in the same spots they do now and to this day, there’s still this ‘secret’ element. They don’t want you to expose or pinpoint where they’re surfing.”
Yet, Fatello himself didn’t mind bringing surfing into music. “I would even have surf-themed parties at The Rat,” he says of the long-gone Kenmore Square punk haven, now the site of a luxury hotel. “We’d put surfboard on the stage, even though none of the guys in my band surfed. When I was playing out a lot, I didn’t go to sleep. Sometimes your last set was at two in the morning. If I knew there was surf and I had to get up [to Hampton], I’d just stay up those extra two hours and surf until sunrise, then come back to Boston and sleep the day away. I was like a vampire.”
For years, New England surf went largely unappreciated. “We were like the north pole, according to the surf world,” Fatello says. “Whatever California was doing, we mirrored it as the source of what was hip and not hip. Whatever they were listening to, riding, whatever wetsuits they wore, we copied it. It ended up being the wrong thing to do because we emulated them so much; but then we realized our waves are different. We needed boards shaped to conform with our surf. We got our own identity around the late-’70s and early-’80s. Today, all the big companies look towards New England. They look at us like, these guys are pioneers, because of the extreme conditions we surf in.”
One of the pioneers of New England surf lived further south in Rhode Island. Sid Abruzzi, 66, established himself as the “godfather” of East Coast surfing when he opened his surf shop, Waterbrothers, in 1971 — the same year he was arrested for a refusal to stop surfing in Newport. Abruzzi pursued legal action against the ordinance, leading to the legalization of surfing at Ruggles Avenue. The style of boards he sold at Waterbrothers helped New England surfers find their identity.
Like Fatello, he also had a foot in both worlds. “Sid was a full on punk singer,” Fatello says of Abruzzi. “You couldn’t pick out a single lyric, it was all madness. He was tattooed, head-to-toe, he always had long hair. He called himself The Package. I’m sure he’s still a punk singer today, blowing his lungs out. Rhode Island was a surf punk scene.” Abruzzi’s band, Big World, formed in 1981. They would go on to open for both Iggy Pop and the Tubes.
One of Fatello’s other bands, Semper Fi, broke ground in their own right when they became the first music video to feature surfing on MTV. “The surfing wasn’t great, but it was me surfing in Hawaii,” says Fatello. “My girlfriend shot it on the same camera I shot the Blackjacks video on.”
It may seem initially unlikely that the first musician to use surfing in a music video came out of Massachusetts, but Fatello insists it’s true. “[The video] was actually written about in Surfer magazine,” says Fatello. “Sam George, who did Riding Giants, was the editor of Surfer magazine. I met him with some surfers in the Caribbean in 1978 or 79 and we became friends. They were all interested in the rock and roll scene and punk scene here. They thought it was hilarious. It was when the Dead Boys were around and there was a big article in TIME magazine.” (The article, 1977’s “Anthems of the Blank Generation”, focused in part on the punk scene at The Rat.) “People were wearing slabs of beef around their neck. I never personally saw that, but they were so into hearing about the scene. We became friends and he knew I was in a band. I thought it was ironic no surfers from California or Hawaii had thought to use surfing in a video. I was the first one.”
By that point, Fatello had moved away from the aggressive punk sound of VINNY and embraced different styles, influenced by the “romantic, ’80s sound” and Bryan Ferry. Today, he mainly plays blues-based rock. He still surfs, having surfed every day for a year on both his 50th and 60th birthdays for fundraisers, and is making a documentary on female surfers in the northeast. This Friday (August 25), Fatello — a Vietnam vet — hosts his tenth annual Wounded Warriors benefit event at The Wall in Hampton. While he says he may have evolved musically from the “whole three-chord thing,” surfing has never lost its appeal.
“I don’t get tired of seeing a wave,” says Fatello. “As a surfer, you’re meeting a wave at the end of its life. At the peak of its life. It has a beginning, a growing period, but then it hits the reef and does something beautiful. Other sports, soccer, football, it’s the same field over and over again. Our field is constantly changing. It’s a fluctuating lifestyle. To be a surfer, to be a man or a woman, you have to be able to drop what you’re doing and go surfing.”
Featured VINNY image, performing at the Rat in 1979, by Jerome Higgins, courtesy of Ralph Fatello. Follow Fallon Masterson on Twitter @MasterFallon.