When Rock Ruled Lowell: Remembering the Commodore

It’s now a parking garage at the Mill City’s Gallagher Transit Terminal. But that same Thorndike Street property was once the site of the Commodore Ballroom, the epicenter of the Merrimack Valley’s rock ‘n’ roll universe.

During its famous (and sometimes infamous) heyday, a jaw-dropping variety of acts performed on its stage, including the Doors, Neil Diamond, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, the Kinks, Rod Stewart, the Young Rascals, Woodstock heroes Ten Years After, Jeff Beck, the Kingsmen (of “Louie, Louie” fame), the Byrds, Vanilla Fudge, the Animals, Jethro Tull and many others.

How is that possible, you ask? Back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, before rock went corporate, the Commodore was part of a “ballroom” circuit of rock clubs that included the Boston Tea Party and the Casino Ballroom in Hampton Beach. The Commodore was an easy ride from Boston and an obvious choice for a “next night” gig after playing in the Hub.

The spot, originally known as the Kasino dance club when it opened in 1924, had also hosted a variety of big bands during its initial years, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington. During that era, the room was also known as “The Sink,” and one can assume that was not meant in a good way.

But for local rock fans back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Commodore was a place to see and hear some remarkable music.

When Cream, led by Eric Clapton, performed there on April 6, 1968, for example, the power trio laid down a 90-minute set comprised of maybe a half a dozen songs that was stunning in its musical virtuosity, imaginative improvisations and sheer volume and power.

The Yardbirds dropped into the Thorndike Street venue in January of 1967 and had future Led Zeppelin mastermind Jimmy Page in its lineup.

The Commodore also had a major impact on the careers of both Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart. Stewart was a member of Beck’s band when they played in Lowell during August of 1969. The two had a major blowout, Stewart stormed offstage and Beck finished the night by blowing away the audience with a show of fiery guitar pyrotechnics.

The group broke up shortly thereafter, just two weeks shy of Woodstock. If they hadn’t had that tiff in Lowell and stayed together long enough to play Woodstock…

The room closed for a spell in the early ‘70s and eventually morphed into Mr. C’s Rock Palace, where a new generation of rock acts, including Cheap Trick, the Ramones, and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes found a home.

But times had changed and the Lowell Sun reported that in 1981 alone police made 132 arrests on the premises. A 1982 murder in the parking lot sealed Mr. C’s fate. It closed that same year.

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  1. David Arsenault says:

    whoever wrote this article about The Commodore there is some inaccuracies about the dates when some of these groups appeared in the 60’s. I know because I was there playing with the house band Little John and The Sherwoods and there is no mention of us when we were the ones that built the crowd up to it’s capacity many nights and opened for all of these recording artist back then.

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