What Remains?

This article originally appeared in Trouser Press Collectors’ Magazine issue 9 (January/February 1980).

By Dean Johnson

No one pays much attention these days when a Boston band makes the charts. Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band destroyed the myth that the city couldn’t produce serious rock bands, and paved the way for the Cars, Boston, Willie Alexander, the Real Kids, New England, DMZ and James Montgomery.

But Boston wasn’t always a rock hotbed. For years it had a reputation as a folk city (it is, after all, next to Cambridge) with rather puritanical tastes and mores. Its rock scene lagged a little behind other cities’, but the beginning was easily discerned.

The Remains were that beginning.

The Remains. Now there’s a band everyone has heard about, but few know a great deal about them: four Boston college students who formed a band in 1963 to play straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. Their energy and wild exuberance was unmatched by any American band at the time, and surpassed by only a couple of English bands.

The Remains were Barry Tashian (guitars, vocals), Vern Miller (bass), Bill Briggs (keyboards, harmonica) and Chip Damiani (drums, later replaced by N.D. Smart II). At first the band was a trio: Tashian, Miller and Damiani. Tashian, a native of Westport, Connecticut who was attending Boston University when he organized the group, was its focal point; people even called them “Barry and the Remains.”

Jon Landau (who later saw rock’s future — and his own — in Bruce Springsteen) was one of many Remainiacs. “Lead guitarist Barry Tashian,” Landau wrote, “is to me a consummate, complete white rock ‘n’ roll musician.” Tashian was (and “remains) an amazingly versatile and inventive guitarist. He could sing lead while playing an entirely different figure on guitar; he also handled shattering rhythm work, tossing in devastating riffs or furious solo breaks. Tashian favored Fender Telecasters and went after stabbing, jagged staccato notes to build rhythm and tension.

Vernon Miller had been an undergrad at Berklee and all-state tuba champ in his native New Jersey. He was a tasteful bass guitarist who carried the band’s backbeat; his improvisations added to the Remains’ free-flowing sound. Percussionist Chip Damiani also hailed from Connecticut. Wonderfully deranged, he wore an expression that convinced the observer he was going to drop his pants at any moment. Damiani was as important to the Remains’ sound as Keith Moon was to the Who’s; their onstage roles were quite similar.

The trio slowly built up an audience by playing mixers, frat parties and small clubs in the Boston area. In the fall of 1963 the Remains suddenly took off.

“At the end of my first year of college (summer, 1963] I went to Europe,” Tashian explains. “That turned my life around because I got high for the first time; suddenly the guitar was OK.” When Tashian got back to the dorm in September he explained his concept to Miller and Damiani: an integrated band as opposed to a front man with back-up.

One new student at B.U. that fall was Bill Briggs, another Westport native (and brother of porn legend Marilyn Chambers — a bit of esoterica guaranteed to win you a couple of drinks at one time or another.) Briggs brought his electric piano with him, and was soon recruited into the band. The instrument was an essential part of the Remains’ sound; Briggs frequently used it as a second guitar to flesh out the rhythm section and bounce off Tashian’s lead work. The Remains now began practicing in the basement of one of the B.U. dorms. “Our timing was good,”? Tashian recalls. “There weren’t any bands over here playing like the Rolling Stones.”

Barry and the boys had the jump on everyone else. The days of the “front man with backing band” groups were gone; the Remains realized the future lay with bands whose members all dug in for the same musical goals. The Remains followed their new course with a vengeance, playing more frats, mixers and small clubs like the Catacombs, the Banjo Room, and the Rat (the same one that’s the center of Boston’s new wave movement).

The Remains carried on like banshees while making music that had people sweating and dancing. It was virtually impossible for anyone who saw the band to forget about them or come away unimpressed.

Two months later the Remains landed a record contract with Epic; their first single was released in March of ’65. “Why Do I Cry,” an elastic two-chord progression with countless hooks, became the band’s anthem and calling card. There’s a timeless quality to it that makes it hold its own even today. The single sold very well in the Northeast, naturally enough, but it was more than just a regional hit. Peter Gammons, later the Boston Globe‘s chief baseball writer, remembers the record in his frat’s jukebox at Chapel Hill, North Carolina; it was, he says, played more often than anything else in the machine.

The band’s reputation was beginning to blossom, and it wasn’t difficult to understand. The Remains carried on like banshees while making music that had people sweating and dancing. It was virtually impossible for anyone who saw the band to forget about them or come away unimpressed. People still speak of the group in awed terms. Landau called them “the most satisfying band I’ve ever seen.” Lenny Kaye tabbed them “incandescent at their best” and Tashian a “Charles River legend.” In her Encyclopedia of Rock, Lillian Roxon called Tashian “one of the foremost rock musicians of this decade.”

Peter Gammons used to follow the band when they played around Boston. “They were,” he recollects, “the only really good, polished rock ‘n’ roll band around.” Apart from the Stones, Kinks and Remains, Gammons maintains, nobody else was making that kind of music back then.

Jeff Jennings, who produced the Spoonfed Records reissue of the Remains’ only album, describes the band’s strengths succinctly. “It was that clean, very English sound. A lot of stuff really happened in their music, a lot of harmonies and melodies. But their music wasn’t cluttered. It was fairly intricate, but simple.” Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg, a minor legend of Boston pop radio, is even more direct: “They were just a good hot band with a lot of talent. In person they were sensational. Everybody liked them, and that’s all you could ask for.”

Tashian and the Remains profoundly affected an entire generation of rock ‘n’ rollers from the Boston area. Consciously or not, Steve Tyler and Peter Wolf, for example, are under the Remains’ influence. Billy Squier remembers covering the Remains songs on the bar circuit. Both Willie Alexander and the Real Kids pay homage to the band on the Live at the Rat album. If you live in Boston and are into rock, you know the Remains and speak of them with reverence. It’s that simple.

The primary ingredients in the Remains’ sound were their unerring sense of timing and drive. They learned long ago what many new wave bands are just beginning to discern: the most direct distance between two points is a straight line. There was no waiting around for the profundities of the Remains’ music to dawn on the listener. Its immediacy struck the listener squarely between the eyes.

The Remains were the quintessential dance band. Their music was simple but far from primitive. They believed that a riff is not a melody and [that] two riffs [do not] usually [make] a very good song. Most of the Remains’ tunes contained infectious lyric and melodic hooks and tempo changes. The band handled its music with the ease and authority of a Grand Prix driver behind the wheel, casually but constantly shifting musical gears when energy levels grew too intense. The best rock performers have always come dangerously close to the line separating ultra high energy from chaos. The Remains walked that line as if they owned it.

“I’m a Man,” “Mystic Eyes” and “All Day and All of the Night” were perfect vehicles for the Remains’ magic. Those songs became their own as the Remains ripped the original versions to shreds. “Their covers showed they were capable of playing the whole spectrum of sounds at the time,” Jeff Jennings said, “with so very little effort.”

Unfortunately, the Remains’ one album (on Epic, re-released by Spoonfed Records in 1978 and Epic/Legacy in 2007) only hints at their prowess. The opening cut, “Heart,” grows in tension and momentum from a soft pulsation until it mercifully resolves itself in a ferocious rave-up. “You Got a Hard Time Coming” features a maddening array of stop-and-go rhythms that leaves the listener breathless and begging for more. “Don’t Look Back” (included on the Nuggets anthology) is a gem: three hard-core riffs as an intro, then a steady beat propelled by Briggs’s pumping piano and Tashian’s slightly-nasal and forceful vocals. Again, the song’s intensity level rises until the cut fades out with a repeating chorus. There are touches like that throughout the album.

The Remains were taking Boston by storm. What was next? “You’re open to influences,” Tashian recalls. “Some people you hear a lot clearer than others. One night I met this guy in Cambridge, Monte Dunn, a guitarist who played on Sonny and Cher’s album. We’re saying, ‘Yeah, the Remains. We’re playing Boston Garden, you know, playing all the colleges and making $750 a night.’ He said, ‘If you want to make it, what are you doing in Boston, man? New York is the only place to be.’”

The challenge was made and would not go away. The band’s manager hired a couple of New York publicists to take care of the group; when they checked out the Remains at a club in Kenmore Square, they offered to manage the group. The Remains relocated to New York, a move they felt was essential to their career. “It was kind of a painful departure,” Tashian said in retrospect, “but it was just one of those ruthless things you have to do if you’re trying to get to the top.” The band spent much of 1965-‘66 working on their album in New York and Nashville (they didn’t like their sound in the New York studios). In early ’66, one of their managers got them the chance to open for the Beatles that summer. Tashian leapt at the opportunity, but Damiani had had his fill and quit. The group never held auditions per se, but one day N.D. Smart II showed up; the one-time circus acrobat (later of Kangaroo and other bands) “was just so sure of himself that he obviously was the guy.”

Tashian says the Remains’ new line-up “never really recaptured the original essence of what we were doing. N.D. was fantastic, and in a lot of ways more professional, but we just weren’t on the same level.”

They still played the Beatles tour that summer, along with Bobby Hebb, the Cyrkle and the Ronettes. Picture this: four teenagers comprising a relatively unknown band (from Boston, for crying out loud), and their job is to open every show on a Beatles tour. The Christians would have had better odds against the lions. It never quite worked out that way, though. Brad Delp, future singer in Boston (the band), remembered seeing the Remains open for the Beatles and said simply, “They were great.”

Delp wasn’t the only one with that opinion, either. In a front-page review of the Beatles’ show, the Detroit News termed the Remains a “Screaming Success” and “the surprise hit of the show.” The Chicago American referred to the group as “the best of the curtain-raisers” and observed that “the Beatles weren’t any bigger.” The soft-spoken Tashian didn’t deny those reports: quite to the contrary, he took more than a little pride in them. “The Beatles were really pissed off at us,” he says. “At the end of the tour everybody got a memento — these little silver engraved things saying, ‘Thanks a lot — The Beatles tour.’ We didn’t. They must have thought, ‘What are these guys trying to do?’ We really were trying to steal the show.” They apparently succeeded on more than one occasion.

On the first day of the tour the Remains received complimentary equipment from Fender, a company owned at the time by the band’s label. They had to send it all back after being informed that only Vox amplifiers could be used on the Beatles’ stage.

The best example of the Remains’ technical sophistication, compared to the relative naïveté of the Beatles, also took place on the first night of the tour. “The Hanley Brothers started setting up huge speakers like we used to use on our local gigs — unlike most people. The Beatles, meanwhile, had made no arrangements for sound systems; they were going to sing through metal horns up in the ceilings of the hall. There was a head-on dispute between the guys who were running the sound system in the hall and the Hanley Brothers. Obviously, the Hanley Brothers’ system was so much better it was ridiculous. We were told to go on and use the house system, but our manager was there and said, ‘The Remains aren’t going on unless they use their own system.’ So Hanley’s system went out and stayed with us the whole tour. Everyone said, ‘Hey, that sounds great!” The anecdote indicates how seriously the Remains took their music. If they weren’t allowed to do their show right, they weren’t going to do it at all.

The Remains were cruising, with write-ups in a bunch of fan mags as well as Mademoiselle and Seventeen. The band was on the Cashbox charts; full page ads accompanied listings in Billboard. They appeared on Ed Sullivan (with the Trude Heller dancers) and Hullabaloo. “We didn’t have to worry about playing the instruments”). One item, though, says it all about where the Remains were going (and could have gone). It’s a Dennis the Menace cartoon that ran in god knows how many papers; the little runt is shown being dragged by his mother to the barber’s while he argues, “The Rolling Stones don’t have to get their hair cut; Herman’s Hermits don’t have to get their hair cut; the Remains don’t have to get their hair cut…” Tashian insists the idea came about because a friend of the family was a gag-writer in New York. If you make it into Dennis the Menace, you’re a certified piece of Americana.

But the Remains never made that next step. Epic released the band’s LP in October 1966; the Remains were, for all intents and purposes, finished by then. They stuck together doing obligatory gigs through March 1967. The party was over just when it should have begun. Some have blamed Epic’s apparent lack of interest in a band that was, for a time, a hot property. Tashian doesn’t agree; he thinks the label did as much as it had to under the circumstances. In any case, Epic didn’t go out of its way to push the group, and they began to dissolve.

“It just got to the point,” Tashian says quietly, “where it looked like everything was a real mess. I didn’t think it would work out, and that’s why I didn’t want to do it anymore. Fifteen years later I find out that when a bunch of people try to work together, nothing goes smoothly for anybody: GM, Fleetwood Mac, James Montgomery or the local deli down the street. I thought everything else in the world was working and the Remains weren’t working. So let’s can the Remains, and we’ll try to start something that will work as well as the Lovin’ Spoonful was obviously working.” The Lovin’ Spoonful!?! There’s no justice in the world; in 1967 the Remains were gone. All the members of the group continued in music and went in some fascinating directions: the Flying Burrito Brothers, Swallow, Leslie West, lan and Sylvia, Kangaroo, Gram Parsons and others. Barry, Billy, Vern, Chip and N.D. had become musicians — very talented ones — but they weren’t the Remains anymore.

There are two postscripts to the Remains’ story. In 1976, Peter Gammons asked his friend Ed Kleven if he could tape Kleven’s Remains album. Kleven had been in school at Tufts during the Remains’ glory days; later he worked for their booking agency and even managed the Kingsmen for a while. Gammons idly wished Kleven could get the Remains back together. Shortly after their chat, Kleven had some repair work done on his car at the Porsche/Audi dealership where Bill Briggs was a salesman. Kleven asked Briggs if the band wanted to give it another go; Briggs contacted the other three original members, and the response was a very positive yes.

Reuniting wasn’t that easy. The members were spread out all over New England, so a great deal of travel was involved every time they rehearsed. There were wives and families to consider, and not much money from initial gigs. It was simply impossible to concentrate on the Remains as a full-time project. “Unfortunately, they weren’t gung-ho,” Kleven recalls. “They couldn’t sustain themselves.”

Another cold fact was that many Remains fans had moved since the band’s last performance. Few groups in the country are as transient as Boston’s student population; very few students in 1976 knew or cared about the Remains. “It was a mixture of divisive elements that worked against them,” Kleven says. The Remains performed about half a dozen gigs the second time around. Hardcore fans said the band wasn’t quite the same, although it’s difficult to tell anything about an ensemble after just six shows.

Every one of them, however, contained moments of pure magic. The Remains performed a lot of old material, but they also added a simmering version of Gram Parsons’ “Luxury Liner” and the playfully rocking “Baby I Can’t Hide Your Love,” as well as standards like “Promised Land” and “La Bamba.” I dragged a strange assortment of people along with me each night to view the second version of the Remains, including a straitlaced law student, a 16-year-old cousin into KISS and BTO, a staunch folkie and a confessed discoite. The Remains floored them all.

Once more, however, it just wasn’t meant to be. Tashian admits, “After a number of shows and attempted recording sessions it just looked to me like the past rather than the future. I didn’t want to go that way. I felt — perhaps unjustly — that the group was limited in what it could do. There was so much demand to do the old stuff; it got taxing inside of six gigs, and I had it. This may sound stupid, but the real reason I said I didn’t want to do it anymore was to see what everybody else would say — to see how much movement there was behind this, how much desire, how much faith. I didn’t get much of anything from anybody.” The band’s second coming went the way of the first.

The Remains story ended in the fall of 1978. A (then) Boston-based label, Spoonfed Records, bought the original tapes of the Remains album from Epic (one of the last transactions of that nature Epic made) and rereleased the album. Spoonfed included four previously unavailable tunes on the new album. They also released “Why Do I Cry” on a blue vinyl 45, backed by the Remains’ previously unreleased treatment of Don Covay’s “Have Mercy.” The five “new” songs were an unexpected surprise; each has the patented Remains sound, along with gallons of hooks and temp changes. The Remains may have sounded like the Stones, Beatles, Hollies, Kinks or Animals at one time or another, but their music stayed very much their own and no one else’s.

Spoonfed Records owner Bruce Patch has since moved to California and was unavailable for comment. Jeff Jennings worked for Spoonfed when the Remains album was released and surmised Patch purchased the tapes for several reasons. “He felt it was good music that was unavailable and as appropriate now as when it was recorded.” Patch must have suspected the band was still popular; he was made very aware of that fact when news about his project leaked out and every writer he encountered offered to do the album’s liner notes. (Some even offered to pay to do the liner notes.) Eventually Jon Landau was contacted to write something appropriate, and the album was released. The reissue contains more songs, and, according to Tashian, is of better recorded quality.

What actually happened to the Remains? Nobody really knows, but almost everybody associated with the band has an opinion. Peter Gammons feels they weren’t marketed properly; others have the same opinion. Ed Kleven says simply, “Somewhere along the line they got misdirected.” Tashian’s own quest for perfection and hesitancy to immerse himself in the music machine are also important factors.

All the Remains are involved in music today in one way or another, but only Tashian and Miller still regularly perform together (in country-rockabilly band the Outskirts). Tashian is justifiably proud of what the Remains accomplished, but he doesn’t want the band to be the proverbial albatross around his neck. He still supports himself with his music and doesn’t want the Remains to prevent him from pursuing other musical directions. His wife Holly says of Tashian’s current predilections, “The rock and roll personality was no longer the person Barry wanted to be.”

Barry echoes similar sentiments. “I’m really proud of the quality of the arrangements, quality of the recordings and the ‘stick-to-it-ness’ the four of us had to put that shit together when we were 19 years old. That says something for me. But as far as the music goes, I’m not in on it so much anymore; that’s a former me. It’s a good representation, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass to be remembered for something so different from what I’m doing now. That’s what I wanted to do at 18. I didn’t include in my purpose anything about being happy, and I suddenly realized that had to fit in somewhere. I haven’t found yet how to get too close to the center and keep that other thing happening, and that’s gotta be in my life.” It’s difficult to find fault with someone who seeks self-contentment rather than financial success. Tashian has let it be known that when he finds a way to capture both of those worlds, he’ll be back.

As Ed Kleven asks, “Who knows what could have happened if the band had had the chance to work things out?” Peter Gammons says wistfully, “I often wonder what would have happened if the Remains had stayed together and stuck it out like J. Geils.” Tashian himself says, “I suppose I should have stuck it out, just to see what would come of it. Maybe we would have evolved into a very musically sophisticated thing.” Instead, he recalls those last few painful gigs back in ’67 when there “was just no reaction. I mean, people just left. That’s the price of jumping off the rollercoaster before the ride’s over.”

The Great Lost Remains Record

Although the Epic LP contains some astonishingly good performances, particularly for its time, it didn’t capture the essence of the band in concert. “I thought their records were good,” Arnie Ginsberg says. “But I thought they lacked something their live shows had.” Jon Landau mentions (via Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets liner notes) that “their best never made it to record and was only preserved as a live studio dub which has apparently since been lost forever.”

That dub was never lost, just forgotten. Barry Tashian reluctantly played it for me when I visited him. In May 1965, when the band was thinking of switching labels, they went into Capitol’s Studio A one morning and laid down a live set with no overdubs. Songs included “I’m a Man,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Day and All of the Night,” “Why Do I Cry” and a blues jam. (In 1996, Sundazed issued the tracks, augmented by other rarities, as A Session With the Remains.)

“It’s exhausting to me,” Barry says today about the music on that acetate. “I just can’t believe some of it, it’s so raw. But it’s probably more of a representation of what we were about; the spirit, the essence of the Remains is on that.” Tashian’s wife Holly, who now performs with him in the Outskirts and knew him back in high school, has similar thoughts. “It’s got a good sound. That’s the way I remember hearing the band. When I heard the Remains’ album, I told Barry, ‘That’s not how you sound. That doesn’t do it.’ This captures some of that energy, that spirit.”

The set begins with Tashian’s spoken introduction to an imaginary audience. “Hang on Sloopy” is closer in feeling to the Yardbirds’ rendition but more exciting and, as Tashian points out, deliciously raw. The song’s final moments — featuring hard, vicious vocal trade-offs while the band cranks it up — is exhilarating. “All Day and All of the Night” follows and is handled even more ruthlessly than the Kinks’ original. Full-throated vocals and harmonies start the tune, but when Tashian screams “guitar, guitar, guitar” before the break, you know what’s in store. He mimics Dave Davies’ lead perfectly, then takes off and lands back on Earth in time for the next vocal.

“Why Do I Cry” features adventurous vocals (the chances they take on the acetate don’t appear on the relatively slick Epic recording) and emphasizes the way they worked as a cohesive unit. The song is played fairly straight until a goosebump-raising coda. “Like a Rolling Stone” (notably performed without organ) sounds like the Remains might have been the first to perform the song; it’s easy to understand Tashian’s progression to country music when listening to his vocals and guitar on this cut. Briggs adds a dash of harp here and there, while Damiani’s strengths as a drummer are quite apparent on this tune.

The second side opens with “Johnny B. Goode,” including absolutely murderous licks that would turn Keith Richards green with envy. As always, Damiani bashes everything in sight, Briggs’s piano pumps away madly and Miller’s bass ties everything together. Tashian politely but firmly declined to play me the blues jam. The finale, “I’m a Man,” features plenty of screaming. All hell breaks loose during the break, with Tashian unleashing a furious salvo. Briggs sets up a circular figure that propels Tashian’s slashing lead guitar through the rest of the song. Just when the song is about to degenerate, the band breaks into another run that culminates in a series of snaking guitar lines and Bo Diddley riffs. A final rave-up suggests a meeting of the Yardbirds, Bo Diddley and the Count Five. The tune contains at least four separate climaxes, and it isn’t difficult to appreciate the effect such a performance would have had on a room full of college students at a frat party. The music on that acetate (and the session’s original studio tapes, which Tashian owns) is far from perfect. But perfect music is not necessarily great music, and some truly great stuff was laid down at that Capitol session.

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