What’s the name of a Boston-based garage-rock quartet so tantalizingly tight that they opened for The Beatles and are now considered one of the most underrated ‘60s bands, despite having been mostly a regional hit and breaking up before their first album was even released?
For pop-music aficionados – across New England and around the world – that isn’t an obscure bit of rock trivia because the answer is almost obscenely obvious: The Remains.
Formed in September 1964 and disbanded in August 1966 – then reunited over three decades later – their singular sonic fusion of British Invasion bands’ power-pop punch, streamlined songcraft and amped-up attitude with vintage blues riffs and R&B-esque vocalizing made their raucous live shows legendary. Featuring a remarkably mature sound and charisma-laden stage presence belying their years, the group had all the hallmarks of huge success and fans were dumbfounded by their abrupt break up, which frontman Barry Tashian chalked up to “basically fate” in 1997.
The band was formed in September 1964 by four Boston University sophomores, three from Connecticut, guitarist Barry Tashian, pianist Bill Briggs and drummer Chip Damiani, and one New Jersey native, bassist Vern Miller. Within just a few months they were a local sensation, playing revamped covers and rippin’ originals at colleges and other venues, including “Remains Night” shows at TJ’s in Kenmore Square, which Jimmy Harold bought in 1974 and turned into the Rathskeller.
In December 1964, three months after forming, The Remains signed with Epic, a deal Tashian has credited in large part to promotor Don Law, whose son lived in the same dorm as the bandmembers and who’d introduced them to Fred Taylor’s agency, H.T. Productions, which resulted in the band being booked across New England practically out of the gate.
Tashian has cited his time in the UK in 1963 as his impetus for assembling the group. “I’d made a trip to England the summer before we got together,” he’s said. “I saw what The Rolling Stones were doing with old blues songs and saw The Beatles and the Kinks. I thought, ‘That’s great, I could do that,’ so I came back to Boston very excited and asked these guys if they wanted to form a band.”
In early 1965, Epic sent the group to Nashville to record with George Jones’ and Tammy Wynette’s producer Billy Sherrill, resulting in a surprisingly downbeat first single, Miller’s “I Can’t Get Away from You,” which didn’t chart. The next, Tashian’s up-tempo “Why Do I Cry,” saw limited airplay outside New England and the third, Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talkin’ About You” b/w Bo Diddly-Willy Dixon’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” also went nowhere nationally.
But their prospects brightened beyond all expectations later that year when they were playing at Trudy Heller’s nightclub in Greenwich Village and Ed Sullivan came in, watched the gig and invited them to appear on The Ed Sullivan Christmas Show in December 1965. One of Tashian’s former roommates at BU was the son of an executive at Lorillard Tobacco – one of the Sullivan show’s biggest sponsors – and in 2018 Tashian said that he still wonders if strings had been pulled. “I never really knew who spoke to whom,” he said. The band also appeared on the short-lived NBC variety series Hullabaloo.
In mid-1966, the band recorded their eponymous debut LP for Epic, but before the sessions started their manager arranged a recorded audition with Capitol Records since the group was frustrated with Epic’s marketing. “We felt like the poor cousins to Bobby Vinton, Ed Ames and The Yardbirds,” Tashian’s said, referring to the label’s then-best-selling acts. While the audition didn’t result in a Capitol contract, in 1996 Sundazed Records released the tapes as A Session with the Remains.
In June 1966, Bob Bonis of General Artists Corporation told the band they’d been selected as an opening act for The Beatles along with Bobby Hebb – who had a #1 hit that year with “Sunny” – and The Cyrkle – managed by Brian Epstein – on what would become the Fab Four’s final US tour: 14 cities, including a show at Suffolk Downs on August 18th. The Remains had opened before for Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and other major stars and wanted to begin headlining only – but immediately accepted the once-in-a-lifetime offer. In his book Ticket to Ride: The Extraordinary Diary of the Beatles Last Tour (Dowling Press, 1996), Tashian provides a day-by-day account of the tour.
A mere 72 hours after the tour, however, The Remains were finished. “I dissolved the group three days after the tour was over,” Tashian said in 1997. “It was when we realized that we’d never be a big as the Beatles. I was 21, and that’s the sort of thing that goes through the head of a 21-year old.” Part of Tashian’s exasperation was that Damiani left the group shortly before the tour, replaced by N.D. Smart. “I felt like the flame burned down without our original drummer,” Tashian has said.
In September 1966, one month after the split, Epic issued the band’s eponymous 10-track debut featuring six originals, but only the Billy Vera-penned “Don’t Look Back” saw significant airplay, becoming the band’s best-known single to this day. In 1972, the track appeared on the Elektra compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, rekindling interest in The Remains, and the debut LP has been reissued by Spoonfed (1978) and Epic (1991).
Though officially disbanded, the group played together several more times in the late ‘60s with Damiani back on drums, including an appearance at The Boston Tea Party on March 16, 1969, released in 2018 as The Remains Live 1969 by Sundazed and taken from a reel-to-reel tape Tashian found in his closet and sent to the label’s founder, Bob Irwin.
In the ‘70s/‘80s, the band members went their separate ways. Tashian relocated to Nashville, played with Emmylou Harris for years and recorded several country-bluegrass albums with his wife, Holly Tashian. Miller joined guitarist George Leh in the early ‘70s band Swallow before becoming a music teacher, Briggs worked in sales and management at a Porsche dealership, Damiani ran a construction company and Smart played with Mountain, Gram Parsons and others.
In 1998, 32 years after breaking up, The Remains’ original lineup reunited to play the Cavestomp Festival in New York, followed by other shows including one in March 1999 at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. In 2000, they appeared at the Las Vegas Grind along with The Standells and Lyres and in 2002 Rock-A-Lot issued their first LP in 36 years, Movin’ On, which critic Joe Viglione called “worth the wait” because the band “deliver the goods.”
In 2006 the group toured Europe, in 2008 the documentary America’s Lost Band: The Story of The Remains premiered at the Boston Film Festival and in 2010 the band recorded the single “Monbo Time” – a tribute to Red Sox pitching ace Bill Monbouquette – and donated 50% of the proceeds to cancer research. The band still performs sporadically but without Damiani, who passed away in 2014.
Among the heaps of praise piled upon The Remains during their heyday and into the 21st Century, critic Mark Kemp framed things particularly well in 2007: “Had these Boston bad boys stuck it out beyond their 1966 debut,” he wrote, “we might today be calling them – and not the Stones – the world’s greatest rock-n-roll band. As it is, The Remains most certainly are America’s greatest lost band.”
(by D.S. Monahan – October 2022)