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That thing they did
Rock reincarnation: Boston band the Remains has its new day

By Brian Fitzgerald

In rock music, there are unexpected comebacks, and then there are Lazarus-like returns.

Barry Tashian (left) and Vern Miller play a BU Union Forum concert with Junior Walker and the Shirelles on May 8, 1965. Photo by BU Photo Services
  Barry Tashian (left) and Vern Miller play a BU Union Forum concert with Junior Walker and the Shirelles on May 8, 1965. Photo by BU Photo Services

Fans of the rock group Boston, for example, rejoiced in 1986 after waiting eight long years for the release of Third Stage, a follow-up album to their classic Don’t Look Back. However, their level of patience doesn’t compare to that of devotees of the Remains, who recently celebrated the release of the band’s first album in 36 years.

Yes, that’s three-plus decades. Composed of four BU students, the Remains were the hottest band in New England in the mid-’60s. They played on the Ed Sullivan Show and Hullabaloo, and they opened for the Beatles on their 1966 tour. They released an album, and seemed ready to set the music world on fire. Then they did something really amazing.

They broke up. There is no short answer -- there never is -- when any band disbands. Why, for example, did the Beatles break up? But the Fab Four had already made an indelible mark on the music world. The Remains, however, seemed to be on the verge of making it big. Asked if he would have done anything differently if he could turn back the clock, bass player Vernon Miller (SFA’69) says, “We were barely in our 20s and faced with some pretty intense and fast growing up. Perhaps the group breaking up was inevitable because that is what happened. I don’t think any of us are presently kicking ourselves in the seat of our pants, saying, what if and why didn’t I do this or that.”

Guitarist and singer Barry Tashian (CGS’65) says that business-wise, it was not a sage decision to break up immediately following the Beatles tour, but he doesn’t dwell on the past. “I often say, there is no what if. Everything happens perfectly,” he says. “I believe that if I had to do it again, it probably would have come out the same.”

Miller, Tashian, and drummer Chip Damiani (SED’64) met at Myles Standish Hall in the fall of 1963 and began jamming. They were joined by keyboardist Bill Briggs (CGS’66) a year later, and started playing in the Rathskeller in Kenmore Square. Pretty soon, during “Remains nights” at the club (the present site of the new Hotel Commonwealth), lines stretched around the corner, onto the bridge over the Massachusetts Turnpike, and snaked all the way to Fenway Park. In fact, entertainment mogul Don Law (CAS’68) heard the Remains at the “Rat” and alerted music industry executives. Epic signed them after one audition.

Golden newies
Miller and Tashian look back on the music scene in Boston in the mid-’60s with fondness, as WBZ radio gave much-coveted airtime to local bands such the Remains, the Rockin’ Ramrods, and the Lost. The Remains were a folk-rock band, drawing inspiration from blues masters Muddy Waters, Johnny Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Otis Span, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Elmore James and soul performers Otis Redding, Joe Tex, and Wilson Pickett.

The Remains gained a reputation as a loud, wild band, but they were also tight and disciplined after much practice. In 1965 they took a one-year leave of absence from BU and played the club and college circuit, in one show at UMass sharing the stage with Bo Diddley and the Shirelles before a crowd of 4,000. “The crowd size didn’t intimidate me,” says Miller. “The Remains always seemed to have a let’s-go-get-’em outlook on our performances. I think that was the first actual concert we played. Up to that point it was clubs like the Rathskeller and frat parties.”

In the studio, however, they were told to turn down their amps when recording singles. “In a way we were frustrated,” says Tashian. “We longed to blast away as we did on stage.” Miller says that recording engineers and producers “were not at all used to recording loud instruments with amps turned up about as far as they could go. They just hadn’t done anything like that yet. It was impossible for us to get our sound in a recording studio. I think that if we could have recorded at the same volume we played on stage, then we could have realistically captured the energy of the band.” Nonetheless, singles Why I Cry and I Can’t Get Away from You got enough attention to gain an invite to Ed Sullivan’s 1965 Christmas show, playing in front of 14 million viewers. Then, in 1966, the Beatles came calling.

The four and the Four
“The Beatles tour was an incredible experience, and I am very grateful for it,” says Miller. “It was both exciting and exhausting. And it was extremely eye-opening. I think at first I was awe-struck. Standing next to and hanging out with my idols -- such a cultural phenomenon and force in music. The longer I spent with them and the more I saw them in everyday life, I not only realized that they were just human beings, but that they wanted to be just human beings. But they couldn’t even walk down the street for a burger and a beer. In a sense, they became prisoners of their own fame. Seeing something from the inside is often extremely different than the way it appears on the outside. At this point in their career, it was also evident that they were musically outgrowing the confines of stage performance as it existed and wanted to explore other musical directions, collectively and individually.”

The Remains today: (from left) keyboardist Bill Briggs, singer-guitarist Barry Tashian, drummer Chip Damiani, and bass player Vern Miller. Photo courtesy of the Remains


The Remains today: (from left) keyboardist Bill Briggs, singer-guitarist Barry Tashian, drummer Chip Damiani, and bass player Vern Miller. Photo courtesy of the Remains


After the Beatles tour, the Remains did the unthinkable. They called it quits. Miller, unlike the Remains’ fans at the time, wasn’t convinced that the band was poised for rock stardom. “We didn’t really have a drummer by then,” he says. “Chip Damiani had left the group before the Beatles tour, and we hired N. D. Smart for the tour. He is an outstanding drummer, but the band was no longer the same four guys who used to set up in the basement of Myles Standish Hall and play away. The Remains has always been one of those rare situations where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When the four original members sit down in a room and play music together, we always seem to just pick up where we left off the last time.”

That’s just what the Remains did briefly in 1976 for six reunion shows, and then again in 1998 when they played live in Spain and New York City. Tashian has stayed in the music business since the original breakup, recording with such country rockers as Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The other members got jobs, but have also kept their musical fire burning. Briggs still writes music, as does Miller, who also teaches it. And Damiani has recently been drumming with bluesman Hilton Valentine. The Remains’ latest reunion, though, complete with Damiani -- and highlighted by a September 27 performance at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston -- is especially poignant because the tour is promoting their first new studio recording in three dozen years. Their CD Movin’ On is being well received by the rock media and is available at www.theremains.com.

Recalling the impetuousness of their youth, Miller and Tashian say the band’s breakup was caused in part because of the restlessness of the band members, and a let-down feeling after the rigors of the Beatles tour. “I think the tour sort of scattered the band’s energies,” says Tashian. “Chip had stepped out, so we had a new drummer, and it was a bit difficult finding the old groove. Combine that with the fact that we had never traveled so far and so fast before, and it was rather disorienting. We hit 14 cities in 18 days. Today that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days you had to charter a jet to do it.”

Miller agrees that the tour basically finished the first incarnation of the Remains. “All the guys in the Remains are sensitive people, and I think the tour took its toll on each of us,” he says. Still, in spite of the decision to break up, he admits that “a side of me was ready to dig in and see what we could do.” Now, 36 years later, they are getting another chance to do just that.

Too loud for one crowd, but not for their BU fans

By John Landau, from Crawdaddy! January, 1967

The first time I saw the Remains was nearly two years ago. They had been together for about four months and this was to be their first concert appearance. When they were introduced, they ran on stage, plugged into two Fender amps through which they were running all their equipment and two microphones, and smiled. Four soft syncopated chords and they broke into their first song at a volume which was for me beyond belief. The stage seemed literally to have exploded, with Tashian jumping up and down while singing and playing lead, and Vern dancing around as he played bass, Briggs pounding his piano, and Chip destroying his drums. Stillness had exploded.
Musically they were weak that night. Chip obviously needed work and they all needed more experience working together, but the spirit, the love of the music, the showmanship, the effortlessness, and the cool, all things that were characteristic of the group throughout its existence, were already present. It was there in the way Briggs was upstaging M.C. Dick Summer, who had come on stage when the power failed in the middle of the set. It was there when people started yelling for them to turn the volume down and Barry just stood there grinning and said, “Hey, this is our volume,” and then broke into some ear-splitting hard rock piece. It was in the embryonic stages, but it was all there.

Two weeks later, on their home ground at Boston University, everything had been tightened up, they were playing to a much better audience, and now you could see it all happen. The sound, the music, the feeling was there. And the people responded. Their encore, Hey Bo Diddley, kind of pointed to where they were going; it featured incredible rave-up patterns, seeming to come out of nowhere, literally sparking off the stage.


1 November 2002
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