This article originally appeared in Issue 7 of
in December, 1966.
The Remains, as you probably know by now, are gone. Barry Tashian (lead singer and lead guitarist) and Billy Briggs (piano) are reportedly staying together and have the rights to the group’s name, but Vern Miller (bass) and Norman D. Smart II (drums) have split for good. It’s too bad; they labored long and hard without much of the success they certainly deserved. For the people who followed them from one job to the next—and there were plenty of them, from Maine to Connecticut and back to Boston—they said it all. They were magic. They were how you told a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll.
The first time I saw them 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 onstage, 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 [Damiani, their first drummer] 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 Barry would make some joke, and then instead of waiting around for everyone to laugh, the band would come crashing in the second he finished his line. It was there in the way Briggs was upstaging M.C. Dick Summer, who had come onstage 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 (they were all dropouts from that school), 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.
I didn’t see them again until last January. At that time I was leading a local band, and I’d gotten in touch with the Remains’ manager to try to interest him in our group. He invited us down to the Banjo Room on a Saturday afternoon when the Remains were practicing, to talk to the two of us and listen to some demos we had just made. When we got there, the group was going over some fairly unimpressive original material trying to decide which tunes might be good for an upcoming recording date in Nashville. After a while they stopped, and we played our demos for their manager. One of our tunes was Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” After hearing it, Tashian said, “Hey, that was good, but you should do it like this.” All four of them went through what was by far the best version of the song I’d ever heard. Afterwards I was informed that they had never played the song together before. And they had only begun. Next, Tashian sat down at the drums and Vern picked up Barry’s guitar, and they showed us how they thought the guitar should play into the drums. And Barry could really play those drums. I was just amazed at how well this guy understood what he was trying to do.
Anyway, by now I thought I’d seen all I was going to for one afternoon. So Tashian and Vern start romping through these perfectly executed bass-guitar rave-up patterns, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. What could come next?
Well, to tell the truth, a couple of us came back that Saturday night to watch them perform, and we hadn’t seen anything. All that stuff in the afternoon was just practice. Now they were performing, and when they performed, by God, they performed. It was like we hadn’t ever seen them before. And every time we saw them after that, it was the same: they were always doing so many new things, and changing the old things around so much, that every time you saw them it seemed like they were into a whole different thing.
What was this thing’? It was hard rock. It was hard rock guitar, hard rock piano, hard rock bass, and hard rock drums. And the way they worked was like this: they’d take a tune like “Get Off of My Cloud” and begin by learning it and doing it exactly like the Stones. And then they’d go to work thinking of where they could break it up, slow it down, or speed it up. They’d never leave it alone. They weren’t out to imitate. When they did “Mystic Eyes,” which was their single greatest accomplishment, it was theirs and theirs alone.
But they had their problems. They didn’t write well and they didn’t record well. And the combination of bad recordings and bad material is what ultimately destroyed them. And it is also what makes their album so undistinguished. First of all “Why Do I Cry,” “You Got a Hard Time Coming,” “Once Before,” and “Time of Day” are all over a year old and have nothing to do with the way the group was sounding as long ago as last December. The only one of the four that the group would ever perform is “Why Do I Cry” and even there, no resemblance existed between their performances of it and the recording. Chip Damiani’s drumming isn’t very good on that cut mainly because he didn’t develop into the great drummer that he became until later on. Tashian’s vocals on all four of these cuts leave much to be desired, although he’s beautiful on some of the recent material.
The rest of the original stuff (recorded with N. D. Smart II on drums) isn’t very good either, although the performances aren’t bad. “Thank You” is one of the better originals, and N.D.’s drumming on “Say You’re Sorry” is very nice. The stronger cuts are all ones they didn’t write. “Diddy Wah Diddy,” their single of last spring, is only mediocre Remains featuring very nice drumming (by Chip) and very tough lead guitar. The song itself doesn’t really go anywhere. And that leaves us with the three cuts that make the album worth getting.
“Heart” is an old Tony Hatch song which begins real slow and builds up, ultimately gets double-timed, and, despite the weak vocal, is just beautiful. “Don’t Look Back” was their single of last summer, and is the best thing they ever did in that vein. Great drumming by N.D. and good shouting by Barry in the middle of the cut. Finally, there’s “Lonely Weekend,” the old Charlie Rich tune, which is given new treatment here. It’s the best cut on the album by far with boss drumming by Chip, perfect bass by Vern, and a tremendous vocal. It’s the one cut on the record that is really the Remains.
A lot of fans would probably like to know why they didn’t do their great stuff on this album. I don’t know; but I can point out that this is basically a “can” album, one in which the cuts are taken out of the vault. They really didn’t have a lot to say about what would be on it. Anyway, it’s their first and last album, and one can’t help but be disappointed that it doesn’t have on it the Remains that we used to see perform.
But if you’re really interested in the group, let me tell you about a demo they made last April. On a weekday morning at 9:00 a.m., they found themselves in a New York studio and recorded in monaural, with no opportunity to double-track their voices or instruments, and but two hours to do a whole session, a Remains set. “Sloopy,” “All Day and All of the Night,” “Why Do I Cry,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Move to the Outskirts of Town,” and (watch out) “I’m a Man.” They are by far the best group of hard rock recordings I’ve ever heard. Their “I’m a Man” makes the Yardbirds sound like they were playing with toy guitars. Instrumentally, their “Like a Rolling Stone” cuts Bob Dylan. “Johnny B. Goode” has the best derivative Chuck Berry guitar ever recorded. And “Move to the Outskirts” will flip anybody who goes for the Butterfield thing out of his head. The drumming on that cut is some of the most beautiful blues playing you will ever hear. (Chip did all the cuts.)
Anyway, the Remains are no more. And this little demo is really the only thing that holds up. It has them talking and clowning and just being themselves. And if you never saw the group, forget the album, because that isn’t the Remains. Find someone who has a copy or a tape of this demo, because this record is how the Remains were. It is the Remains. And that’s saying something.