A (Much) Bigger Bang
Original debut and outtakes cast Boston rockers as America’s lost Stones
Good as Mick and Keith were at reimagining rhythm & blues as hard rock on The Rolling Stones’ 1964 debut, they didn’t hold a candle to what The Remains would deliver two years later. Had these Boston bad boys stuck it out beyond their 1966 debut, 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.
With this reissue of the group’s self-titled first album in its original form (plus outtakes), the folks at Epic/Legacy aim to keep ’60s New England regional classics like “Why Do I Cry” and “Diddy Wah Diddy” from slipping into obscurity. Of course, any modern-day White Stripes fan who’s heard the original Nuggets psych-rock compilation should be familiar with The Remains’ gritty classic “Don’t Look Back.” But The Remains weren’t just another one-car garage band. The songs here range from radical remakes of hits by Petula Clark (a seething “Heart”) and Charlie Rich (a “Lonely Weekend” that conjures both The Box Tops’ ragged soul and the Stones’ satanic sneer) to such balls-to-the-wall rockers as “You Got a Hard Time Coming” and the Kinks-like “Once Before.”
At times, The Remains—guitarist Barry Tashian, bassist Vern Miller, keyboardist Bill Briggs and drummers Chip Damiani or N.D. Smart II—performed with a raw power that could make even The Stooges seem docile by comparison. Lead singer Tashian’s spirited rap during the break of “Don’t Look Back,” for example, comes off like Detroit testifier Mitch Ryder backed by the dirty-ass guitar riffs of Entertainment-era Gang of Four (and this more than a decade before the punk invasion). Even The Remains’ mellowest songs, such as the gorgeous “Thank You,” burned with an edgy intensity that wouldn’t show up in pop music for another year, when the Velvet Underground released its first album.
The outtakes here are nearly as good and well-sequenced as the songs that make up the original debut. The best, most immediate tunes are those recorded in Nashville by legendary country-music producer Billy Sherrill, who would later bring a pop sheen to the twang of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Ironically, Sherrill’s studio work with The Remains represents the group’s more intense and hard-rocking side. His scruffy production of the band’s cover of Don Covey’s “Mercy Mercy” makes the Stones’ similar arrangement sound slick by comparison. And Sherrill gives the Tashian original “But I Ain’t Got You” an eerie quality that conjures country singer Sammi Smith’s version of “Long Black Veil.”
Amazingly, critics initially snubbed The Remains. According to the reissue’s liner notes, even the band’s biggest cheerleader, Jon (“Springsteen is God”) Landau, gave the album a mixed review in the rock rag Crawdaddy. Apparently, Tashian and company were considered such a great live act that, to some critics, the album was a disappointment by comparison. Those of us who weren’t there can only imagine how The Remains came off in a dingy rock club during their prime. (The only hints are the band’s TV appearances, including a kick-ass performance of the non-album track “Let Me Through,” from The Ed Sullivan Show, and “Diddy Wah Diddy,” from the German pop-music program Hits A-Go-Go). But, in retrospect, the album is anything but weak. From Track 1 to Track 10, The Remains’ debut is a flawless, five-star, classic album, and aside from one or two subpar choices, the subsequent ten outtakes follow suit.
For a band whose first national exposure was opening for The Beatles’ final American tour in 1966, The Remains have been criminally overlooked
by the music industry. But their legendary live performances and raw energy gave rise to a Boston rock scene that’s spawned several generations of rockers, from the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith to the Modern Lovers and Mission of Burma. Sadly, The Remains broke up before their debut even came out. Tashian went on to work in Los Angeles and later Nashville with some of the more important country-rock pioneers of the ’60s and ’70s, including Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. But The
Remains’ music never lost its edge. In 2002, the band released a surprisingly solid comeback album, Movin’ On. Still, in the context of its times, the revved-up R&B that comprises The Remains could never be duplicated by anyone, including its creators.