When four young, bleary-eyed rock musicians ambled into the midtown Manhattan office of General Artists Corp. one June afternoon in 1966, they could have had no idea that what they were about to hear would inform their careers and lives forever.
“You guys wanna play on the Beatles’ August tour across America?” a GAC exec asked the band members of the Remains, who had all recently dropped out of Boston University to play and write songs full-time. “If you do, I can get you on it.”
Lead singer and guitar player Barry Tashian, from Westport, keyboardist Bill Briggs, also from Westport, drummer Chip Damiani, from Wolcott, and bassist Vern Miller Jr., a non-Nutmegger from New Jersey, had just vowed to never again be an opening act, choosing to headline only, regardless of venue size. They’d spent two years captivating fans in New England clubs and colleges with their scintillating live shows, recording their first album and being seen by millions performing on The Ed Sullivan Show and Hullabaloo.
“But it took us about a second to end our agreement when we got offered the Beatles tour,” Miller says. Yeah, yeah, yeah!
What seemed like the break of a lifetime, showcasing their sound and songs nationally in sold-out stadiums, would instead hinder their ascension, even though the experience was mostly as rewarding as they imagined it would be.
The Remains saga is one of the most unique in rock history, with Connecticut fingerprints all over it. What is most admirable is that they’ve not only accepted their “this close to stardom” status but embraced it. And unlike most bands that fracture and go their separate ways for good, this almost-Fab Four always stayed friends while establishing successful lives in and out of music.
Impressive considering that renowned rock critic Jon Landau once wrote that the Remains “were how you told a stranger about rock ’n’ roll,” and their debut album is now widely hailed as a classic. Defying the title of their killer single, “Don’t Look Back,” Tashian, Briggs and Miller, now in their 70s, share their memories, still amused, bemused and somewhat perplexed by it all. Damiani passed away several years ago.
While first labeled a “garage band,” which in the 1960s meant primitive rockers, the Remains were in actuality excellent musicians. Their skills would be showcased more so after the band split up, with the members variously delving into blues, jazz, country and bluegrass genres requiring superior instrumental proficiency.
Tashian recalls his music education starting as a child in Westport in the 1950s. “I started guitar lessons very young,” he says. “In elementary school I played for a dance class. In junior high I entered a talent show and won, playing Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins tunes. Kids stood up and clapped! When I got to Staples High School I formed a band, The Schemers. We played Friday night dances there for three years.
“I also joined a local band, The Ramblers, who had a record out. When I was in ninth grade we went to Philadelphia to play on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which was quite a thrill. That was my first time out of Connecticut.”
Keyboardist Briggs was a year behind Tashian at Staples. “My mother played the piano,” he says. “I’d watch her, then started playing when I stood and could barely see the keys. My uncle had a room with three organs in it. Whenever we went there I’d play them for hours.
“Before I met Barry I had a friend who had a guitar and we’d play with another guy on saxophone. We started getting some gigs. We played at a strip club in Norwalk when I was 14. My dad would drop me off without knowing exactly where I was playing. The ladies would take things off and throw them at my piano!”
Drummer Damiani was self-taught, spending years playing and practicing in his basement with a transistor radio providing the music.
Bassist Miller started with music at age 2. “My dad was a trumpet player and mom was a pianist and organist,” he says. “I played trumpet, then switched to tuba and upright bass in high school. I also taught myself guitar. I always knew music would be my career.”
Rocking ‘The Rat’
After graduating high school in 1963, Tashian went to BU, where he met up with Miller and Damiani. “We would play frat parties; I was trying to be a student at the time,” he says. “I went to Europe with a friend in the summer of 1964. I remember singing and playing guitar there and people were noticing.”
Tashian was turned on by the emerging British rock scene, with the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who and … the Beatles. Upon returning to BU, he started the Remains, adding the just-enrolled Briggs.
“We started playing at the Rathskeller [‘The Rat’] in Boston’s Kenmore Square once a week and drew big crowds,” he says. “This guy in our dorm, Don Law, saw us play. He was from Westport too, and his dad was a major CBS record producer in New York. Don hooked us up with him and two months after we started the band we were recording. Everything was moving pretty fast.”
Much of that resulted from Tashian’s vision, songwriting prowess and ability to guide gracefully.
“He was the clear leader, but not above listening to and respecting everybody in the band,” Miller says. “He directed us, but when it came down to rehearsing or whatever we were putting together musically it was always a collaborative thing. It was never dictatorial.”
The Remains buzz was picking up all over Boston. John Sdoucos, a music promoter and producer in Beantown, was booking most every burgeoning rock band to play clubs and colleges in the area. “John came to see us play, then brought some others, too,” Tashian says. “All of a sudden people from music companies were coming. I was like, ‘What’s going on here? We must have a good band. Everyone wants to talk to us.’ ”
Sdoucos, who at 86 is still active in the industry, loved the Remains. “We worked with, managed and booked them,” he says. “They were rock and roll to satisfy your soul. They were really cooking. I thought they could break nationally because they wrote excellent material.”
The Remains played all over the Northeast, impressing everyone who heard them. Well, almost everyone. Tashian’s mother went to see them in Westport. Her opinion? “She said we were too loud,” Tashian says. Briggs’ folks were equally blasé. “They had no reaction to my being in the band,” he says. “My father saw us just once and didn’t think we were any good, but he didn’t think anybody was any good. My mother never saw us play. She was head nurse at Bridgeport Hospital and was pretty busy. My grandparents did see us once, which was really cool.”
The parents of Miller and Damiani weren’t thrilled to have their sons so involved with the Remains. “Chip’s dad was a surgeon and Chip was pre-med, so his father was not happy when we all decided to take time off from school,” Briggs says. “I remember rehearsing at his house, but I don’t think Chip’s parents ever saw us play.”
Miller’s mom and dad were musicians, so they were supportive. “But they weren’t happy with me leaving college after sophomore year,” he says of the band’s decision to chase stardom full-time. “I promised them I would ride the wave and when it was over I would go back to school, which I did.”
The Beatles beckon
The Remains left BU and moved to New York in 1965 to expand their reach outside New England. They landed a lengthy residency at Trude Heller’s, a trendy club in Greenwich Village, grinding out five sets a night much like the Beatles did a few years earlier in Hamburg, Germany, honing their chops and live show to perfection.
Ed Sullivan went one night, was impressed and booked them on his national TV show. The appearance on Hullabaloo quickly followed. Things were starting to heat up for the Remains. They had regional hit singles and were working on their debut album for Epic Records, a subsidiary of CBS. So it was not happenstance when GAC offered them the chance to open for the Beatles in 1966 on what would be the Brits’ final tour.
“They’d been following us closely and knew we could do it,” Briggs says. “Back then there were not that many bands that had it together. We were kids but we were pros by that time. And they could see that.”
Real fame and fortune seemed possible, except … “Suddenly Chip didn’t want to go,” Tashian recalls of the drummer. “He said, ‘The audience is gonna hate us. They’ll be throwing things at us. All they wanna see are the Beatles.’ ”
Briggs posits another reason for Damiani’s reluctance. “Chip had an ulcer,” he reveals. “It was serious. He would get nervous before every gig. He was a stoic guy, so he wouldn’t admit it. In those days they didn’t know what to do about ulcers. I think that was an underlying factor.”
In an interview some years before his passing, Damiani doubled down on his decision. “I have no regrets because I didn’t want people to be screaming for the Beatles and not wanting to hear us,” he explained. “Am I sorry about it? Well, everybody asks me that stinking question all the time. I’m sorry I didn’t go because I have to keep answering it. But I had no problem not doing the tour.”
And no meant no. “He wasn’t the kind of guy you could talk into something,” Tashian says.
A replacement drummer was needed, so GAC inserted N.D. Smart, who was even younger than the others. After hundreds and hundreds of gigs with the original quartet, the Remains had to break in a newbie, and the Beatles shows were their first with Smart.
Other acts on the frenzied 18-day tour, comprising 19 shows in 14 cities, were Bobby Hebb, the Cyrkle, and the Ronettes. The Remains played first, performing six songs, then served as the back-up band for Hebb and the Ronettes. Each opener played 20 minutes before the Beatles bedlam of 11 songs in about a half-hour.
The Remains had no problem transitioning from playing before 500 people in clubs to crowds of 50,000 in stadiums. “You just do it,” Miller says. “After you get through the first show it becomes very matter of fact.”
Fab Four fraternizing
Tashian, Briggs and Miller all agree that the Beatles tour rocked, with interactions, experiences and memories they never get tired of sharing. Good thing, because whenever someone finds out about it they want all the details.
First, the reality of Beatlemania up close and personal with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. “They were just regular guys and would tell you the same thing in a second,” Briggs says. “We were all on the same plane, sometimes twice a day. We’d take turns sitting with them and chatting. We were obviously a little bit in awe of them. George had headphones on most of the time listening to Ravi Shankar sitar music. John was kind of aloof. Paul was always smoking hash in the back of the plane. I never knew where Ringo was.
“We were tired, man. Don’t forget, this was incredible work, to travel to all these states and do all these shows and you’re on the go constantly. You get to the hotel and fall into bed. Maybe you get to eat and maybe you don’t. When you’re a kid you don’t even think about food, so you forget to eat. You get down to the lobby, it’s hurry up, you gotta get to the airport. You’re running all the time.”
Miller interacted with Harrison more than the other Beatles. “George was a very interesting human being,” he says. “I went up to his hotel room at night after shows and listened to music with him. He was very humble, and good-hearted. An old soul in a young body.
“I also enjoyed talking to their producer, George Martin, who was on some of the tour. I had conversations with him about the recording process and arranging. He was the musical glue for the Beatles, assembling the ideas to complete their compositions.
“It was all very exciting. We got an excellent response, but in the back of your mind you realize that they’re the Beatles and you’re not. It was eye-opening to see how their organization functioned from the inside. The Beatles individually were tired of being Beatles, that was very evident. John had made an inflammatory comment about their being more popular than Jesus. In Memphis we rode buses from the airport to the Mid-South Coliseum. We were told to duck down below the windows in case someone had a gun. They had to live in a bubble of security and it scared them.”
Tashian had the most interactions of all the Remains. “We had a few days off when we flew to New York to play Shea Stadium,” he says. “I went up to the Beatles penthouse in their hotel. I brought Tim Hardin’s album for John to hear. We sat on the floor, and he called for their manager, Brian Epstein. When Brian came in John said, ‘Give us a joint then.’ Brian took out a rolled joint from a silver cigarette holder. John liked the album.
“In Hollywood, George invited me to dinner at the house where the Beatles were staying. David Crosby was there. After dinner we hopped in Crosby’s silver Porsche and went around visiting people … Jim [later Roger] McGuinn of the Byrds, Mama Cass and Denny Doherty from the Mamas and the Papas, Peter Tork of the Monkees and others. Paul McCartney joined us for the ride back to the hotel. We stopped at a red light and there was a young couple across from us. I remember thinking they don’t know that half the Beatles are in this car!”
As far as hearing the Beatles play at the shows, forget it. “I’d try to listen but it was impossible,” Tashian says. “The noise those screaming girls made … you had to hold your ears. It was like a rocket ship blasting off, that’s how loud it was.”
Here's hoping that these musical biographies—like the band they depict—are rediscovered and revived.
While they didn’t know it then, the Remains’ power and passion on stage made a strong impression on one Beatle in particular. Ray Paret was a student at MIT back when the Remains were at BU. He would become a music industry executive, managing Joe Cocker, Levon Helm and other artists. “The Remains were the best live band I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen them all,” he says. “I once got involved with putting a band together for John Lennon. He was talking about the Remains and the tour they did together. He said he wished the Beatles could have retained the energy that the Remains had. They’d lost it even though they were still great. He kept bringing them up, more than once.”
None of the Remains recall being paid for the tour. “I can’t remember getting anything,” Tashian says. “We had money to buy suits but other than that I have no recollection.”
“We were supposed to make money because we backed up Hebb and the Ronettes,” Miller adds. “But I don’t remember being paid. Maybe it went to our management.”
“We would have done it for free anyway,” Briggs adds with a laugh. “It’s like when you sign a contract with a record company at age 19. Who cares about the returns, it’s just, ‘Where do I sign?’ Then years later you find out you got screwed, like every other musician in the world.”
A breakup with benefits
Reality bit hard once the tour ended. Tashian felt the Remains weren’t progressing commercially because Epic wasn’t handling them properly. After conquering the Northeast he felt they should have been given an aggressive national push.
The band spent a few weeks finishing its eponymous first album, forced to cycle through four producers and multiple recording studios due to Epic’s bumbling. Even so, the esteemed All Music Guide would call it “a classic, packed with great songs and boasting exciting, fiery performances,” adding that the Remains were “tougher, smarter and tighter than the vast majority of their competition.”
But Epic chose to focus its marketing on fading crooners like Ed Ames and Bobby Vinton, thus the record never gained traction. “They didn’t have the right representation at Epic,” says Sdoucos, the music promoter. “Aerosmith was another Boston band we worked with early on. That degree of stardom could’ve and should’ve happened with the Remains.”
The group tried to switch to Capitol Records, the Beatles’ U.S. label, recording a scorching live-in-the-studio audition tape that almost a half-century later would be released as A Session With the Remains, but the guys wearied of the corporate indifference. After a final show at the Westport Country Playhouse in the fall of 1966, they went their separate ways, each destined to pursue other musical interests.
Miller explains that while the breakup was frustrating, it proved to not be such a bad decision. “We needed a rest but were going in different directions in a way too,” he says. “Barry was getting into country music. Bill and I liked blues. Breaking up was probably wrong business-wise. If we had kept doing what we were doing and getting better we might have broken through.
“But in retrospect not staying on the road may have saved us without our even knowing it, because it’s a grueling existence. The band was our life for two years, but we each had other musical pursuits to explore, so it’s not like there was a huge void.”
Over the next 30-plus years they would all get married, have children and establish unique identities and professions.
Tashian never stopped performing. For several years he and Briggs lived and worked together on both coasts, opening a recording studio for a time. A friend, Gram Parsons, once a member of the Byrds, had Tashian sing and play on his now-classic first album, G.P.,in 1972. At those sessions he met emerging country singer Emmylou Harris.
Tashian and wife Holly settled down in Westport, where she had also been raised. They played together in a country band. A few years later Harris, now a major star, caught their show one night at a New York club. She asked Barry if he would replace the departing Ricky Skaggs in her band. Tashian spent the 1980s touring the world and recording with Harris. Since then he and Holly have toured and recorded several albums as a country, folk and bluegrass duo. They now live in Nashville.
Briggs would start an R&B band, Funky Potatoes, playing gigs for several years. When he got married he went to work for Porsche-Audi in Boston, and spent 35 years there. After his wife passed away he met and now lives with partner Barbara Simon at homes in California and Arizona.
Miller went back to BU to complete a degree in music, playing bass part-time in Crow, a psychedelic rock band fronted by teen singer LaDonna Gaines. “She was fresh out of the church in Roxbury, always sweet and gentle in nature,” he recalls. “She was very talented, with a great voice and stage presence. She had all the ingredients and ambition to achieve stardom.”
Which she did, changing her name to Donna Summer and becoming the queen of disco.
Miller next started an 11-piece blues band, Swallow, that toured for five years and recorded several albums. He then spent 31 years teaching instrumental music and music technology in New Jersey schools. “Being in the Remains helped because I could guide by example,” he says. “When you have 100 kids with instruments in a room, you’re not gonna get anywhere unless you have their respect. They knew I understood what it was like to be in a band and give it all you had, that I experienced it and wasn’t just talking about it.”
He and wife Sue live in New Jersey.
Damiani returned to Connecticut for good. Always up for drumming gigs, he would sit in with local bands over the years. He transferred to and graduated from what was then Quinnipiac College, married, and established a successful roofing business in Bridgeport, while living in New Haven and Seymour. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2014 at age 68.
The Remains revival
Other than a one-off recording of a live album in 1969, the Remains were dormant for decades until Tashian got the itch to reform the band. In 1998 he sent feelers to concert promoters in Europe, as classic American garage bands, quote unquote, were popular there. Presto! A music festival in Leon, Spain, said yes, offering all expenses paid and a generous performance fee.
Next was seeing what the other Remains thought. Answers: Yes, yes and yes. “When he called I thought it would be the usual catch-up talk,” Miller says. “He asked, ‘How do you feel about going to play a gig in Spain?’ The four of us met in Westport at a friend’s house who had a large music studio in their basement. We rehearsed for a weekend and it was like we had never stopped playing together.”
Briggs agrees. “We were a lot more mature, of course, and had been playing with other musicians for years, so we were better than ever. We barely had to rehearse. In Spain we were nervous as hell but it went great. We got a lot of offers to do more and we did.”
The Remains would play on and off for years until recently, often at European festivals but also in the U.S. “Reforming was a dream come true for the band,” Tashian says. George Correia, a Rhode Island music teacher, became the new, permanent drummer after Damiani died.
They had come full circle, recapturing their youth, content with their lives and accomplishments. They had planned to play last year but the coronavirus put an end to that, and Tashian is a realist about future shows. “At our age it’s pretty clear that we’ve done what we were supposed to with regard to the Remains,” he says. “I think we all agree that we had a ton of fun and wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Regardless, for a band together for only a few years in its prime, the Remains have managed to stay on America’s cultural radar for a half-century and counting, their lengthy break notwithstanding. There has been a play and documentary about them, a Gap commercial featuring one of their songs, another album, reissues of their old music, a Remains song in the 2007 movie Superbad and more. They were inducted into the Boston Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2010.
“Every so often the phone rings and there’s a Remains surprise that comes out of the blue,” Miller says. “It keeps happening for some reason. Even if we wanted it to go away it doesn’t. And royalty checks appear in the mailbox, sometimes small, sometimes large. I call them pennies from heaven.
“We just had an uncanny connection, the four of us. We always enjoyed being in a room together, whether playing instruments or just hanging out. We genuinely love each other and have stayed close for 54 years. I miss Chip every day. We all do.”
Tashian puts closure to it, this time agreeing with “Don’t Look Back.” “There is no ‘what-if’ with the Remains,” he affirms. “It had to happen that way. Everything takes its course like it’s supposed to.”
SIDEBAR: The summer Bill Briggs pretended to be English
When Remains drummer Chip Damiani came down with mononucleosis in the summer of 1965, forcing the band on hiatus, it allowed keyboardist bandmate Bill Briggs to spend a few months touring with the Kingsmen.
“I was asked if I wanted to go on the road with them; they had the huge hit with ‘Louie Louie,’” says Briggs, who was raised in Westport. “They were from Portland, Oregon. Their keyboard player had to go for National Guard training when they were about to tour down South.”
One problem. The Kingsmen wore their hair short and neat, while Briggs had long locks matching the other Remains, and didn’t want a haircut.
“They were afraid my long hair might upset the natives, and figured if they said I was from England that would excuse it, so they told me to pretend I was English,” he says, as most British rock bands had long hair. “I could do a pretty good British accent.”
It worked. The hair wasn’t a problem, but the accent got Briggs in a bit of a jam. “One night at a show I met a guy from England,” he says. “He asked where in England I was from and I said ‘Well, I’m from Surrey.’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m from Surrey too!’
“Amazingly I was able to fool him by saying things like, ‘I always loved walking down to the bridge by the water,’ and he would say, ‘Oh yes! Always one of my favorite spots too.’ I don’t know how I got away with it, but I did. In fact, one of my favorite sayings over the years since then has been, ‘Got away with another one!’ which I think will be the title of my memoir.”