Mission of Burma

TrackAlbum / EP
Academy Fight SongSignals, Calls, and Marches EP
Youth Of AmericaSnapshot
Nancy Reagan's HeadThe Obliterati
Second TelevisionUnsound
That's When I Reach For My RevolverSignals, Calls, and Marches EP
MicaVs.
SSL 83The Sound The Speed The Light
The SetupONoffON
Peking SpringPeking Spring EP
That's How I Escaped My Certain FateVs.

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Contributor: Wayne Jessup

Mission of Burma is a post-punk outfit from Boston, Mass., mostly known nowadays from Chapter 3 in Michael Azerrad’s seminal “Our Band Could Be Your Life”, a must-read chronicle of US indie guitar rock in the 80s. A beacon signaling safe harbor in the murk of the Reagan Era, the unsung band was a crucial missing link between Television and Fugazi. While appearing to be a trio (Roger Miller, Clint Conley, Peter Prescott) that combined hooky instincts with a penchant for noise, soundman Martin Swope was the hidden fourth member, incorporating loops on the fly, by his own hand, and blowing up their sound. Bob Weston took over the role after the band came back. While the band’s ‘heyday’ covered a brief spurt in the early 80s before being put down due to Roger Miller’s encroaching tinnitus, they found a second life in the early 2000s, inspired in no small part by Azerrad’s tome, laying an early template for band reunions that not only sidestepped, but sideswiped any attempt at nostalgia, and found them as locked in and ornery as ever.

Mission of Burma’s original output consisted of just one EP, 1981’s Signals, Calls, and Marches, and one full-length, Vs., released the following year on Boston’s Ace Of Hearts Records, Unlike most indie records of the time, Ace Of Hearts had impressive quality control, with Rick Harte insisting on painstaking time in the studio, and it paid off with the work. Signals does a great job of technically representing their songs, buffed to an (almost) pop sheen. Vs. was recorded more from a live in the studio perspective, and it remains their definitive achievement. Two years after the band was put to bed, 1985 saw the release of a live document, The Horrible Truth About Burma. capturing their more explosive nature, followed by a few vault cleaning exercises, especially when it came to the compact disc gold rush. Upon returning, their original output was remastered lovingly by new label Matador Records, with whom they went on to record three full-lengths: ONoffON (2004), The Obliterati (2006), and The Sound The Speed The Light (2009) before moving to Fire Records for their most recent effort, 2012’s Unsound.

The first song on their first EP, Academy Fight Song, is the perfect place to kick things off and it set a high bar for punk anthems, with Peter Prescott’s drumming leading the charge. As a nice tip of the hat, R.E.M. recorded it as a fan club single in 1989. On the subject of covers, Mission of Burma’s idiosyncratic touch extended there as well, with their take on the Stooges’ 1970 being a longtime staple. Both it and their blinding cover of Pere Ubu’s Heart Of Darkness appear on the live farewell LP The Horrible Truth About Burma.

Pride of place for the playlist, however, goes to this fine Wipers cover of Youth Of America, from post-reformation live album Snapshot. Nancy Reagan’s Head from 2006’s The Obliterati keeps the band’s innate weirdness to the fore, and the bridge that Roger Miller kicks into guitar overdrive at the three minute mark is irresistible. Second Television, from their most recent foray, is a prime example of Clint Conley’s bass lines approaching lead status. Moving back to the first EP, That’s When I Reach For My Revolver is another great early anthem that became a live favorite.

In 1982, Vs. combined their songwriting smarts with an immense mix, vividly capturing the controlled chaos of their live sound. Mica immortalizes Martin Swope’s unique contributions to the proceedings. Bouncing to the third LP on their comeback trail (and last with Matador Records), 2009’s The Sound The Speed The Light was so packed full of highlights (like Vs.) that it seems a folly to pick one song, but the ostensible title track, SSL 83, is positively giddy, while still incorporating enough backwards madness to satisfy the faithful.

After a 20 year layoff, it was natural to be apprehensive about listening to a comeback LP by a beloved band, and all it took to dissipate that feeling was the joyous shout in the opening ten seconds of The Setup from 2004’s ONoffON. Focused and brutal are the keywords here.

Reaching back to the end of their first run, early fan favorite and candidate for first single Peking Spring ended up being the title track of a cassette-only collection built around songs for their thwarted followup to Vs.

While the previous playlist cuts were not cast in numerical order, we’ll finish at the top with the inimitable That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate from Vs., a stunning blast that has anchored every punk-related mix tape I’ve ever made.

Picking only ten songs was tough in a catalogue of remarkable consistency, and for those who choose to drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid, there’s plenty more gems waiting to be discovered with further exploration.

 

Mission of Burma photo

Mission of Burma (l to r): Bob Weston (sound engineer), Clint Conley (bass), Peter Prescott (drums), Roger Miller (guitar) – photo by Scott Munroe (2012)

 

Mission of Burma facebook

Mission of Burma live 1980/79 in Boston (from Signals, Calls, and Marches DVD reissue)

Aquarium Drunkard Infrasonic Sound Studio session

WERS-FM, Boston 19 April 1980 (full session)

WERS-FM, Boston 24 Jan 1981 (full session)

“Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981–1991” by Michael Azerrad (Little, Brown 2001)

Roger Clark Miller official website

Mission of Burma biography (iTunes)

 

Wayne Jessup (@waj1) can be found at The Owl Mag and Burned All My Notebooks.

TopperPost #682

1 Comment

  1. David Shaw
    Dec 8, 2017

    I hate to nitpick such a fine overview, but Burma’s initial output was an EP, an album, and a single: Academy Fight Song/Max Ernst. It’s now collected on the remastered Signals EP, but its initial release was a nuclear bomb dropped on the Boston music scene. How do I know? I was there.

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