During its original existence, Mission of Burma was one of the most important American bands surviving outside the major-label record industry. The Boston band’s thrilling and challenging vocal rock is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. Staking out bracing post-pop guitar turf with hard edges and sharp corners, Burma’s records never leave melody or structure behind; they just meander around it sometimes.
Formed by bassist-singer Clint Conley, guitarist-singer Roger Miller, drummer Peter Prescott and proto-sampler and mixer Martin Swope, Burma debuted in 1980 with the single “Academy Fight Song” and then released the 12-inch Signals, Calls, and Marches in 1981. The EP has two sides (musically speaking): aggressive/strident in some spots, inviting/attractive elsewhere. Standing out among the six tracks is one tremendous song, “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” as well as a powerful but pretty instrumental, “All World Cowboy Romance.”
Vs., like all of Burma’s records, produced by Ace of Hearts owner Rick Harte, is more unremittingly intense, a loud, vibrant assault that never becomes unpleasant. Without trumpeting originality, Burma never proffers clichés; every track has a modern sensibility and individual character. On first listen, these records sound very British; on further investigation, they’re all American.
Because of longstanding hearing problems aggravated by the band’s determined loudness, Miller left Burma in 1983, turned to piano and devoted himself to Birdsongs of the Mesozoic with pre-Burma bandmate Erik Lindgren, taking time out to make solo records as well. Swope joined him in Birdsongs. Prescott formed Volcano Suns who, as the pseudonymous Din, have also backed Dredd Foole on two albums. He also had the Peer Group.
On record, however, the Mission of Burma saga was far from over. The posthumous Horrible Truth About Burma compiles live performances from four US cities on the band’s final (1983) tour. Besides a merciless rendition of the Stooges’ “1970” and nine dynamic minutes of Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness,” the album offers eight originals in several stylistic veins. Some of the tracks are intense and captivating, while others are sloppy, lacking the focused punch of their best work.
The all-fun Mission of Burma EP consists of five loud studio leftovers. Produced by Boston rocker Peter Dayton in 1979 and heavily played on local radio at the time, “Peking Spring” is an obsessive dark mantra with cool choral chanting; produced by Lou Giardano, “Dumbells,” although not much of a song, has an amazing overdriven guitar sound. (The cassette and CD both contain five bonus cuts.)
Forget Mission of Burma empties the vaults further for an album of previously unreleased songs given basic studio treatment. Two are 1979 4-track sessions, eight are from a 1980 Electro Acoustic studio session and two are from a 1982 Radiobeat session. “Hunt Again” and “Smoldering Fuselage” have vocals re-recorded in 1987. Obviously not the band’s premier material nor ideal recording circumstances, the loud and muscular songs seem undeveloped, samey. The most exciting moments are breaks in which Miller and Swope work their rowdy magic. Fans won’t be disappointed — these are by no means trivial scraps — but the earlier EP has Burma’s best outtakes.
Peking Spring expands the Mission of Burma EP, adding more from the 1982 Radiobeat recordings, plus one additional session track each from 1980 and 1981. Together, the 10 tracks provide even more texture to the brief history of Mission of Burma but, like Forget, comes nowhere near the high-water mark documented by the Ryko reissues, and exists only for those who wish to get a fuller picture of a working band (and one that in many of these tracks could be considered “stripped-down,” without the accompaniment of Martin Swope).
The 80-minute-plus compilation (one CD, two vinyl discs) entitled Mission of Burma consists of Signals, Calls, and Marches and Vs. in their entirety plus two tracks from Horrible Truth, two single sides (“Academy Fight Song” and “OK/No Way”), a previously unreleased version of “Forget” and an otherwise unreleased song, “Laugh the World Away.” For another listen to the band’s ephemera, the two-record Let There Be Burma reissues Forget and the eponymous Taang! EP in its expanded form, adding alternate (but not very different) takes of “This Is Not a Photograph” from the 1981 EP and “Einstein’s Day” from Vs.
After Burma, Conley opted out of music altogether and built a second career as a TV producer. But after a 15-year silence, he began Consonant, a new project with younger Boston veterans Chris Brokaw (Come, Codeine, Steve Wynn, The New Year), Matt Kadane (Bedhead, The New Year) and Winston Braman (Fuzzy). The new group’s woodshedding resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable album that is full of new promise, and looks ahead at much as it looks back. Produced by Shellac’s Bob Weston (a former bandmate of Prescott in Volcano Suns), Consonant glides effortlessly between the chimingly reflective “Blissful;” the jangling, edgy “Buckets of Flowers, Porno Mags;” and the shimmering, plaintive “Not Like Them.” Conley derived much of the album’s lyrical content from the words of poet/artist Holly Anderson (who had designed some of Burma’s record covers). Miller adds keyboard accompaniment on several tracks.
The first three entries in the official, definitive Burma catalog were reissued in remastered and expanded form in 1997. The new edition of Signals, Calls, and Marches includes both sides of 1980’s groundbreaking “Academy Fight Song”/”Max Ernst” single, the 7-inch that sold 10,000 copies, launched Burma as vanguards in emerging college rock and garnered the respect of folks like R.E.M. (who covered “Academy Fight Song” in concert). Vs. adds “Forget,” “OK / No Way,” “Laugh the World Away” and a re-mixed “Progress.” The Horrible Truth About Burma has four bonus tracks recorded live in New York and Detroit.
The reissues were the result of a resurgence of interest in the band, which had never enjoyed more than cult status. Moby covered “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” on his 1996 LP Animal Rights; Blur’s Graham Coxon paid egalitarian tribute to both Conley’s “Revolver” and Miller’s “Fame and Fortune” on his 2000 album, The Golden D. After being profiled in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life in 2002, the band did the unthinkable — Conley joined Miller, Prescott and Bob Weston (standing in for tape manipulator Martin Swope) at reunion shows in New York and Boston. Following England’s All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, further live dates across the US continued into 2003, during which the band road-tested a couple of new songs.
Emerging from its two-decade hibernation like a museum mummy in a Vincent Price thriller, Burma breathes deeply of fresh but familiar air on OnOffOn. If at times more tuneful, the new songs — written individually by Miller, Prescott and Conley — mesh smoothly with the band’s original concepts, and the raucous guitar drama gives nothing away to age. It’s thrilling to hear a pioneer return to reclaim its place and restate its case with such conviction and confidence; anyone ever cowed by the force majeure of Burma could not possibly fail to be humbled all over again by this belated reminder of who made who. Not every track works (a reasonable result of the band’s ambition and diversity here), but “The Setup,” “Hunt Again,” “Falling,” “Fake Blood,” “Dirt” and “Absent Mind” all have the excitement, power and intelligence of Burma’s best work and amply justify the courageous decision to start up this old engine again. Free of nostalgia yet deeply redolent of what really made rock in the ’80s good (as opposed to the kitschy crud so in vogue now haircuts), Mission of Burma in the 21st century counters the traditional view that rock and roll is primarily for young people to make and appreciate. These oldtimers rock!