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July 4 - 11, 1997
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Mission impossible

The story behind the legend of a seminal Boston band

by Mark Woodlief

[Mission Of Burma] The Boston music scene in the late '70s and early '80s was like a frontier, offering new discoveries to souls brave enough to seek them. A vibrant American underground was forming, but thelocal party felt a little exclusive to some of us.

For a Newton teenager barely out of junior high school, finding Newbury Comics (then merely a small, rundown shop on Newbury Street, with barely a sign to mark the door) was the ticket to belonging. Here, among boxes of comics, was contraband -- singles from LA's nascent SST Records, releases from bands I'd never heard of, something called Minor Threat. I approached the counter tentatively, clutching the Black Flag single "Six Pack" and stammering at the clerk, "Is . . . is this any good?"

A very young, very rude Aimee Mann (or was that a look-alike?) shot me a mean glare and barked, "People who like it like it." I gulped and retreated, rejected.

She could just as easily have been talking about Boston's own Mission of Burma, whose signals, calls, and marches debut EP I also dug out of the racks at Newbury Comics. It was 1980, and punk itself was nothing new. But Mission of Burma were. And even a 13-year-old outsider, cluelessly clad in a royal-blue Izod shirt, could sense something important was happening.

"Back then," Burma founding bassist Clint Conley recalls, "if the music industry was a city or a village, we were definitely out in the bush staging raids with our little merry band of followers. We were out in the wilderness, gathered around our little bonfires at Cantone's and the Rat."

The pioneering blend of avant-rock noise and tense melodicism that Conley, guitarist Roger Miller, drummer Peter Prescott, and tape-loop manipulator Martin Swope brought to the post-punk frontier remains as bracing today as it was almost two decades ago. So it's not really all that surprising to find dance-music whiz Moby hitting the modern-rock airwaves with a cleaned-up version of Burma's Conley-penned "That's When I Reach for My Revolver." And it's more than fitting that Rykodisc has just reissued the entire MOB back catalogue, all three CDs: signals, calls, and marches, 1982's full-length VS., and the posthumous live disc The Horrible Truth About Burma. They've been remastered by Rykodisc and re-released with the original artwork, exclusive photos, and a few choice rarities tacked on.

"Burma was sort of an acquired taste," remembers Conley. "We heard it over and over again throughout our career that people would see us the first time and it just wouldn't make any sense at all. Listening to our live tapes, I know what they're talking about. Sometimes it's just like chewing gravel or a visit to the dentist's office."

You can hear what Conley's talking about on The Horrible Truth About Burma, which was recorded during the group's farewell 1983 tour and originally released in 1985 on Ace of Hearts Records. Although the disc's title was just meant as a joke among band members, Miller admits that the horrible truth about Burma is that not everyone got what they were trying to do during the few years they were doing it. "At our last show in LA there were 10 people," he recalls.

But as with many of the influential American acts that came before them -- Big Star, Television, perhaps even the hallowed Velvet Underground -- the impact of Mission of Burma's formative sound was felt far beyond the crowd of insiders who actually saw the band play. Moby's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" is only the most prominent cover of that tune -- Chicago's Pegboy did it on a '95 disc. And a decade ago R.E.M. put their signature jangle behind a version of Burma's "Academy Fight Song."

Burma came together in 1979, when Miller and Conley split from the Moving Parts to link with ex-Molls drummer Peter Prescott. But thanks to the intervention of Martin Swope, a friend of Miller's from Ann Arbor, they weren't bound to become just another traditional guitar/bass/drums punk trio. Swope moved into an apartment in Brighton with Miller and Conley and began to intrigue the pair with the tape loops he was experimenting with -- tape loops that would soon bring a distinctive avant edge to the Mission of Burma sound. (Miller and Swope would go on to collaborate in an early version of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic after MOB.)

"He started mixing us at live performances, did a few things in the studio, and then started showing up in our photographs," says Conley of Swope's inauguration into the band. "I can't remember any sort of ceremony where we slit our fingers and traded blood, or anything like that."

The avant-garde interests of Miller and Swope combined with Conley's slightly more melodic sensibilities. And the group's shared affinity for free jazz, aggressive noise, punk, psychedelia, and pop set Burma off even from the already marginalized post-punk underground. Swope was ahead of his time with the tape-loop experiments -- Miller remembers how early audiences were often confused by Burma's all-encompassing din. "When we first started, the joke in Boston was, `They'd be pretty good if they could all play the same song at the same time.' Our songs were so complex sometimes, and we'd all be doing completely different things in the same song. Martin just added another element of that very organized embracing of the chaos of the moment."

"What Martin did," Prescott interjects, "was tape something that was going on live, manipulate it, and send it back in [via the soundboard] as a sort of new instrument. You couldn't predict exactly how it would sound, and that got to be the really fun thing I think we all liked. We wanted to play this hammer-down drony noise stuff, but we also wanted another sound in there."

By the end of '81 -- with signals already sold out of its first pressing of 10,000 copies, to this day an impressive feat for an indie rock band -- Burma were receiving national attention. Rolling Stone noted that "the group seems to be all things to all people: hard enough for heavy-metal freaks, intelligent enough for progressive-rock fans, and, occasionally, accessible enough for AM pop stations."

The blueprint's there on signals, in the way the tense, melodic opening salvo of "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" cuts immediately into the dissonant "Outlaw." You can hear it in the way "Fame and Fortune" a bittersweet anthem with a sweeping, somber bridge and an explosive finish, gives way to the corrosive art-punk blast of "This Is Not a Photograph"; in the shimmering, fractured "Red," which boasts some of Swope's most overt colorings; and in the closing number, an expansive, chiming instrumental titled "All World Cowboy Romance."

It was VS., however, that was widely hailed as the group's landmark achievement. True to the legend, the disc is a formidably dense and knotty assembly of live power and studio genius that came well ahead of its time. The dark tremolo Miller coaxes from his guitar on "Trem Two" predates Johnny Marr's hook on the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" by a couple of years. Elsewhere, unnerving maelstroms ("Secrets," "New Nails") collide with drony excursions ("Weatherbox"), punk crunch ("Fun World," "The Ballad of Johnny Burma," "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate"), and melodic grandeur ("Einstein's Day," "Dead Pool"), presaging the cut-and-paste aesthetics of today's postmodern aggro-pop.

The assaulting volume of MOB's live shows turned out to be the group's biggest problem, as Miller's tinnitus cut short what could easily have been a much longer career for a band who were still coming into their own at the time The Horrible Truth About Burma was recorded. They certainly weren't running short on ideas -- the crucial "Peking Spring" and the abrasive "Dumbbells" are two seminal tracks that the band never had a chance to realize in the studio. But this last disc's pairs of covers are the most telling, in that they allude to two ahead-of-their-time groups Mission of Burma would join in the annals of influential underground artists. "We have to do this song, 'cause we have to do it," Conley can be heard telling the crowd before Burma break into the Stooges' "1970." The other cover is Pere Ubu's "Heart of Darkness."

When it was over, it was all over. "We laugh about this," says Conley, "but the best move we ever made was to break up and then do nothing. Forever. There's something to be said for just going off gracefully and graciously and with dignity intact before things start ripening into a rotting mess. Just leave it there and leave people with memories of something that was really exciting and compelling."

In other words, a reunion is out of the question, even though there's still plenty of music coming out of the Burma camp. Prescott moved from Burma to the prolific Volcano Suns before switching from drums to guitar/vocals and fronting first Kustomized and now the new Peer Group. All three have been in the Burma tradition of loud, uncompromising rock. As he puts it, "Burma was a great band to be in and I guess there's an undertone of it in everything I've done since and maybe everything I'll ever do."

Miller's long line of post-Burma projects -- from Birdsongs to No Man to Maximum Electric Piano -- has blazed a different trail, following the avant-garde side of Burma to its logical conclusion. His newest unit, the Binary System, will have a debut CD out on SST Records later this year.

And Conley, though he was recently spotted on stage at Great Woods with Moby and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones for a spirited runthrough of "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," has left music behind for a career producing television segments for Channel 5's Chronicle news magazine.

But what about Swope, the guy Creem magazine once called "the man behind the curtain" for his Oz-like contributions to the band's sound?

"He's in Hawaii in the jungle somewhere," Conley explains, offering an e-mail address for the former tape manipulator.

Responding to a request for an electronic interview, Swope cryptically replied, "I'm sorry to say that I can't help you on the article -- bad timing, I fear. Re: your question of my current activities: I try to follow Voltaire. Best, Martin."

It's fitting, perhaps, that on the occasion of Mission of Burma's return to the market, the group's most mysterious member remains, at least metaphorically, behind smoke and mirrors. The mystery, if not the mission, of Mission of Burma lives on.

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