Threshold: Mission of Burma

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Kicking off a new category on Jukebox Heart, “Threshold”, these are tracks which, once heard for the first time, or seen performed live, somehow altered my path and the paths of people around me. In the context of art overlapping punk, Mission of Burma stayed strongly within context, and at the same time, showed what was possible by moving outside of it. The power of this particular song, especially when seen performed live, had the potential to be overwhelming.

Of all the punk-inspired bands that came out of Boston in the early ’80s, none were better than Mission of Burma. Arty without being too pretentious, capable of writing gripping songs and playing with ferocious intensity, guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley, drummer Peter Prescott, and tapehead Martin Swope galvanized the city’s alternative rock scene, and despite a too-short existence set a standard for excellence that has rarely been equalled – a standard the band upheld when they unexpectedly reunited in 2002.

Here is the band performing Trem Two in 1983…

Burma’s music is vintage early-’80s post-punk: jittery rhythms, odd shifts in time, declamatory vocals; an aural assault similarly employed by bands such as the Gang of Four, Mekons, and Pere Ubu – Burma’s peers as well as their influences. Also, conspicuously present in the mix was the proto-punk of the Stooges and Velvet Underground (with just a dash of Led Zeppelin and Roxy Music), bands that inspired Burma’s darker songwriting impulses and tendencies toward long-ish, repetitive jams capable of boring holes into your skull. What Burma added was a sonic texture through the use of extreme volume. Roger Miller’s guitar enveloped the band in thick, distorted cascading chords, erupting into squealing solos and (intentional) squalls of feedback. With Prescott and Conley furiously bashing in support, the band’s sound was extremely physical (ask anyone who saw them live) to the point of leaving the audience feeling slightly bruised, battered, but extremely happy.

After releasing an explosive single (‘Academy Fight Song,’ still one of punk rock’s greatest songs) on Boston’s then-hippest indie label, Ace of Hearts, Burma released two excellent records in just over a year: the Signals, Calls and Marches EP and their only full-length studio album, Vs. The former was poppier, but in a breathtakingly intense way; the latter dark and ominous, lacking in riff-heavy punch, but still delivering a wicked blast of aural chaos. Unbeknownst to fans, this was the beginning of the end. The massive volume, a key element in Burma’s sound, had taken its toll on the bandmembers, especially Miller, who developed a severe case of tinnitus that hastened the band’s demise. (Always the trooper, Miller played the band’s final tour wearing a protective headset used on shooting ranges to prevent his ears from absorbing more punishment.) After a bittersweet farewell tour in 1983, the shows were released as a live LP entitled The Horrible Truth About Burma, an occasionally thrilling example of their considerable stage prowess.

Miller since went on to a career as a solo artist and with his non-touring band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Prescott formed the wonderful Volcano Suns, who released a half-dozen records all worth checking out, before starting Kustomized with ex-Bullet Lavolta singer Yukki Gipe. Clint Conley produced the first Yo La Tengo record and various singles, including one for The flies, and then left the music business. He went on to work as a producer at Boston television station WCVB.

In 2001, Peter Prescott’s short-lived band The Peer Group played a show opening for reunited British art-punks Wire, and Roger Miller and Clint Conley tagged along to play an encore with Prescott, marking the first time the three had appeared on stage together since 1983. Later that year, Mission of Burma were featured prominently in Michael Azerrad’s book on the indie-rock scene of the 1980’s, Our Band Could Be Your Life, and Conley began writing and performing music again with the band Consonant. After The Peer Group folded, the three performing members of Mission Of Burma decided to stage a pair of reunion shows in early 2002. (Martin Swope opted not to participate; live sound and tape loops were instead handled by Bob Weston of the group Shellac). One concert in New York became two sold-out nights at the Irving Plaza, and a single night in Boston became four shows at three venues (including an ‘open rehearsal’ under the name Myanmar); the group also joined the lineup for the 2002 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England, followed by short tours of the West Coast and Midwest. Along with playing a handful of live dates in 2003 (including the American edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties), Mission of Burma returned to the studio for their first recording project since Vs., and Onoffon was released by Matador Records in the spring of 2004, who in a press release said of the album ‘this isn’t just a hot new release, it’s a goddamn cultural event.’More albums folowed, as Burma reestablished themselves.