The undeniable truth about Burma

Mission of Burma recorded 21 songs, helped invent post-punk, and left a legacy that resonated from R.E.M. to Moby. More than 20 years later, no one will let the band die.

Published July 9, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

At the 15th annual Boston Music Awards, held earlier this year, the 2002 Hall of Fame honor -- essentially a lifetime achievement award -- was given to Mission of Burma, a band whose lifetime lasted a mere four years and whose cumulative recorded achievement amounted to 21 songs that few people heard. From 1979 to 1983, Burma put out two singles, one six-song mini-album ("Signals, Calls and Marches"), and one full-length album ("Vs."), all on the tiny Boston independent label Ace of Hearts. Enshrining the band's lifetime accomplishment would seem to be the equivalent of inducting Pedro Martinez into baseball's Hall of Fame -- in an alternate universe where he disappeared after pitching one year with the Red Sox, during a season when no fans showed up at Fenway.

The honor coincides with the first reunion tour by the legendary band in the nearly two decades since it broke up. Since January, Burma has headlined a handful of shows in Boston, New York and London, and done two shows at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in southern England, playing to audiences much larger than any the band had ever encountered. Later this month, the band will hit the West Coast for three shows, including one at Seattle's Experience Music Project, the high-tech museum of rock history launched by former Microsoft impresario Paul Allen. These shows haven't been accompanied by any new records (though some new songs have crept into the band's set), but in a way, that dearth of new material is itself an argument for Burma's receiving the award. The strange career of Mission of Burma is proof that in art, the ability to make a lifetime last forever is often an artist's greatest achievement.

This canonizing has been a process undertaken with almost no participation by the band members themselves. After a quixotic and often disastrous national "farewell" tour in '83, Burma called it quits by playing one more largely disastrous show in the urban no-man's land known as Staten Island, opening for Public Image Ltd., who refused to let Burma use the P.A. and rushed them off the stage. Shortly thereafter, Ace of Hearts founder Richard Harte put together "The Horrible Truth About Burma," an album of live recordings he'd made from those shows. In the mid-'80s, the Boston label Taang scraped together two albums of demo and unreleased material, "Mission of Burma" and "Forget." In 1998, as Burma's original releases became the rare stuff of collectors, yet another Boston label, Rykodisc, issued a CD of all but two of those 21 songs, plus some live material. Finally, in 1997, Rykodisc reissued "Signals," "Vs." and "Horrible Truth," with bonus material. And then there have been the collections of music by bands -- such as Sproton Layer and the Moving Parts -- that preceded Mission of Burma but that had some of the band's future members. In light of Mission of Burma's protracted history, the sleeve accompanying the revealingly titled "Forget" seems especially appropriate: "Can we stop now?" reads the caption below a photo of the band. "Please?"

That's a good question. For one thing, given that the band members themselves had almost nothing to do with seeing that Burma's 21-song cycle remained available over the years, the real intended recipient of the Hall of Fame award seems to be the noble and faceless Boston record geek who selflessly kept the band's memory alive, even before local boosterism gave someone the bright idea to give out Boston Music Awards. Which just might be the point. The seemingly endless supply of posthumous releases by long-gone superstars like the Doors or Jimi Hendrix, besides being attempts to keep lucrative revenue streams flowing, also signals a desire to turn the fire of a particular cultural moment into an eternal flame. But with Mission of Burma, whose current popularity far outstrips anything the band experienced during its lifetime, an inverse process is at work. Rather than prolong Burma's original moment, the labor keeping those 21 songs alive has been an attempt to add, retroactively, fuel to a fire whose brightness is apparent only in hindsight. The ongoing renewal of Burma's meager catalog is nothing less than an attempt to remake history.

For their part, the members of Mission of Burma did their job and got off the stage. They've occasionally come together over the years to be interviewed by eager fanzine writers, always maintaining a wry attitude toward Burma's legacy. (The "horrible truth," they joked when the live record was released, was that Burma's concerts were rarely as cohesive as their records.) They declined offers to reunite, not out of any apparent animosity, but because they felt as if they'd done what they'd set out to do. And so they stopped.

Actually, there was a more mundane reason Burma called it quits when they did, one that literally speaks volumes about the intensity with which the band pursued its project. Guitarist Roger Miller, a music composition major at the University of Michigan in the mid-'70s and the veteran of several loud rock bands, had developed a severe case of tinnitus (a condition characterized by a constant ringing in the ears) even before he moved to Boston. Miller had intended to devote himself to playing experimental music of a more reasonable volume, but found himself seduced by the punk rock explosion of 1976-77 and figured he'd endure his own power chords for as long as he could. By 1983, he couldn't.

Miller and his bandmates never really stopped; they just stopped being Mission of Burma. Under his own name and as No Man, Miller released several records of music played on guitar and treated piano, and he's continued to perform with avant-garde groups, including Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, the Alloy Orchestra and the Wrong Pipe. Drummer Peter Prescott has also had a prolific post-Burma career, leading his own largely underrated punk-derived bands, Volcano Suns, Kustomized and Peer Group. Martin Swope, whose role in the band as "sound manipulator" (he worked behind the mixing board at Burma's shows, adding sound effects and recording live tape loops, which he would reintegrate into the music) predated the now common practice of rock bands employing DJs of indeterminate purpose, also played with Birdsongs before moving to Hawaii in the early '90s and apparently dropping out of music altogether. Although bassist Clint Conley wrote and sang "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," Burma's most famous songs, he stopped making music almost immediately following the Staten Island debacle. For the past several years, he's worked as a producer on "Chronicle," a Boston TV newsmagazine. He's lately begun to record and perform again, with his new band, Consonant, and the Wrong Pipe, in a collaboration with Miller.

The indifference of its members notwithstanding, Mission of Burma has, over the past 20 years, quietly gone from being just another scruffy punk band that never got its due to becoming one of the touchstones of American post-punk. At least three recorded versions of "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" have cropped up over the years, including one in 1997 by Moby. (Displaying the marketing savvy that would later lead him to license an entire album's worth of songs to various commercial concerns, Moby recorded a special version, "That's When I Realize It's Over," for a squeamish MTV.) For a few years, R.E.M. made "Academy Fight Song" a staple of its live show; the recorded version was fan-club only, but "Crush With Eyeliner," from 1995's "Monster," is a clear homage to Burma's "Trem Two." In 2000, Graham Coxon, the guitarist for Blur, a band known more for its plundering of British pre-punk rather than American post-punk, released a solo record that included two Burma tunes.

Perhaps the best illustration of Burma's lasting influence was the coterie of guests that came onstage during the encores of the band's first reunion shows, held in New York and Boston in February, to accompany Burma on "All World Cowboy Romance," the chiming, almost psychedelic instrumental that ends "Signals, Calls and Marches." On the first of two nights in New York, it was Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth. The second night was a more diverse group: Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, another Tri State-area band that took Burma's sound and ran with it (plus, Conley produced their 1986 debut); Richard Baluyut of the band Versus, whose name echoes the title of Burma's only full-length album; and Moby, who stood off to the side tentatively strumming a guitar, looking somewhat lost, until he realized it was over. A week later in Boston, Burma performed the song with drummer Hugo Burnham of early '80s British post-punk legends Gang of Four, one of the bands whose musical approach most closely mirrored Mission of Burma's.

Martin Swope has declined to take part in the reunion activities (the band has been good-naturedly dedicating the shows to him), but even his vacancy has been turned into a kind of tribute. For these reunion shows, the role of sound manipulator has been filled by Bob Weston, a former member of Prescott's Volcano Suns and the bassist for the Chicago band Shellac, one of the groups working today that owe the most to Burma. Shellac's guitarist, the recording engineer Steve Albini, was instrumental in getting Burma to reunite for the All Tomorrow's Parties festival.

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"Mission of Burma's only sin was bad timing," writes Michael Azzerad in "Our Band Could Be Your Life," his history of American underground music from 1981 to 1991. Burma didn't succeed, he argues, because the "support system" that would later nurture underground rock bands -- independent record companies, college radio, and sympathetic rock clubs -- was still in an embryonic stage. But what if Burma's music was, regardless of the lack of this support system, actually ahead of its time? What if it articulated a code, a nascent group of symbols and sounds, that would not gain the critical mass of language until some point in the future?

Azerrad's 1981-91 continuum tells a tidy tale, beginning with the release of Black Flag's "Damaged," the Southern California punk band's most singular document, and the calling card the band used as it conducted shoestring tours across the United States, blazing a trail that indie bands have followed ever since. And 1991, as the title of a Sonic Youth documentary put it, was the year that punk broke, when the music industry and the underground converged for Nirvana's "Nevermind." Time was not on the side of any American indie rock band that began in 1979, but blaming Burma's initial obscurity on the lack of an adequate support system doesn't tell the whole story.

Although Burma lacked real organized support, the band was blessed by its association with label owner Richard Harte. Besides his unfailing belief in Burma, he produced and engineered their records; he's largely the reason why 1983's "Vs.," recorded mostly live in the studio, is one of the most sonically powerful punk documents ever produced. And if Burma had made the major-label leap (Warner Bros. was briefly interested but was really only impressed by "Revolver"), what would that have gotten them? Throughout the 1980s, scores of indie heroes, including Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and X, all signed to major labels, a move that failed to prop up careers that were already stumbling. To put it another way, Azerrad's theory explains why so many of the farewell shows documented on "Horrible Truth" were poorly attended, and why Burma's recent audiences have been the band's largest ever. What the theory does not explain is why, as with Dylan's infamous crowd-enraging electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the number of people who now claim to have been at those Burma farewell shows is clearly greater than the number of people who actually were.

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The punk explosion of 1976 still resonates because of what it allowed -- and still allows -- musicians with only the most rudimentary of tools. As true punk believers, Mission of Burma achieved an astoundingly expressive array of sounds and textures from an essentially limited sonic palette. The lovely, haunting "Trem Two," for example, is based almost entirely around one five-note descending chromatic scale on Miller's guitar, meticulously played (with the aid of an effects pedal) to resonate rhythmically like a metronome. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Miller was profoundly affected by the Stooges, hometown heroes fronted by Iggy Pop, whose first two albums, "The Stooges" and "Fun House," released in '69 and '70, are some of the earliest articulations of what would eventually become punk. Miller adapted the brilliantly lumpen style of Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, forging a unique combination of bite and jangle that bands continue to experiment with today.

Mission of Burma's most obvious innovation was the band's ability to operate in this gray area, combining rock 'n' roll's traditional fetish for pure, unmediated feeling, with a more modern sort of artistic calculation. Burma's music could evoke everything from the Beatles' ecstatic run of Hamburg rock clubs in the early '60s ("That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate") to the lightning-speed hardcore punk -- so fast it often seemed more like avant-garde art music than rock 'n' roll -- that was developing in the U.S. during Burma's tenure ("Go Fun Burn Man"). In this sense, Burma can be said to have blithely encapsulated punk's overarching mission: to draw a line connecting rock rebels past and present, and, in doing so, re-imagine and re-establish the music's anarchic condition.

Despite the punk pedigree, however, critics almost universally refer to Mission of Burma as "post-punk," and this term serves as a clue to why Burma was on the forefront of something whose importance is only fully understood in hindsight. With its implications of the resumption of real life after a revolution, the term "post-punk" poses the interesting aesthetic conundrum of what to do with an art form after all barriers have supposedly come down. For, as much as punk shattered hardened rock conventions, it also marked the first time in rock's history that a truly progressive change had been predicated on somewhat retrograde impulses -- a determined return to the past. Punk was rock 'n' roll's most self-conscious moment to date, and this self-consciousness came to be post-punk's most recognizable marker.

Rock's self-conscious turn, as embodied by post-punk music, was part of a larger process of evolution that at least two critics, Joe Carducci and Robert Christgau, have described in linguistic terms, noting how "rock 'n' roll" gradually became known as simply "rock." As part of a broader attempt to explain the American post-punk and indie rock explosion of the '80s, Carducci notes in his 1991 book, "Rock and the Pop Narcotic," that many of the earliest rock 'n' roll records were made by temporary groups of musicians; by contrast, "rock music is rock and roll music made conscious of itself as a small band music." (Carducci also worked for SST, the pioneering record label run by members of Black Flag.) Three years later, Christgau expanded Carducci's terminology to describe the first uses, in the late '60s, of the word "rock, [which] is rock and roll made conscious of itself, burdened with every vague association and meaning that the era's ad hoc self-analysis could pile on." In other words, rock 'n' roll becomes "art," and its practitioners and fans begin to assert the music's overarching meaning and significance.

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However much punk rejected the ideology of '60s rock, the music still had to grapple with rock's growing self-consciousness. The year 1979 was the perfect moment for Mission of Burma, four geeky guys who loved punk and basked in its aftermath, but weren't afraid to dirty their hands with rock 'n' roll. Their timing was great; their "sin" was that they were in the wrong place. As a recognizable genre, post-punk really took hold in Great Britain, where the most important punk rock band, the Sex Pistols, was conceived as much as an art project and marketing ploy as a rock band. The Ramones, the Pistols' American counterparts, and the band whose 1976 self-titled debut was the punk shot heard round the world, saw themselves as much more of a celebration of postwar consumer culture, rather than an ironic critique of it. Until Nirvana's massive success caused people to adopt the term "alternative" -- a vague appellation that simultaneously suggested an outsider art without the obligation of having to define just what exactly the art was outside of -- "post-punk" meant to Americans just about any music that could be said to owe its existence, in some way, to punk.

But for the British, post-punk was also a sound and a sensibility, and the leading lights of the movement took rock's self-consciousness to new extremes. Every musical impulse seemed be an attempt to second-guess assumptions about rock's pleasure principle. In 1979, the Gang of Four, four earnest Marxists from Leeds University, released their debut, "Entertainment," possibly the most self-conscious title in rock history: Here we are now. What are the material conditions that allow us to entertain you? In interviews, the band would explain that terms like "rock," "funk" and "punk" were merely building blocks to be fit together and disassembled at will -- a vision of music as pure structure. Wire and the Fall each made a virtue out of an almost comically rigid approach, turning on its head rock's traditional rhythmic "swing." And Public Image Ltd. combined thudding grooves and lugubrious bass lines -- nicknamed "death disco" at the time -- with John Lydon's lyrics about the burden of memories, producing a music that almost dared you to move your body to it.

Until post-punk hardened into "new wave" in the early '80s (the British version of "alternative"), the music thrived during a period that corresponded almost exactly to Mission of Burma's life span. More than any other American band, Burma was clearly paying attention and perhaps even inspiring the post-punk movement. Burma was supposedly the only band that Mark E. Smith, the Fall's legendarily cantankerous singer, could tolerate. And, in a literal interpretation of the Gang of Four's building-block beliefs, Burma's "Signals, Calls and Marches" even included, in lieu of a lyric sheet, an alphabetical list of every word sung on the album. Depending on your perspective, Burma either Americanized British post-punk or Anglicized American post-punk. (Cleveland's Pere Ubu, whose "Heart of Darkness" was a staple of Burma's live show, had already managed to do something similar a year or so before punk became codified -- a true sin of bad timing.) At times, Burma shared Joy Division's murk ("Dead Pool"), Gang of Four's harsh angularity ("Outlaw"), Wire's arch abrasiveness ("New Nails"), the Fall's linguistic obtuseness ("This Is Not a Photograph"), and Public Image's dry rhythm ("Fun World"). Like the Gang of Four, they played with Cold War imagery ("Peking Spring"); like the Sex Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun" (albeit without that band's dark comedy), Conley's "Progress" dealt with the ironies of the postwar world.

From Prescott's scattershot rhythms to Miller's tightly coiled chords, from Swope's blur of sound to Conley's thudding bass, the thrilling tension of Burma's music is the way it always sounds as though it's about to sabotage itself. Crucially, however, Mission of Burma was an American band; it was as uniquely redolent of its surroundings and intoxicated by rock's manic rush as the Ramones or the Stooges. Either by accident or design, Burma's songs never had the polish of British post-punk. The slew of great American bands now part of the "post-punk revival," including the Rapture and Radio 4, sounds a lot like British post-punk and almost nothing like Burma. For that matter, Silkworm and Versus, the two American bands that opened for Burma at a London club in April, and who constantly elicit comparisons to Burma, ultimately sound nothing like the boys from Boston. The fact that people still speak of Burma and the Gang of Four in the same breath two decades later is a testament to how subtle Burma's synthesis was, and how original the music ended up sounding.

The secret weapon of Burma's music is that while it embodies the self-conscious tension pioneered by the band's British peers, it simultaneously fights its downward drag -- "the pulling of the undertow," as Miller sings on "Secrets." In a way that must have sounded positively foreign to British post-punks, Burma's music dramatized a battle between mind and body that became its own musical tension. One of the pleasures of Burma's records is hearing Prescott occasionally yelling what sounds like gibberish at the top of his lungs, seemingly lost in the music. For all the angst and self-examination of "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" and "Academy Fight Song" (which climaxes with "I'm not judging you/ I'm judging me!"), these songs carry an anthemic spirit that few of the band's peers -- British or American -- ever achieved.

This, then, is Burma's lasting contribution to rock history. They came of age at the exact moment rock was collapsing into itself, and they made music that somehow embodied this self-conscious turn inward while surging with the momentum of more innocent earlier times. By embodying the interplay between structure and freedom, Mission of Burma's music crystallized the post-punk moment and shined a light forward. It's fitting that this aesthetic leap is apparent only with the luxury of hindsight, because it's become clear that whatever has passed for "alternative rock" over the past 20 years has wrestled with this same dialectical tension. It forms an unbroken chain from Mission of Burma through the Pixies through Nirvana through Shellac and any other band on the radio or MTV that attempts to make opposition part of its pose. Punk forever changed rock 'n' roll, and the music has spent two decades grappling with the self-consciousness that was punk's fallout. As the fallout remains, the legacy of Burma's 21 songs plus ephemera only grows. Whatever the members of Mission of Burma decide to do from here, the world shows no signs of allowing them to stop.

By Greg Milner

In what might be deemed a sympathetic reaction to Roger Miller's tinnitus, Greg Milner

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