During its brief, intense, and not-so-happy lifetime, early-'80s band Mission of Burma was so obscure that its breakup passed almost unnoticed. So few would've predicted the roaring response it received this spring for a handful of East Coast shows -- its first as a band in nineteen years. As the group took the stage at New York's Irving Plaza, perhaps no one was more shocked at the audience's appreciation than singer and guitarist Roger Miller. So shocked, in fact, that he almost forgot to put on his trademark headphones: big, clunky shooting-range models. The ear protection was one of the more striking leitmotifs in many of the band's old performance photos. "Clint gave me a little look, and I realized I didn't have the headphones," says Miller, referring to his bass player Clint Conley. "So I reached over, and as I put them on, the audience broke into a cheer."
These days the group may play "0.2 percent slower" than they used to, confesses Miller. But recent shows have still sold out, even though many members of the audience were too young to cope with solid food when the band came around the first time. With '80s new-wave and electro revivals currently riding high on every hipster's list of recyclables, perhaps now's the moment for the less glossy and artifice-obsessed flip side of the "Greed Is Good" decade. After all, for every Haysi Fantayzee, Duran Duran, or Kajagoogoo, there was a Pere Ubu, Minutemen, or Black Flag, eager to deconstruct the pop narcotic and embrace the chaos. Like Mission of Burma, these bands had the attitude without displaying any of the more overt signifiers of punk: there were no safety pins or bondage pants. Instead they pushed the music to the point of disintegration. They dressed like brainy college students, cobbled together a kind of raw poetry like acid-damaged surrealists, and tossed off guitar chords like shattered music teachers.
It's no wonder then, with local independents such as Erase Errata bringing a new noise to cacophonous art-punk experimentalism, and the Fucking Champs welding metal's power with their exploratory jams, that an opening seems to have emerged again for Mission of Burma's antistyle, pro-intellect, and all-noisome-rock aesthetic.
"We didn't have a flashy front person," Miller recalls. "I mean, we took perhaps our view more from groups like the Gang of Four, who were much more proletarian in that sense. We were like wacko intellectuals, over the top."
The band's tension-filled yet ferocious attack, angular melodies, off-kilter time signatures, and rough-hewn, almost martial vocals added up to a brand of art-rock that was as cerebral as it was visceral, influenced by Wire as well as the Ramones and MC5. Although the band was fully capable of producing tightly wound, evocative pop songs such as its regional and college radio hits "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," Mission of Burma poured all its intensity into a recorded output that was, in the end, small -- two singles, an EP, a studio album, and a posthumous live album.
Of course, others picked up the pieces. Mission of Burma's impact can be heard not only in the music of the artists that have covered them, such as Moby, REM, and Blur, but also in the work of groups such as Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Big Black, Fugazi, and all the emo and math-rock bands that those bands in turn inspired. Thanks to the musicians who swiped ideas, the critics who sang praises, and in-the-know music snobs who staked their indie cred on the band's mystique, Mission of Burma became an outfit akin to the Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, and other cultish performers who received little attention during their existence but found new life after their demise.
"Critics always liked us, and because critics and musicians liked us, that's why we are where we are today," says Miller, adding that when Rykodisc reissued VS. five years ago, he was stunned to see the album reviewed in Rolling Stone alongside reissues of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Van Morrison albums. "It was like, 'What the hell are we doing up there with those guys?' Miles and Hendrix -- we're just like petty demons compared to these gods."
The affable yet slightly coy fifty-year-old admits, however, that even after years of obscurity and being banned from Boston clubs for barely being able to draw flies, deep down he knew the band would have some posthumous lasting power. "When we played our last show in New York, we were driving home and I said, 'In five years, people will call us the Velvet Underground of the '80s.' Clint looked at me like, 'God, Roger, you're such an asshole.'" Sure enough, though, three years later the comparisons began.
"If you think about how the musical environment was in 1981," says the band's manager and former Grand Royal president Mark Kates, "there wasn't much between the mainstream and the underground, and the underground was really underground, and there was no Internet, no MTV -- there wasn't really alternative radio to speak of. Mission of Burma were just this amazing thing that was better than anything I was hearing."
Mission of Burma first came together in 1979, after Miller moved to Boston. He was a product of Ann Arbor, Michigan -- his youth was spent listening to the Beatles and the Yardbirds and watching MC5 and the Stooges. He studied contemporary music and jazz at Cal Arts, and moved to Boston to compose John Cage-inspired piano pieces. Instead, Miller joined the punk band Moving Parts, where he met Conley. Eventually, of course, they formed Mission of Burma. "I'd been to music school, so I knew stuff inside out and from all sorts of odd angles; I'd gone through the psychedelic grinder," Miller remembers. "But all of us were informed by the Ramones, which meant just throw everything away and start over again."
The band's lineup included Miller and Conley, as well as Peter Prescott on drums and Martin Swope on "tape manipulation," which involved recording snippets of the band on a tape recorder, modifying the recordings, and feeding the results back into the sound board. (For this tour, Swope has been replaced by Shellac's Bob Weston.) Listening to the group's dissonant, brainy, and experimental music, it's easy to imagine the band splintering into pieces from sheer force. The music dives into surrealist lyrics like "Dada. Dada. Dada. Dada." ("Max Ernst") or crashes and burns in an almost free-jazz, guitar-fueled frenzy ("Fun World"), or roves meditatively beyond pop song structures ("Trem Two"). "In almost all our music, there's a lot of open guitar strings ringing, and that gives some of that harmonic content," says Miller.
After putting out the "Academy Fight Song"/"Max Ernst" single and Signals, Calls, and Marches EP, Mission of Burma hit their musical peak with VS. in 1982. But it didn't exactly feel that way. "There was a time when we were in New Orleans in '82," says Miller. "We played 'Fun World' on the college radio station and nobody there liked it. When I heard it, I said, 'God, we sound like such a bad heavy-metal band.' I was so depressed after listening to it, and, of course, in retrospect, it's one of the songs that I like more than others."
By this time, the group was also starting to get press in magazines like Creem, but it still had a hard time engaging an audience. Even fans of quasi-hits such as "When I Reach for My Revolver" seemed flummoxed by the band's punishingly loud live show. "I remember playing in Cleveland and people were just pinned to the wall and after the first song, they did not make a sound," says Miller. "They didn't clap. There was nothing. It got the point where between the songs, we'd taunt the audience and they wouldn't respond. We were just like, 'Well, we're fucked.' "
Critics would say it took three viewings of the band to "get" their dissonant live shows, but apparently people weren't willing go through the requisite first two performances. In spite of successful shows like one at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens, Miller says the band's last show in LA in 1982 drew all of ten people.
Eventually the band called it quits in '83, especially after a maddening case of tinnitus -- hence the headphones -- reached an intolerable climax for Miller. "I was never worried about losing my hearing or anything like that," he says now. "But it was like when you're trying to go to sleep and you hear this high whining sound in your ears. It can be kind of psychosis-producing."
Over the years, Miller had been turning down offers to Mission of Burma reunion shows, but in the fall of 2001, when he received an e-mail invitation for the band to perform at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, he decided to pass it on to Conley. After all, three Mission of Burma members had already managed to perform together for an encore when Prescott's band Peer Group opened for Wire -- and the world didn't end. Instead, something began again. "Clint said, 'Let's do it.' I was just flabbergasted," Miller says.
There were other factors that brought them back together. The band, particularly Prescott, was very affected by the death of Joey Ramone, which reminded them of what they liked about punk in the first place. They were also egged on by their inclusion in Michael Azerrad's book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991, which featured them as one of the most influential groups of the era. All those reasons, including the fact that VS. made Spin's recent "Fifty Most Essential Punk Albums" roundup, made the band feel like the reunion would find an audience beyond a spoonful of hardy noise geeks.
The guitarist bristles a bit at the suggestion that the band could possibly be regarded as an indie-rock nostalgia act. Naturally the band is playing new songs as well as old, and "a lot of people in the audience were, like, three years old when we folded, so they don't have nostalgia for it," he says. "They view it as something completely different."
Judging from the turnout at their recent performances, Mission of Burma can consider themselves hereby lifted out of the obscurity of the punk history books and into the present day, if not the mainstream. None of them know if these shows will continue, and none of them know what future missions will bring. But for now, Miller says, they're ready to rise or fall on their music.
Maybe some things are worth a little hearing loss.
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