The Mission of Burma Reunion: A multi-chaptered account of the return of Boston's Greatest Band
It sort of starts with REM with me. Before 1998, to me, Mission of Burma was the name of a band that wrote a song
that REM covered. Before 1998, to me, Roger Miller was the name of the 1960's country singer who wrote 'Dang
Me' and 'King of the Road', which was also covered by REM.
I moved to Boston in September of 1998 and joined a band. My new bandmates were older than me and I was all too
eager to take their recommendations and discover for myself some of the late 70's/early 80's post-punk music that
made up the fabric of their musical influences. It was during this time that groups like the Au Pairs, Wire and
especially Gang of Four began seeping into my consciousness. I rented Urgh! A Music War and watched the good
bits over and over again. One day, I was driving our guitarist up Mass Ave, when he noticed some guy bicycling by
and casually pointed him out to me: "Hey, there's Roger Miller" "Who's Roger Miller?" I asked.
It's now a few months into 1999. I've just picked up Burma's seminal work VS. Between my silly question back in
the fall and now, I've learned more about Roger Miller and Mission of Burma; the fact that in our very city, there
lingers a rock legend. Just about every rock person I encounter up here, regardless of genre or classification, invokes
the name Mission of Burma with muted reverence, much the same way old school Beantown sports fans talk about
Carlton Fisk or Bobby Orr: the names of people who made Boston great. Roger Miller, I find out is still out and
about on the scene making experimental music in such appropriately named outfits as the Binary System and the
Alloy Orchestra. Peter Prescott, Burma's drummer, I find out was in a band with future Shellac member and
producer extraordinaire Bob Weston. I see Clint Connelly's name pop as a co-producer on the Wicked Farleys' Make
It It album. With all of these credentials, I'm excited to hear the actual music for the first time. I put in the disc
and wait for my life to change.
My life doesn't change. Not exactly. I'm confused more than anything else. I don't get it. Most of the songs start out
promising with catchy guitar hooks and melodies but they soon degenerate into a mess of loops, noise, feedback and
yelling. What the hell is going on? Repeated listens confuse me further. Eventually, I rationalize that the group must
have kicked ass in the context of their times (the old "Back in the day, this shit WAS the SHIT!" argument) The CD
sits on my shelf thenceforth, occasionally given another try or two over the next few years.
September 2001. I'm reading THAT book. Of course you know the book I mean. The book that's become the new
required reading for budding indie rockers and music fans alike -- the new history lesson/instruction manual of post-
punk DIY music; the very book Mission of Burma was reading which made them think about getting back together
in the first place: Micheal Azarrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life. He's already preaching to the converted with me
with his Flag/Minutemen/Minor Threat/Dino Jr./Fugazi chapters. But here's Mission of Burma in here, Boston's sole
representation in a book chronicling the best and brightest of DC, LA, Chicago, Minneapolis and of course NYC. I
start to read the chapter and put on VS. as a soundtrack.
This time my life DOES change. Suddenly, the music clicks for me. As I'm reading Azarrad's enthusiastic appraisal
of their groundbreaking work, I'm HEARING it, exactly the way he says. I get it now. And its a compelling story as
well; a unique band, ahead of their time, cut down in their prime and forced into early retirement by their guitarist's
worsening tinnitus. I'm making personal connections with the local landmarks contained therein. Not only that, but
I'm also making a connection with the fact that in their day, at their peak, in their own hometown, Mission of Burma
was greatly under appreciated and wholly misunderstood. They were too noisy to be called "new wave" and too
intellectual to be called "punk". As a result they found themselves on a curiously eclectic mix of bills featuring
Sonic Youth, Black Flag, REM, KIng Crimson, Wire, Minor Threat, Gang of Four and everything else in between. I
find it very easy to comprehend that in 1981 in Boston, this band must have seemed from another plan
et. Not much has changed up here I might add. I pick up Signals, Calls and Marches and am floored by the twin
anthems "Revolver" and "Academy" as well as by the noisy "Outlaw" and the majesty of "Red". I'm hooked. The
Horrible Truth album provides further testimony to their greatness by documenting the shambling glory of their live
show. It showcases rambuncious covers as well as more obscure original works such as their early single "Peking
Spring" with its amazing opening bass line. I finally get it all and try to imagine what it must have been like to see
them back then...
Around this time, I spot a random ad in a music mag. It simply says "Mission of Burma - www.missionofburma.com I go to the site and it
only says to sign up to get on a mailing list for more information. Info on what? I wonder. I sign up and start
thinking that perhaps they may play a show. As the weeks go by, more and more of these mysterious ads pop up and
rumors begin to circulate the community.
December 2001 - The rumors are true! The legends are reuniting for two sets of shows in NYC and Boston, 19 years
after their final shows in the same two cities. The role of Martin Swope, master soundman and tape loop
manipulator, the man responsible for most of the noise I first encountered on my first listen, will be filled by Bob
Weston himself. It turns out the band had been reading the same book as I and had gotten the same excitement out of
it as well. The technology was in place to insure tolerable noise levels. The three principles were game and wisely
reasoned that it was now or never. Since we'd become suspicious of the random ads, we were ready for this
announcement and secured tickets immediately. We were going to see Mission of Burma! The town was abuzz...
Apparently, the country was too. The website now carried articles and writeups from all over the music business.
Musicians and fans came forward in droves to count the many ways they loved the Mission. Blurry photos appeared
of the group rehearsing in some secret basement in Allston. WMBR unearthed and rebroadcast a forgotten tape of a
1982 MIT show, hilarious not only for its disgusting musical performance but also for it crowd noise; what sounds
like 5 individuals clapping amongst a larger number milling around, trying to converse over this noisy band,
completely unfazed, unknowing and uncaring that they were in the presence of musical greatness. It creeps into
January and all of the major papers run stories. A secret warmup show at club 608 in Somerville is packed the night
before their first set of New York shows. The shows themselves happen and we get reports up here of the triumphant
return of Burma, complete with guest appearances by Thurston and Lee from Sonic Youth, Moby, Ira Kaplan. It was
now only a week away...
Friday January 18th, the big day arrived. I took the bus to the T station with Burma as my headphone soundtrack. At
the station, the free Metro paper given out to arriving commuters had Roger Miller, shotgun headphones and all on
the front cover. All day the radio stations, including the ZBC's local showcase Mass Ave and Beyond, carried
healthy helpings of Burma. I got out of work later that day and made my way to Kenmore Sq. to meet my friends
and bandmates. While there, I passed by a few other well-known local rock luminaries; we were all on our way to
same place. I rendezvoused with my peeps and as we walked, we swapped similar first-exposure-to-MoB stories
(got the records, didn't get it for a long time, one day it clicked, been fans ever since). We got to the Avalon and the
crowd is basically made up of two types: young indie rockers, many if not all in some band of some sort, and older,
normal-looking, parent-y types in their mid-40's. Of course, these people were not overzealous chaperones looking
to keep tabs on their young kids inside a scary rock show; they were original Burma fans, out to relive the glory days
of their early 20's and catch a glimpse of the band that provided the potent soundtrack to that perfect time period. As
openers The Explosion played their by-the-book take on 1977 punk rock, I thought about these older fans who
probably haven't ventured out to a club in 15 years, watching a young band playing this kind of music onstage: "I
guess music hasn't changed at all in 20 years" One older gentleman near us voiced a similar thought by saying he
thought he was watching a Stiff Little Fingers cover band which was even funnier considering that this guy who
looked like a high school English teacher most likely knew EXACTLY what he was talking about. The room wasn't
there for the Explosion and they knew it as they made some parting disparaging remarks and got the hell offstage.
After their gear was cleared, there stood Peter Prescott's kit, overburdened with enormous rack toms, behind a clear
sound shield and makeshift sign mounted on a cymbal stand with the words "No New McCarthy Era" crudely
spelled out with duct tape. To the kit's left, stood Clint Connelly's imposing rig and monitors. On the other side,
stood Roger Miller's war-weary Marshall, pushed far forward, standing where his monitors should have been. On
top of the head, sat his green headphone ear protection, a grim reminder to us all why we had all parted ways with a
buck to secure earplugs before taking our place in the ballroom. A man came out and said the following: "Everyone
in this room has been waiting a long time for this. There's no reason for us to wait any longer. Ladies and
Gentlemen... Mission of Burma"
Three older looking gentlemen walked onstage, grinning as they acknowledged the deafening roar that greeted them
and picked up their instruments. As that tremeloed scraping low E ripped into the crowd, all traces of age melted
away from the gentlemen and they ripped into "Secrets", the leadoff track from VS. Its ringing chords continued to
rip through the audience as the band rocked out and then suddenly became engulfed in a swirling cacophony of tape
loop noise. One thing to hear this on a CD at home; quite-another thing to experience this sensory overload live.
Two minutes into the show and already my mind is being blown. I could barely comprehend hearing something like
this in 2002, much less imagine it in 1982. The audience was grabbed and held in the palm of the Mission's hand for
the next two hours.
As each following song began, you could feel the excitement in the hall rise as younger fans heard their favorite CD
staples live for the first time and older fans relived fond memories hearing them live for the first time in decades.
The songs were a little slower but also a little heavier and more crushing. Roger Miller began to resemble all the
photos we'd seen of him from back in the day: head tilted slightly, leg askew, eyes glancing sideways, always
grinning. At the same time, he was coaxing otherworldly sounds out of his guitar effortlessly -- ringing open springs,
ugly harmonics -- giving everyone a look at the hands that virtually invented the post-punk guitar heroics we take
for granted today.
Younger fans were finally clued into the fact that a large portion of vocal work was/is done by Pete Prescott on the
drums, including all the lead vocals on "Learn How". How many singing drummers do you know today? How many
play the drums like Prescott. Not many, I'd wager. His drumming comes from another era, while Miller's guitar of
course comes from another galaxy.
Holding it all together was Clint Connelly's deliberate and solid bass work along with his seemingly undiminished
trademark vocals. As each song developed, a mass of sound engulfed the spectators and it became hard to
differentiate between what was being played and what was being heard, thanks to the sonic splatter painting of Bob
Weston on the board. "Red" "Fame and Fortune" "This Is Not a Photograph" "Mica" "Trem 2" "Johnny Burma" --
"No one has any business having this many great songs" I thought to myself. The twin anthems closed each set and
each time, the sold out room erupted in raised fists, punctuating the air in tandem with the sung-along syllables: "I'm
NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT... Your Academy!" "THAT'S-WHEN-I-REACH-FOR-MY-REVOLVER!"
The encores arrived and their well-worn take on the Stooges' "1970" took places, complete with psycho-delic loop-
ey middle section. At the New York shows, other local legends had taken the stage with Burma during the encores. I
wondered who could possibly come onstage in Boston. Truth be told, Boston hasn't coughed up that many local
legends since Burma called it quits. A second drum set was then set up and chubby, stubby little man took his place
behind it. "This is Hugo Barnham from Gang of Four" Roger announced. The place exploded with cheers.
Of course! It made perfect sense. I'd completely forgotten that the legendary Brit had relocated to our town and
managed a label and several groups. The quartet launched into the instrumental splendor of "All World Cowboy
Romance". At a certain point, Barnham began playing this well-known new wave tom-driven beat, where you hit the
hi-hat on the pickup beat. Everyone who plays the drums has played this beat at some point. It then occurred to me
that here was THE man who invented this beat, onstage in front of me, locking with another titan of post-punk
drumming creating this rippling din of non-60's influenced psychedelic sounds. Miller, noting the crowd's
enthusiastic response to the entrance of Barnham, quipped, "And he thought you guys wouldn't remember him" Not
Coaxed back for a third encore, I wondered what the hell else they could possibly play at this point. Twin anthems?
check. Stooges' encore? check. Guest Cowboy? check. "We have to add a little disclaimer; this one is 'in progress'"
they warned. A tom beat started, a little bass pulse and a nice clean guitar line chimed. It suddenly hit me what they
were playing: "NSU" one of my favorite Cream songs. I was nearly screaming along excitedly with those wonderful
harmonized "Ah's" that make up the otherwise wordless chorus. The band mangled the middle section a bit, causing
crowd laughter, as the members cast each other skeptical glances, raised eyebrows and smirks to each other,
wondering who exactly missed what. No matter. This was the cherry on the topping of the dessert of an already
overwhelming feast. They could do no better or worse at this point. The three men exited the stage, as the key
"NSU" line looped over and over again like a mantra: "The only time I'm happy is when I play my guitar.
My bandmates and I were speechless at the end and I wasn't sure if they enjoyed as much as I did. The first thing
anyone said was "When can we practice again?" As we made our way outside to the cold, we ran into other bands
and began to talk freely about the history we'd just taken part in. Again the sentence appeared: "When can we
practice again?" We all got the feeling work needed to be done... a LOT of work.
The fact is that Mission of Burma were probably one of the most important and influential bands to come out of
Boston. The fact is that, besides perhaps the Throwing Muses (who are actually from Providence) and the Pixies
(who, initially, were ignored locally and who didn't waste time vacating the premises when they DID hit it big),
since 1983, no other band has had so profound an impact on underground music, even if it took the public 2 decades
to properly digest and process that impact. On this night, they came back from the past, virtually unchanged, and for
two hours proceeded to educate all the wannabe's (myself included) by showing us how its really done. Their show
not only demonstrated the glory of the artistic heights they achieved 20 years ago but also pointed up the fact that
those heights have not been surpassed, scaled or even attempted with any great effort since.
I wonder how many other bands at this show had the same realization?
----------- epilogue -----------------
Saturday morning, 10:00 am. The rest of the city sleeps in, in blissful post-show hangover. The three of us, however,
are wide awake, after not having slept well. We make our way over to the practice space. The building is completely
quiet and empty. Its looks strange in the morning light, a time when it is rarely frequented, if ever at all. We plug in,
crank it up and practice. We don't talk about why exactly we are up at this early hour, rocking out to an empty
warehouse. We all felt the urge to do some work for some reason...
Written By: Sir Brian C.