KNOW YOUR HISTORY VOL. 2: MISSION OF BURMA

by kevin diamond

Mission of Burma is one of those bands lots of people have heard of but no one’s ever heard, which is a crime close in scale and scope to the atrocities committed at Gitmo. Ok, forgive me and my hyperbolic tendencies. The situation is not that dire, and can be remedied much more easily, but it feels like that sometimes.. Allow me a moment to edumacate.

Artist: Mission of Burma
Song: Academy Fight Song

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The phrase “Ahead of their time” gets bandied about a lot these days, but in certain circumstances it’s warranted. Is this one of those circumstances? Was the pope a Nazi youth? Mission of Burma was, and are, a lot of things, many of them seemingly contradictory. A post-punk band not from New York or LA, but the unsexy city of Boston. A band that that took the rawness and volume of punk and adorned it with the subtlety and texture of live tape looping, a relatively unheard of thing for a punk band to do. Their music is at times catchy and filled with hooks, but it can also be droney, loud, hard and harsh, sometimes within the span of one song.

Mission of Burma were notoriously loud and uncontrollable. Their live shows were hit and miss, and more often then not they missed. But when they clicked, they were able to drown the audience in a deluge of sound and fury that was unmatched. Being from Boston was a blessing as well as a curse; the blessing being some very important, full-throated support from local Boston radio DJs and newspaper critic who were happy to have a cutting edge band they could call their own. The curse was the flip side of that same coin; with so many cutting edge bands in New York and LA already, many in those scenes had no room or time for a band from Boston.

Artist: Mission of Burma
Song: That’s When I Reach for My Revolver


The band’s first release, the seminal EP Signals, Calls and Marches, contains perhaps their finest recorded output. Songs of such quality and caliber as That’s When I Reached for My Revolver, and, on the re-released rykodisk CD, the A and B side of their first 7″ singe, Academy Fight Song and Max Earst. The EP was soon followed by their first LP, Vs. which was met with similar critical acclaim.

Enter cliched rock tragedy: the band breaks up in 1983 in response to lead guitarist Roger Miller’s Tinnitus, the development of permanent ringing in one’s ear, in part because of the band’s loud live show. Think about this: it’s 1983, and New Wave is still at it’s zenith. Another 5 years and we start getting bands like The Pixies and Fugazi. If Mission of Burma could have held on for another five or ten years, they go down in history. Unfortunately, it seems like this is the end for this legendary band…

…Only it isn’t the end. The band becomes more famous in their absence, being cited as an influence by bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and, of all godforsaken people, Moby. And then the crazy shit happens. In 2002, seemingly out of nowhere, the band gets back together for a tour. The chemistry is there. The songs are there. And most importantly, the audience is there. Mission of Burma is selling out venues they only would have dreamed of in their heyday. In 2004 they release their first album in 21 years, ONoffOn, and it’s as important, fresh, and vibrant an album as anythign else recorded that year. Two years later, another album, The Obliterati, is released, and we have the unthinkable: A band that’s released more albums since reforming then they released before they broke up.

The late 70s/Early 80′s post punk scene is littered with bands like Mission of Burma, with a few subtle differences. Mission of Burma pushed boundries, extending the idea of what was acceptable in a live peformance. The addition of live tape loops was often responsible for the incoherence of thier live shows, but when it worked it added a dimension not available at other shows. It was this difference, as well as the above par songwritting skills of all three band members, that gave MoB the staying power needed to survive a 20+ year hiatus.

EXTRA CREDIT:
Read Michael Azerrad’s history of the post punk movement Our Band Could Be Your Life, for more on Mission of Burma and other bands like The Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Black Flag, and Husker Du

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