AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #118 : MISSION OF BURMA

A GUEST POSTING FROM JONDER

(long time reader, first time contributor)

Mike Melville‘s survey of Wire’s 21st century albums inspired me to compile songs from Mission Of Burma‘s reincarnation.

Mission Of Burma released two singles, an EP, and one LP before guitarist Roger Miller‘s tinnitus forced him to retire from live performance in 1983. Miller formed the neo-classical Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic.

Pete Prescott stepped out from behind the drum kit to lead the band Kustomized, followed by The Volcano Suns.

Burma’s bassist Clint Conley left the music industry completely.

The 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life put Mission Of Burma in context as the equal of contemporaries like Black Flag, the Minutemen and Husker Du; and as a formative influence on Big Black, Fugazi, and Sonic Youth.

In May of 2000, Prescott’s band The Peer Group opened for Wire. Conley filled in on bass, and Miller joined them for one song on keyboard. It had been over 15 years since Burma’s members last shared a stage. Conley started writing songs again, and formed a band called Consonant in 2001. Miller soon donned a guitar and a pair of ear protectors. Mission of Burma played its first reunion show in 2002, and released the first of four new albums in 2004. They last played in 2016, but there have been no new Burma songs since 2012.

1 Fever Moon (from ‘On/Off/On‘)

Roger Miller was born in Detroit and raised on the Stooges and the MC5. He was also a student of modern classical composition. Miller and his music are equally at home with the visceral, the cerebral, and the surreal. I picture the “sentimental Visigoth” of this song as a personification of all three traits.

2 2wice (from ‘The Obliterati’)

Clint Conley is the least confident of Burma’s three songwriters, despite his exceptional melodic sense and the stirring words of ‘Academy Fight Song’ and ‘That’s When I Reach For My Revolver’. In Consonant interviews, Conley expressed dislike for his Burma songs, and he employed Holly Anderson’s poems as Consonant lyrics. Conley is an excellent bassist with a nimble voice, and he displays the range of both instruments on ‘2wice’.

3 The Enthusiast (from ‘On/Off/On’)

Peter Prescott contributes fewer songs to Mission Of Burma than Conley or Miller, but some of them are real gems. This one is reminiscent of his 1982 exhortation, ‘Learn How’. Prescott often adds enthusiastic shouts to punctuate his bandmates’ songs; his voice is the last sound on the closing track of the first Burma LP. Prescott has a new band called Minibeast.

4 Careening With Conviction (from ‘The Obliterati’)

Martin Swope was invited by Miller (a John Cage disciple) to add an element of chance to Mission Of Burma’s sound. Swope recorded tape loops of Burma’s music, manipulated them and fed them back into the mix. Swope never appeared onstage, and he declined to participate in the reunion, so Bob Weston assumed his role. ‘Careening With Conviction’ features three voices: Miller, Conley, and a Miller/Conley splice created by Weston.

5 SSL 83 (from ‘The Sound The Speed The Light’)

Another phantom voice flickers to life in this song, reminiscent of the tricks that the Beatles used: running tapes backwards and altering the speed of sound. Martin Swope was Burma’s “fifth Beatle”.

6 Slow Faucet (from ‘The Sound The Speed The Light’)

Mission Of Burma are perhaps Wire’s closest American counterparts. Both groups left behind the strictures of punk and the conventions of songwriting. Burma and Wire share an intellectual restlessness: suspicious of conformity, deeply averse to repeating themselves, with each member pushing the others to greater creativity. ‘Slow Faucet’ has a layered structure that briefly collapses before restating its defiant theme: “you don’t know me.”

7 Invisible (from the ‘2wice’ single)

Gang Of Four were another of Burma’s British contemporaries. The interpersonal politics of Gill and King‘s lyrics are evident in this track, as is the Gang Of Four’s sonic assault: a massive bassline, slashing guitar and a relentless beat. Hugo Burnham was among the musicians who joined Mission Of Burma onstage during Burma’s first reunion show.

8 Donna Sumeria (from ‘The Obliterati’)

Who but Mission Of Burma could have created this? There’s a brief paraphrase from the disco queen’s immortal ‘I Feel Love’, and perhaps the pun begat the song, but there’s no use playing “spot the influence” here.

9 1,2,3 Partyy! (from ‘The Sound The Speed The Light’)

Another paraphrase, this time from The Syndicate Of Sound‘s ‘Little Girl’. Conley and Miller first played together in The Moving Parts, an avant-garage band (to borrow a hyphenate from Pere Ubu). The Moving Parts covered The Music Machine‘s ‘Talk Talk’, another proto-punk classic.

10 7’s (from ‘Unsound’)

Like ‘SSL 83’, this song might be autobiographical. “All we ask is one more shot,” Conley sings, while acknowledging that the effort is “totally ridiculous”. It’s hard to tease out the meaning of Conley’s lyrics. ‘1,2,3 Partyy!’ seems to be about a man trying to control his drinking, and ‘2wice’ may be told from the perspective of a stalker. These songs speak of mistakes and self-contradictions, themes that date back to ‘Academy Fight Song’.

11 Youth Of America (live at the Cat’s Cradle, 16 April 2004)

Amps to eleven, Burma blazes through a cover of The Wipers’ 1981 anthem, which rebelled against the punk rebellion and its dictates (no long songs! no guitar solos!)

BONUS TRACK: This Is Not A Photograph by Great Ytene (from the ‘George Street‘ single)

Three decades on, Mission Of Burma continues to exert a powerful influence. Here a young British quartet adds its own energy to a classic from 1981’s ‘Signals, Calls, And Marches’.

JON

5 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #118 : MISSION OF BURMA

  1. Great selection of tracks for this ICA Jonder!! I’ve dipped into the world of the reformed Burma over the years and have been really very satisfied.
    Careening With Conviction stands out as one of their best track of their career. In fact Obliterati – a great title for an album – is among my favorite of all of their albums. Conley’s bass playing is earthshaking!

  2. Echorich — yes! MoB stand among the few “reformed” bands that have created new songs that are as satisfying as their original material. I thought Swervedriver also managed that feat with their 2015 album (I Wasn’t Born To Lose You) .

    Burma fans may want to grab this Record Store Day rarity, “Get Off”:
    wilfullyobscure.blogspot.com/2017/04/ghosts-of-record-store-days-past-sloan.html

  3. REM’s early recording career closely followed the trajectory of Burma’s:

    “Academy Fight Song” single – 1980
    “Radio Free Europe” single – 1981

    “Signals, Calls And Marches” EP – 1981
    “Chronic Town” EP – 1982

    “Vs.” LP – 1982
    “Murmur” LP – 1983

    Imagine if Bill Berry had suffered his brain aneurysm in the early 80’s, and REM chose to split up. We would be left with a brief but impeccable discography, massively influential on hundreds of indie bands and everyone who made the pilgrimage to Athens, GA. REM would have a chapter in “Our Band Could Be Your Life”.

    I don’t mean to suggest that Burma could have signed to a major label, scored radio hits, and toured the world. In this hypothetical scenario, “Automatic For The People” would not exist. On the other hand, the Buck/Mills/Stipe albums would not have tarnished REM’s sterling reputation.

  4. That’s a very fair assessment Jonder. I’m intending to re-read that chapter in that book this coming weekend solely on the basis of your ICA…it will now make much more sense to me

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