Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Mission of Burma
Mission of Burma is a post-punk band from Boston, Massachusetts. Its principal members are guitarist Roger Miller , bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott , with Bob Weston as tape manipulator and sound engineer. Miller, Conley and Prescott share songwriting duties, with Miller perhaps being the primary contributor. Conley's "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" is arguably the group's best-known song.
Like many of their post-punk and no wave contemporaries, Mission of Burma's efforts are largely concerned with extending punk's original vocabulary without losing its essential rebellious spirit; what makes Burma's approach so distinct is their formal musical training and grounding in modern classical music (Miller had formally studied piano and composition in college) and to a lesser extent their faith in the sound of late 60's / early 70s proto-punk pioneers the MC5 and the Stooges, both from Michigan, Miller and Swope's home state.
Using rapid shifts in dynamics, unconventional time signatures and chord progressions along with jarring tape effects, Mission of Burma challenges the prevailing idioms of punk without losing its power and immediacy. On a purely intellectual level, Burma's approach is similar to that of Glenn Branca (another early Burma contemporary) and later Branca disciples Sonic Youth; however, the result is anything but a cold academic exercise.
While in early years Burma's audience was limited, today Mission of Burma is widely acknowleged as one of the first groups to achieve the potential of modern alternative/independent rock, fusing punk and experimental music into some of the most influential music to come out of the American punk/no wave scene.
Mission of Burma owed its origins to a short-lived Boston rock group called The Moving Parts , which included Miller and Conley. When The Moving Parts broke up, Miller and Conley began practicing and auditioning drummers, finally selecting Prescott.
For several months in 1979 Burma rehearsed as a trio until Miller wrote a song that he thought would be improved by a tape loop. Miller contacted his friend Martin Swope, with whom he had earlier written some John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen-inspired pieces for piano and tape. Swope's role evolved quickly until he was an integral part of the group, receiving equal credit on albums; in addition to tape effects (both in the studio and in live performances, as documented on The Horrible Truth About Burma) Swope acted as the group's live audio engineer.
Prescott explained Swope's methods in a 1997 interview: "What Martin did ... was tape something that was going on live, manipulate it, and send it back in (via the soundboard) as a sort of new instrument. You couldn't predict exactly how it would sound, and that got to be the really fun thing I think we all liked. We wanted to play this hammer-down drony noise stuff, but we also wanted another sound in there." Michael Azzerad's Our Band Could Be Your Life reports that "A lot of people never knew about Swope's contribution and were mystified by how the musicians onstage could wring such amazing phantom sounds from their instruments."
Lyrically, the band drew from dadaist techniques ("This Is Not A Photograph", "Nu Disco", "Go Fun Burn Man"), punk rage ("Fun World", "New Nails", "1970"), alienation ("Mica", "That's When I Reach For My Revolver", "Trem Two", "Academy Fight Song"), art ("Max Ernst") and romance ("That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate").
Mission of Burma were rather popular in and around their hometown, made frequent trips to New York and Washington DC. They mounted a few small-scale national tours, which were generally well-recieved (San Fransisco-based Jello Biafra was a fan), but didn't expand their audience signifigantly, perhaps due to the fact that Indie rock networks for both live performances and record distribution were nowhere near as well developed as they'd later be.
In 1983, after releasing their only full-length studio record Vs, the group disbanded due to Miller's worsening tinnitus, attributed in large part to their notoriously loud live performances. Vs has since seen wide praise; one review notes "very few American bands from the 1980s released an album as ambitious or as powerful as Vs., and it still sounds like a classic."
Miller and Swope then went on to form the quieter Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic, which they both left in the 90s, Miller to produce several solo efforts and film scores, and Swope to semi-reclusion in Hawaii. Prescott remained active in the Boston music scene, forming Volcano Suns and later Kustomized and Peer Group . Other than producing an early Yo La Tengo record, Conley dropped out of music until 2001, when he returned with Consonant .
In the decades following their demise, Burma's reputation grew to legendary proportions. Many bands have cited Burma as an inspiration, including Nirvana, Superchunk, Jawbox, R.E.M. (who regularly covered Conley's "Academy Fight Song" on their Green tour), Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Soul Asylum, Pixies, Sugar, Catherine Wheel, Guided by Voices, Blur's Graham Coxon, and Moby. Contemporary music critics point to their work as a pivotal turning point in North American independent music.
In 2001, Michael Azerrad's popular collection of essays Our Band Could Be Your Life chronicled the history of a handful of influential American bands from the post-punk era, including Mission of Burma. The publication of the book introduced Burma to a whole new audience that had previously never heard of the formerly-obscure band.
In 2002, Mission of Burma reunited and began playing reunion shows with Bob Weston of Shellac replacing Swope at the mixing board and tape manipulation. In a interview Miller relates that "when we approached Bob Weston to fill Martin's position, we told him he could use current digital technology which accomplishes Martin's antics in an easier fashion. However, Bob opted for maintaining the original integrity, and uses a tape deck."
A new album, ONoffON, was released on Matador records on May 4th, 2004, to mostly positive reviews. Postcard, a live recording of the reunited MoB, is an iTunes exclusive.
- Academy Fight Song b/w Max Ernst (1979 single)
- Signals, Calls and Marches (1981 EP)
- Trem Two b/w OK/No Way (1982 single)
- Vs (1983 LP)
- The Horrible Truth About Burma (live) (1984 LP)
- ONoffON (2004 LP)
- Postcard (live) (2004, iTunes exclusive)
- Four Hands EP (2004 EP)
- Forget (1987 LP)
- Mission of Burma (1988 LPx2)
- Let There Be Burma (1990 LP)
- Peking Spring (rarities) (1993 EP)
- Accomplished: The Best of Mission of Burma (2004 LP) (Promotional Release)
- A Gun to the Head: A Selection from the Ace of Hearts Era (2004 LP)
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