Bidding A Quiet Adieu To Cacophonous Post-Punk Band Mission Of Burma
There was no farewell show, no farewell tour, no farewell at all, really. But Mission of Burma — Boston’s acclaimed post-punk band of the early ‘80s and early 2000s — has quietly exited stage left.
There was no acrimony amongst its members, either. The three guys — guitarist-singer Roger Miller, bassist-singer Clint Conley and drummer-singer Peter Prescott — remain good friends, two still happily immersed in music and the other continuing work as a producer at WCVB-TV’s “Chronicle.”
Mission of Burma took their final bow, though no one knew it at the time, April 25, 2016, at a Berlin club. “Seems like an appropriate location to me,” Miller muses now. “Where opposing forces met at a cross-roads and energy buzzed.”
They played 20 songs, beginning with “Fun World,” following with some of their best-known numbers: “Trem Two,” “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate,” “Max Ernst,” “Academy Fight Song,” “This Is Not a Photograph” and, what’s probably viewed as their “biggest hit,” “That’s When I Reached for My Revolver.” At the end, “The Ballad of Johnny Burma.”
This June marks 40 years since the release of the band’s first single, “Academy Fight Song.” Last month, Rolling Stone named it one of the greatest 100 debut singles of all time — coming in at No. 64 on the list.
Consider this a quiet, fond adieu to a loud, cacophonous band.
The members of Mission of Burma, as well as manager Mark Kates, politely declined to speak for this story. They’d long ago made a pact that all band decisions had to be unanimous; one of the musicians didn’t desire to do an analytical trip down memory lane and the others honored that position.
But I have spoken with the band at length over the years, reviewing them in the early ‘80s and writing a farewell piece for the Boston Globe in 1983 and then again writing about their improbable renaissance and continuance in 2012.
Mission of Burma existed in two phases, 1979-1983 and 2002-2016, or Mach I and Mach II, as Miller puts it. “We’re definitely one of the weirdest rock bands in the history of rock music,” Miller told me in 2012. “We broke up just before we possibly could have screwed up or even got famous and then we picked up where we left off.”
They’ve always had a fourth, offstage member. Martin Swope was at the board as the sound man and tape-loop operator during Mach I and Shellac’s Bob Weston for Mach II. They’d use a brief tape loop to grab snippets of the band live — a vocal line, a guitar riff, whatever — altering the speed or layering it to create a denser wall of sound. Some of these were pre-arranged and others created spontaneously.
“So, the band, and the audience, often didn't know where the sound was coming from,” said Miller. “Which, of course, suited us just fine.”
During their first run, they recorded one EP, “signals, calls, and marches” and one LP, “vs.” They broke up in 1983 because of Miller's worsening tinnitus and all went on to different projects. Miller mostly shifted to piano. Conley stepped away from music before forming the short-lived Consonant in 2001. Prescott led Volcano Suns (1984-1991) and, later, Kustomized (1993-1996) and the Peer Group (1997-2001).
But Burma reassembled in 2002 when Miller decided that new, technologically advanced ear protection — plus Prescott drumming with Plexiglas partitions around his kit — could work for him. Their legacy was bolstered by the inclusion as one of the bands chronicled by Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.” Theirs was a major alt-rock comeback story. During Burma’s second run, they packed clubs and played to overjoyed audiences who’d long thought the band kaput. They played festivals and toured America and Europe. They recorded four albums, beginning with the cleverly titled “ONoffON” in 2004 and ending with 2012’s “Unsound.”
Over the years, Mission of Burma has gotten near-unanimous praise from the rock press. The aggregation website Metacritic gives Burma’s career a 79 rating. Not bad at all. Compare them to some of their contemporaries: The Cure is 72, The Fall is 73, The Pop Group is 69 and Gang of Four is 68. But there have been sporadic naysayers and after the fourth album from Mach II, Miller told me, “I certainly don’t blame anyone for being sick of us. We’re just praised to high heaven often. And to most people, we’re just a ball of chaos.”
In their 1981 song “Fame and Fortune,” Miller sang “Fame and fortune is a stupid game/ And fame and fortune is the game I play.” But they didn’t play that game, not really. Commercial appeal wasn’t a big part of the plan. Most of Burma’s music had a harsh, assaultive quality. There were bits of pop and psychedelia — some relief from the onslaught — but with its jarring twists and affection for dissonance, Burma was never easy on the ears. Melody was not always, or often, front and center. The cloudbursts of lyrics tended toward the oblique or Dada-esque. At times, it could feel like you were learning — and learning to love — a foreign language.
“We’re a very question-of-degree band,” said Prescott. “Things always seem to be vibrating or moving or changing, but from an outsider’s perspective it sounds like a big ball of noise.”
If you saw the band live, you saw and heard the exuberance and frenzy but may have still figured the band ultra-serious and po-faced. “We’re not really grim people,” Miller said with a laugh. “We are in fact rather cheerful — although it doesn’t stop our music from being a little too intense.”
Miller and Conley were the primary songwriters — Miller said, “You expect me to make melodies that are obtuse and hard to follow, but are still anchored in full-on rock and structures that are sometimes very complex and very physical.”
Conley had more of a pop-centered sensibility — more hook-oriented — and his “Revolver” is Burma’s best-known song. It became a 1996 hit for Moby as well. “One reason Burma has held up is our music is composed,” Conley told me in 2012. “It’s more than the flavor of the month. These songs are very sturdy constructs that have an interior logic. You may not be able to discern it on the first time through — or the fifth — but they stand up over time. They move you and direct you to a certain place. Not that it’s terribly sophisticated, but give us 10 or 20 chances and you too can enjoy our music.”
Prescott said of the group’s music, “It’s funny because it’s definitely a mind/body thing. Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd were formative things for us. Burma songs have to be pummeling to exist; they’ve got to have a battering quality to them. Really primal. But there’s an awful lot of mind-meld mixed with that.”
As the Burma ship sails off into the sunset, Miller and Prescott remain active in music.
Prescott — who plays guitar and synthesizer now — formed Minibeast as a one-man project in 2011 and then added members. He’s had seven different players over the years and three distinct lineups. Minibeast has recorded four albums. Prescott calls the sound “abstract, mostly instrumental, and very liquid. It’s based on riffage, repeating parts, but it’s also a rejection of rock music. It’s got rock identifiers — rhythm, melody somewhere, the points that make up rock — but removing some of the underpinnings. I wanted rock instrumentation that worked in a completely different way. That’s the main pull of it for me.”
Miller always has multiple projects going on. His main gig has been playing keyboards with the Alloy Orchestra, the trio that scored new soundtracks to silent films and played live, accompanying the movie. The late Roger Ebert called Alloy Orchestra “the best in the world at accompanying silent film."
Trinary System, a rock trio Miller also plays with, started up as Burma was winding down with the idea to, as Miller says, “explore more open-ended, less post-punk guitar directions. It gradually became a really solid band.” They released their first album, "Lights in the Center of Your Head,” last year.
And he also has his Dream-Interpretations for Solo Electric Guitar Ensemble, which he started developing two years ago. “My long-standing fascination with loops, this time for multiple electric guitars,” Miller said of the project via email. “Dream logic is very different from day-to-day thinking.”
This was to be presented in March at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art in North Adams and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Then COVID-19 came calling and wiped the slate clean. Said Miller, “Oops.”
As for Mission of Burma, the band is — like the parrot in Monty Python’s famous sketch — not resting, but dead. They live on — via online streaming services, on your record or CD shelves, perhaps, and in the memories of thousands of fans.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the name of the song "Fun World." We have updated the piece. We regret the error.