VISITING ACT ‌ Photographic Memories 

Mission of Burma: the most influential band you never heard

click to enlarge Still raging against the commonplace (L to R): Burma's Clint Conley, Peter Prescott, and Roger Miller head south for a rare show
  • Still raging against the commonplace (L to R): Burma's Clint Conley, Peter Prescott, and Roger Miller head south for a rare show

"We kept hearing that we influenced people and we did this and we did that ... we had no idea."

— Roger Miller, Mission of Burma

Mission Of Burma, Boston's finest and most significant punk rock band, existed for only four years, but their accomplishments were great, inspiring and influencing much of the American indie-rock underground — from R.E.M. and Moby to Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth.

They formed in 1979 when Prescott quit The Molls and auditioned for a weird new project headed up by Miller and Conley, both previously of Boston punks the Moving Parts. The trio played their first show on April Fool's Day in a decrepit movie house. Eventually, the three added Miller's hometown pal from Ann Arbor, Martin Swope, to the lineup as audio engineer and "tape loop manipulator." Swope mixed sound at Mission Of Burma's live gigs and added his sweeping aural effects in the recording studio.

Burma's aggressive and assured style came out of the '70s underground (Roxy Music, David Bowie, Lou Reed), '60s acid rock (Hendrix, Cream, Syd Barrett), and the first wave of punk rock (Stooges, Pere Ubu, Ramones, Wire, Sex Pistols, etc.), long before "alternative rock" and "grunge" entered the picture.

The group's shared affinity for psychedelia, avant-garde improv, and experimental pop led to greater achievement on the 1981 EP Signals, Calls, and Marches and the 1982 full-length Vs., both released on Rick Harte's Ace Of Hearts label in Boston.

Burma came to a bittersweet end the first time around, not because of tough times and tough tours, but because of Miller's worsening struggle with tinnitus (today he still hears a constant series of tones ringing). Burma held its last Boston show in front of a packed house at the Bradford Hotel in March 1983 ... or so they thought.

After years of downplaying the idea of a Burma reunion, the band sent shock waves through the underground five years ago when they announced plans for several shows to be held in New York, Boston, and at the "All Tomorrow's Parties" festival in Cambersands, England. As one fan put it, it was "inexplicable."

Why a reunion, nearly two decades after their "final" gig? Several events fell into place. Bassist Clint Conley became interested in music again and started writing and playing. Guitarist Roger Miller dropped his objections, feeling it was now or never. Drummer Peter Prescott had stepped away from his recent bands and had free time.

In 2001, all three performed together on-stage for the first time in 18 years at Prescott's band Peer Group's farewell show, and the band was prominently featured in New York music writer Michael Azerrad's excellent history of '80s U.S. indie-rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.

In January 2002, Burma played two weekends' worth of "reunion" shows to packed rooms in New York City at the Irving Plaza and again in their hometown at The Avalon and at The Paradise (for two shows in one day). The audiences and special on-stage guests included various luminaries and VIPs from the rock world: Sonic Youth guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, Moby, Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, and Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham.

"The whole vibe was unreal," remembers Conley. "It came off so well. It was like somebody turned a light switch and suddenly everybody liked us. I mean, in the old days there were certainly people who liked the band. But I used to feel like I personally knew every Mission Of Burma fan; it was that small of a circle. We always had good feedback from musicians and attention from certain writers, but as far as the general public went, it was a small thing. We always had these die-hard fans. And we didn't need a lot to feel nourished back then."

Last month, after an unexpected string of mini-tours and recording sessions, Mission of Burma and MVD Visual released a much-anticipated DVD titled Not a Photograph, a 70-minute documentary inspired by their 2002 reunion shows. Directed by David Kleiler (a former bandmate of Prescott's in the Volcano Suns) and Northeastern-based filmmaker Jeff Iwanicki, the disc features archival footage from the early days in the late 1970s and '80s, live clips of Moving Parts (Conley's and Miller's first band together), a half-dozen live tunes from the 2002 reunion shows at Irving Plaza, The Paradise, and Avalon, and behind-the-scenes footage of the band in the studio during the making of their 2004 album, ONOffON (Matador). Azerrad provided the liner notes.

"The thing that made me happiest was seeing people that were around back then enjoying it now," says Miller of the band's reunion events and current mini-tours. "For me, what's more exciting was seeing people who never knew the band or saw the band before getting into it and knowing all the songs. People ask about a nostalgia element, but for us, there's no nostalgia element. It's like, we're a band now and we're playing these damn songs. Just like it always was."

Mission of Burma head down South this week (unfortunately, not all the way to Charleston). Fanatics can catch them at The E.A.R.L. (488 Flat Shoals Road in East Atlanta, 404-522-3950) with support from Some Soviet Station on Sat. Jan. 13. Tickets are $22.25 ($20 adv.). See www.badearl.com and www.missionofburma.com for more details.


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