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Mission of Burma: Back Without a Missed Beat

June 30, 2006

By Christopher Marcisz
Berkshire Eagle Staff

To believe in rock music is to believe in small miracles. Like that two guitars, a bass, and a drum kit is a limitless well of sonic possibility, or that four unassuming working-class kids could change the world of music like the Beatles did.

At some level in that category is the belief that a band built on their ability to rock hard and read music could exist just long enough to put its stamp on much of the best music that would come for a generation, disappear for 20 years, and return without missing a beat.

That, in a nutshell is the story of Mission of Burma, the Boston band that is invariably described as the best band most people haven't heard of. As Michael Azerrad succinctly put it in his 2001 chronicle of the 80s indie scene Our Band Could Be Your Life, "Misison of Burma's only sin was bad timing."

They will kick off their first tour since the release of their latest album The Obliterati tomorrow at Mass MoCA.

For bassist Clint Conley — who built a career as a television producer while away from music — this is his first trip back to North Adams since he was here in March working on a segment for a Boston television station about a group of North County paranormal investigators, and spent a night at the allegedly haunted former Houghton mansion on Church Street.

The band came together in 1979 in Boston, with Conley, guitarist Roger Miller, drummer Peter Prescott, and later Martin Swope who added tape loops from the soundboard off stage. They took their name from a sign Conley once saw on the Burmese mission to the United Nations in New York.

The band's sound came from a stew of influences that ranged from punk luminaries like the Ramones, to jazz legend Ornette Coleman, to postmodern sound pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhausen.

It was a challenging time to start a band, as the tumultuous punk revolt against corporatized music was coming to an end. It is worth remembering that revolutionaries have the easy part — it just takes guts and a big idea to tear things down. But it takes skill and many ideas to build something new.

If you go...

Who: Mission of Burma

Where: Mass MoCA, Courtyard C (Hunter Center in the event of rain), 87 Marshall St., North Adams

When: Tomorrow 8 p.m.

Tickets: $22 advance / $26 day of show

Information and reservations: (413) 662-2111;

Burma's effort to do something with the rubble was a heavy, loud sound that was neither the loose-stringed thumping of metal nor the jackhammer propulsiveness of what would very soon become known as hardcore. They threw in Swope's airy tape loops, lyrics belted out like football hooligan chants, and a willingness to offer a catchy hook every now and then.

Altogether, the result was by no means easy listening. Many listeners would dismiss it as weird noise, and much of their music took a few careful listens to really hit you the right way. They were uncompromising, had no time for lazy listeners, and became famous for their loud and chaotic live shows, which Conley admits have never been the kind of thing you go to on a first date.

Their recorded output was modest — an EP, "Signals, Calls, and Marches," and a full-length album, Vs. — and though they toured often and built a devoted fan base, as Azerrad notes, those were the years just before the alternative network of performance spaces, radio stations, independent record labels and fan magazines would really emerge.

But from such a small base their impact has been widespread. While rock rarely lends itself well to evolutionary theory and taxonomy, you almost can't listen to early Burma without hearing traces of them in much of what followed.

You can hear the brazen manipulation of volume that would be used so well by fellow Bostonians The Pixies a few years later. The idea of picking out something you could hum from a wall of rock 'n roll noise was a hallmark of Nirvana. The fear of the corrupting and fickle possibility of mainstream success at the expense of authenticity is a theme in their song "Fame and Fortune."

Burma called it quits in 1983. Abrupt and tragically premature stops are sadly regular occurrences in rock history, usually from an accident or drug overdose or clashing personalities. But for Burma, it was simply that Miller's worsening hearing condition lead him to decide he couldn't go on without risking lifelong health impacts.

The members spent years on different projects. One of Miller's is the Alloy Orchestra, which provides live alternative soundtracks to classic silent films and performed Buster Keaton's "The General" at Mass MoCA in summer 2004.

In 2001 they regrouped for what they thought was a quick reunion, with Bob Weston doing the tape duties instead of Swope. (Conley said that Swope, who now lives in Hawaii and chose not to participate, has been in touch with Miller and has supported the new effort.) Conley said that while the band wasn't "doctrinaire" about it, Weston chose to forego the revolution in digital sound technology and stick with analog tape for his parts.

Conley said that Miller's tinnitus hasn't gone away, but is managed as best they can. He wears protective gear like you'd see at a shooting range, uses no monitor amps, and they sometimes put a Plexiglas screen between him and Prescott's drums.

The reunion is hardly news, as it seems every great indie band from the Pixies to Dinosaur Jr have found ways to patch things up for at least a few money-making tours. But Burma seems to have picked up just where they left off.

They followed a solid reunion album in 2004 "ONoffON," with their latest, "The Obliterati," which came out in May and rivals the best of their early work. One would be extremely hard-pressed to find such a long time gap between a band's best albums.

There is an old saying that only a few thousand people bought the Velvet Underground's first album, but each of them started a band. Perhaps Burma didn't launch any bands, but every great band for a generation seems to have at least listened very closely to what they did.

And the fact that being so grossly underappreciated for so long didn't wear on them, and that they could come back with nary a hint of bitterness or regret is something wildly out of the ordinary. It's proof that the good guys don't always finish last, that there is a little justice in this world after all.

(c) 2006, New England Newspapers, Inc.