Mission Impossible

Is that mascara on his lashes? Clint Conley (left) with Peter Prescott and Roger Miller
Big Hassle

I read in Michael Azerrad's essential book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 that the music press found Mission of Burma "easy to write about."

This is funny, because I have just put on their 1980 single "Academy Fight Song" for the 19th time this week--Paul Westerberg used to play the record over and over again as a kid--and I'm realizing how much easier it is to love than to explain. The record is either the most equivocal anti-fascist anthem ever recorded ("I'm not judging you, I'm judging me") or the "It Ain't Me Babe" of friendship ("I'm not, not, not, not...your academy") or a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from the point of view of the entertainer. In any case, I'm amazed that something so declarative can be so mysterious at the same time, that the feedback apparitions, collapsing drums, and emphatic vocals ("your academy" sung as "yo-rah ca-dah-may") can ebb and flow like the sonic heart chamber of dub yet pound like the Clash. How do you put the occult in words? Hello, carpal tunnel.

Mission of Burma bewilder before they do anything else. The Boston quartet, which performs Sunday at First Avenue, was among the first rock bands to include a member who manipulated prerecorded sounds in concert--Martin Swope, who screwed with tape loops offstage. They recorded 21 songs (two singles, an EP, and an album) between 1979 and 1983 and had a modest hit with "Academy Fight Song" (it quickly sold out its initial pressing of 7,500 copies). But without the underground Black Flag would help create, Burma floated free of any cultural context.

"We would go out and just confuse people," says bassist Clint Conley, who wrote the hit and retired from music three years later. "They'd recognize '[That's When I Reach for My] Revolver' or 'Academy' and the rest of the stuff sounded like a big turbine engine, with body parts flying out of it."

Speaking over the phone recently from Boston, Conley remembers the band playing to countless empty or rapidly emptying rooms. Yet when Burma reunited last February for their first gigs in 19 years (with Shellac bassist Bob Weston subbing for Swope, who opted out of band activities), they were greeted like lifetime-achievement honorees (not, not, not, not your Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). The likes of Moby and members of Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, and Gang of Four joined them onstage. What gives?

Conley doesn't have an answer. "We were exhilarated at how it was received," he says. "And we worked really hard not to embarrass ourselves."

Azerrad's 2001 tome had spurred the reunion, but it also put the pressure on, accurately sizing up Mission of Burma's legendary reputation among other musicians. Wasn't this the sound that influenced Hüsker Dü, the Pixies, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails--anyone pulling pop clarity from chaos? Pearl Jam borrowed Burma's only studio album title, Vs.; R.E.M. covered them. We live in their footprint. Am I right?

"I've heard people say that we were influential," Conley allows, "but I don't hear many bands that actually sound like us."

Sure, Hüsker opened for Burma during a two-night stand at the 7th St. Entry. ("The most amazing thing I remember about them," Bob Mould told Azerrad, "was hanging around at sound check and watching Clint Conley plug his electric razor in the back of his SVT [amplifier] and shave. I was like, 'These guys are so square, they're cool!'") But influence is rarely so straightforward--Conley had been listening to Minneapolis punk for years, and I hear traces of the Suicide Commandos in his vocal quaver.

So Mission of Burma confuse people as both music and music history--and they confused themselves from the start. By the time guitarist Roger Miller joined Conley in 1978 to play in the Boston art-rock band Moving Parts, both had listened to enough proto-punk and free jazz to feel irrevocably dislocated in popular music. The bassist came from Connecticut and loved New York glitter rock. "I wore mascara to school," Conley remembers, "but saved the platforms for the city. I'd go in to see the New York Dolls when I was 15."

Miller hailed from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and had seen the MC5 and the Stooges. His everywhere-at-once guitar storms clashed perfectly with Conley's melodic bass. But Miller was already showing signs of tinnitus, a series of persistent ringing tones in his ears. He was ready to give up rock altogether and explore less amplified experimental music when punk happened. In the end, he broke up Burma to save his hearing. ("I don't remember us ever having an argument," Conley observes. "That's very unrock.")

Now drummer Peter Prescott (who went on from Burma to form the Volcano Suns and Kustomized) plays from behind a wall of Plexiglas, shielding Miller from the sonic blows. You could call this an irony for such a prominent noise-pop event. But it also suggests the determination that powered the band from the start. As Conley puts it, "We were sort of committed to our own thing: Fuck 'em if they don't like it."

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