Sun June 6
2 W Burnside
Summarizing the story of Boston punk innovators Mission of Burma can sound a lot like shilling a Hollywood romance: Twenty-five years ago, they shared a moment of magic. But time and the odds were against them. Now, a generation later, they have a chance to make it happen again.
Although the recorded output of their heyday consisted of just one single ("Academy Fight Song"), an EP, and the 1982 full-length Vs. , Burma's legacy has endured better than those clichés, thank God. During their long hiatus, disciples including R.E.M. and Moby covered their songs, and indie rock bastions like Shellac and Gerard Cosloy--founder of Burma's current label, Matador Records--showered praise on the quartet.
As a cultural event, ONoffON, their first studio album in 22 years, is a much bigger milestone than, say, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's soft-focus sequel Before Sunset. The opening salvo, "The Setup," proves that time off dulled neither Burma's experimental nature nor their subversive pop smarts; like those creepy old biology transparencies of systems in the human body, the disparate elements--Roger Miller's guitar, processed by tape technician Bob Weston (filling in for original member Martin Swope), sounds more like a jar of angry bees than any conventional instrument--layer together mysteriously, then suddenly slip into formation.
Burma were, and still are, a challenging band. Miller studied composition and cites Bartók, Stravinsky, and Stockhausen among his influences. In the 2001 tome Our Band Could Be Your Life, author Michael Azerrad recounts how, in 1979, Miller and bassist Clint Conley screened prospective drummers by blasting LPs by Sun Ra or dissonant no-wave acts. But Burma's music is also highly visceral. "No matter how peculiar or heady our chords or lyrical content, at the bottom line, we are a rock band, as much as the Stooges," emphasizes Miller.
So why didn't they become the biggest Beantown export since Aerosmith? "I think we were a mixture of ahead of and behind our time," says Miller. Initially, they weren't as seasoned (or well-financed) as UK contemporaries like Gang of Four and Wire. And Burma issued their music on a local independent, Ace of Hearts, when distribution channels for regional releases were scant; there were no mass-distributed fanzines reviewing obscure new 7-inches on a daily basis. But by the time they began generating significant buzz via word of mouth, Burma had split, well before the next wave of bands they consider peers--Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers--were playing Lollapalooza.
Burma disbanded in 1983 (partially due to Miller's worsening tinnitus), yet most of its members remained active. Miller led quieter but equally curious outfits including Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and No Man. Drummer Peter Prescott forged ahead with the Volcano Suns, Kustomized, and the Peer Group. Until recently, when his new band Consonant bowed, Conley kept a lower profile, working in television, but found time to produce Yo La Tengo's 1986 debut, Ride the Tiger.
Although they remained friendly, the group turned down reunion offers. Then, one night in 2001, Conley and Miller sat in with the Peer Group at a Wire show. Seeing their old UK cronies playing a mix of classic and new material with renewed ferocity inspired the Burma boys. Still, there were reservations. "That's why, when we re-formed, we all agreed to bring in one new song," explains Miller. "We didn't want to just linger over nostalgia. We wanted to make it feel like [the band] was still alive."
That said, a few of the "new" cuts among the 16 on ONoffON date back to Burma 1.0. "Dirt" previously appeared on 1985's The Horrible Truth About Burma, the live LP compiled during the group's final shows, while earlier incarnations of "Hunt Again" and "Playland" popped up on posthumous outtake albums. And Miller penned "The Setup" circa Vs. , but initially rejected it for sounding "too much like the Buzzcocks."
And then there's the raging "Wounded World," at the top of ONoffON's second act. "That was written around '90 or '91, whenever the first war in Iraq [was]," concludes Miller. "The situation is identical now: George Bush is president, the economy is going down the tubes, and we're at war with Iraq. So the song can be sung with a completely straightforward face." At least the men singing it are striving to carve out a better future... again.