Legendary memories of Mission of Burma

When Boston quartet Mission of Burma broke up in 1983, the band had a modicum of fans, but its legend didn't snowball until the years following its dissolution. Eventually, artists like Moby and R.E.M. would pay homage to the work of guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley, drummer Peter Prescott, and tape manipulator and sound engineer Martin Swope by covering "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" and "Academy Fight Song." And the band's hard-charging, dissonant, catchy take on guitar rock has reverberated through the last two decades of post-punk and indie.

In 2002, the group reunited to enthusiastic acclaim; its two subsequent albums of new material are a strong return to form. Matador Records just released deluxe remastered versions of Mission of Burma's three original releases, two of which — Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs. — the group will be playing in their entirety this Friday and Saturday. "I just sort of pinch myself," reflects Conley, taking a break from his day job as a Boston-area television producer. "This would have been the furthest thing from our wildest imaginations 25 years ago, so it's a very happy ending for us."

Many of Burma's early fans were ravenous music aficionados who would go on to incorporate the band's influence into their own lives. "The people we appealed to were people who would later do something with music, because they had to," Conley says. The following are just a handful of the many affected by Mission of Burma's explosive wallop.

Mission of Burma: Signals from the past.
Mission of Burma: Signals from the past.

Ira Kaplan, guitarist for Yo La Tengo, whose first album was produced by Clint Conley
I saw them at least a dozen times. They were unique. They certainly had a punk-rock attitude and approach, but their songwriting wasn't remotely doctrinaire punk rock. There was something to alienate everybody. I think as the legend grew, people gravitated toward them.

Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of the Sub Pop label
Back in the '80s, when I was on [Seattle's] KCMU, I could not do an airshift without playing Burma. The music director, who was into Daryl Hall and Kajagoogoo, threatened to have my shift terminated if I kept playing Burma (amongst other things). That was the final straw! I vacated my graveyard shift and thus began my abbreviated career as an all-night Kinko's copy "manager."

Jello Biafra, whose band Dead Kennedys played with Mission of Burma in the '80s
They were never quite a national band when they existed in the '80s. But slowly but surely, their sound was pollinated around the world by other bands. There's a certain melodic pop and rock 'n' roll sensibility; they had more of that than other so-called post-punk bands. Some of [Roger Miller's] guitar style and whatnot is now incorporated into a lot of indie rock, indie pop, and the more adventurous side of punk.

Rick Harte, owner of Ace of Hearts Records and longtime Mission of Burma producer
It was all kind of like swimming upstream, and it didn't seem like a lot of people got it, but then there were people who got it, and became devotees. And then there are all these bands that claimed inspiration from Mission of Burma. It's not something people can just sing along with — it's not Neil Diamond — but once the songs get in your head, you can't get them out of there. Once you're on board with it, it's not easily excised. Read more Mission of Burma memories at www.sfweekly.com/music.

Richard Baluyut, guitarist for Versus, who despite popular belief did not name his band after the first Mission of Burma album
Re: the name: A friend of mine who later died mentioned that he thought Versus would be a cool band name. No one believes this [is how the name Versus came about], however; the fact that Vs. by Mission of Burma is my favorite album certainly doesn't help. I'm no judge of anything being "important," but I will say that Mission of Burma's music is so unique that it resists easy classification by genre or era. In the relatively short life of rock 'n' roll, it is pretty timeless.

Adam Pfahler, drummer for Jawbreaker and Whysall Lane
The first time I got to see Burma is when [Whysall Lane] opened for them! A month doesn't go by that I don't listen to them. They were one of those seminal bands, so everyone had to have the first record or the Ryko collection or something.

Carolyn Keddy, KUSF DJ
Mission of Burma is one of my all-time favorite bands. I saw them in 1983 at the infamous all-ages Bradford Hotel show in Boston. It was an amazing show. I got about 20 feet from Roger Miller and was mesmerized by the whole scene. It was too cool for my 14-year-old brain. And Sept. 27, when they will be performing Vs., happens to be my 40th birthday. I couldn't be happier.

Parker Gibbs, GIBBSMO Artist Management
I saw Mission of Burma in 1982 at the I-Beam on Haight Street. I had gotten in line for tickets and a guy came up to me and said, "Are you a big fan?" I replied that a friend had just turned me on to them, I really liked the record [Signals, Calls and Marches], but I heard that they sucked ass live. He laughed and said he knew the band and could get me on the list. I can remember that it was so loud, it felt like it was messing with my heart rate, but the sounds coming from the stage were otherworldly. I was like, 'There is no fucking way that they can be making that sound with just their guitars,' so I went to the side of the stage to see who was engineering the sound, and to my disbelief it was the guy who got us in. Turns out he was [tape manipulating member] Martin Swope. He motioned me over, leaned in my ear, and said, "I agree. We do suck ass live." Still one of my favorite shows ever.

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