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Burmese days
Thurston Moore, Rick Harte, Rob Dickinson, and more speak out

Fresh out of college, I was in Washington, DC, visiting my friend Steve Spector when Mission of Burmaís "Academy Fight Song" blared out of the radio over the trailblazing airwaves of WHFS. The bite, the drive, the intelligence of the lyrics ó I was smitten. The Weasel, the visionary DJ who made it his mission to play plenty of X, Pere Ubu, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, and the Sex Pistols in regular rotation, announced that the band were from Boston.

Steve and I both needed to have that record, so the next morning we drove out to Silver Springs to buy the Mission of Burma single, which was backed by a song called, of all things, "Max Ernst." Those brainy bastards. Robin Lane & the Chartbusters were on mainstream radio then too, with their first single, "When Things Go Wrong." Within days Iíd decided that any city with a rock scene so diverse and strong it could sustain both Mission of Burma and Robin Lane & the Chartbusters was the place for me. Twenty years later, much has changed about Bostonís rock scene, but Iím still here thanks to Burma and Robin.

Mission of Burmaís enduring legacy is proof of how a great band affect people in deep ways ó whether they directly change the course of a life, provide an experience that becomes part of oneís spirit, or spark a memory that can rekindle a surge of passion when itís revisited decades later.

To celebrate Mission of Burmaís legacy on the eve of their first ever reunion, and to illustrate the ways a band can touch someone, we asked a few fans ó Sonic Youthís Thurston Moore, Newbury Comics co-founder Mike Dreese, Ace of Hearts label chief Rick Harte, Rob Dickinson of alterna-rockers Catherine Wheel, and Bertis Downs of R.E.M.ís home office ó to share their recollections of Mission of Burma. Hereís what they told us:

Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth

I always felt a kinship with them, although Sonic Youth were never intimates with them like we were later with the Swans, the Laughing Hyenas, or Die Kreuzen. I saw Mission of Burma when they first came to New York and played the original Danceteria. Nobody really knew anything about them, but Jim Fouratt would actually book these unknown regional bands. He would listen to the tapes and if he liked them have them open for the Bush Tetras or something.

I walked in and Burma were already in full concert mode, and it was really shocking, because they were playing really heavy guitar music, but not like punk-rock-guitar music. It was something we were only hearing through the bands that were into the mass-guitar post-MC5 vibes that were resonating through guys like Glenn Branca. And Mission of Burma were not approaching it in an academic way. They were these guys in flannel shirts and jeans really going at it. It was beautiful ringing loud guitar music, so I was knocked out.

When Sonic Youth started and Jim Fouratt booked us at Danceteria, it was opening for Mission of Burma, although I donít think Mission of Burma were making too much of a dent in the New York scene. But they rang true for me. Branca also saw them and was turned on by them. At that time a lot of the music in New Yorkís underground had to do with no-wave funk, which I really dug because elements of that music are wonderful. But Burma were among the few bands that would display something wholly other than what was going on in the New York eye of the hurricane when they came to town. R.E.M. was like that too.

When we opened for them, it was really cool. I was really into the fact that we were playing with them, and I was hoping they would see us and see that there were bands in New York that werenít playing no-wave funk. We were at our most cacophonous. We were doing one song where I would stick a cowbell under the guitar strings and bend the strings up with it to create this squall. I remember after sound check one of the members of Burma saying, "That cowbell song was pretty good."

Today I donít see their influence in the mainstream at all. The whole neo-punk-rock scene ó a lot of those bands donít reference what was going on in the American underground in the í80s. A lot of them are influenced by each other and by Nirvana and share the same signifiers, be it the Misfits or something else.

Bands like Burma had a quality to their songwriting that was really accessible, really uplifting, and I donít hear that kind of plain good songwriting in mainstream radio. When I spin the radio dial, it confuses me because there is so much good music out there, and very, very rarely will it hit radio. A lot of whatís coming out of the radio is so insipid.

Over the years we would meet up with Roger and would play with the [Peter Prescott] Volcano Suns. The Burma legacy was very strong. Most people who played in bands in the í80s and í90s were aware of it. I think it was more significant for musicians. At that time Mission of Burma, the Butthole Surfers, and the Big Boys were the really interesting bands, because they werenít standardizing. They were coming out of punk and playing music that was sophisticated, in a sense, in this classic unsophisticated quality. There was a certain proletarian standardization in hardcore, so it was great to see and hear bands like Mission of Burma and the Big Boys step away from that with no ambitions toward the mainstream. I still put "Academy Fight Song" on mix tapes.

Rick Harte, Ace of Hearts Records

I signed Mission of Burma for these reasons. As a label I didnít want to go over the same musical ground that had preceded this period in the í70s and í60s. They had strong, gutsy material with a progressive, slightly angry/punk feel. I thought at the time that they had two or three good songs, and I was making only 45s, not EPs or LPs then. I liked their attitude and the bandís music, so I signed them up. Not much more to it than that.

It was a much more simple time. No thought of what might sell. I thought I could probably make a good record with them. We were all surprised when "Academy Fight Song" became a hit!

Mike Dreese, co-founder of Newbury Comics

I am just a raving fan of the band. They were like the US version of Gang of Four, although not derivative in any way. If you had to pick one band that came out of the Boston market that was the most important or musically influential, I would say Mission of Burma would be that band. They would also make my all-time Top Five list of most important bands in terms of their art and what they represented. And in their live shows ó the stuff that Martin Swope did, the loops and feedback ó it was almost a Kraftwerk-type experience. There were few bands that were so far ahead of their time in their ability to craft music that extremely interesting. Mission of Burma and the Neighborhoods were the two Boston bands of that era that should have been absolutely enormous but werenít.

At that time the alternative music scene was so well-focused ó everybody that was a Newbury Comics customer saw the same bands. And during our early years, the first Neighborhoods and Mission of Burma singles were among our top bestsellers, with many thousands sold. Credit to Rick Harte for signing both of those bands, and for the exquisite packaging and quality of those records.

Rob Dickinson, Catherine Wheel

What introduced me to the band was when Merck Mercuraides, our manager, gave me a cassette with a bunch of bands and songs that were pretty obscure and said, "What do you think of this in regards to doing some B-sides and covers?" That was my first exposure to Mission of Burma and Hüsker Dü. "Revolver" just blew me away. It was like, "My God, where did this music come from?" It just sounded so great, so we recorded the song and performed it live a few times on tour in England. They seemed to be a kind of precursor to the Pixies in a way. They had that visceral specialness that the Pixies had when they started. And, of course, they were both from Boston, so the connection was there for me.

Bertis Downs, Adviser to R.E.M.

I saw Mission of Burma in Athens [Georgia] in í81 or í82. It was just an incredible night. I think it was them and Sonic Youth or the Swans. It was one of those nights with a couple hundred people jammed into a room that fit 150 ó a lot of sweat, a lot of beer. It was an old print shop, and I think it had just become one of the early locations of the 40 Watt Club. The guys from R.E.M. were there. R.E.M. had played their first club show in that same space the year or so before, April 19, 1980. Then it was called the Koffee Klub. Back then all the cool bands played the same places. In Boston, R.E.M. played the Rat.

R.E.M. later recorded "Academy Fight Song" for a Christmas single or a B-side. My favorite Burma song was always "Thatís When I Reach for My Revolver." But it was one of those shows where everybody in Athens who cared about music turned out. It was one of those nights you remember 20 years later, and youíre happy you were among the ones who were lucky enough to be there.

Issue Date: January 10 - 17, 2002
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