The Wonderful Truth About Burma

I love art and I love rock, but to say that “art rock” has usually been neither would be an understatement. This problem calls to mind Matt Groening’s French sex comedy paradox: the French are funny, sex is funny, and comedy is funny, yet French sex comedies are are never funny. I know, there are good exceptions, from Robert Fripp in his livelier moments to Brian Eno, when he’s not busy recording ambient seal mating noises to play at low volume in European airports. But if art rock is usually a fever, my most reliable cure for three decades running has been Boston’s Mission of Burma, a band that still cranks its amps to eleven even though its guitarist has tinnitus. How “art rock” is Mission of Burma? Well, they’ve recorded two songs about Max Ernst. But unlike, say, Don McLean whining about how nobody loved Vincent Van Gogh, Burma’s art songs are alive with a visceral, spiritual connection to their subject matter. “Dada-dada-dada-dada-dada-dada,” it turns out, makes for one rocking chorus.

I’m only slightly embarrassed that my most-played “new” album of 2008 was Matador’s re-release of Mission of Burma’s 27 year-old Signals, Calls and Marches. Meticulously produced by Ace of Hearts svengali Rick Harte, it doesn’t sound remotely dated. Since the Zeroes have already seen the likes of Interpol, Kaiser Chiefs, Ted Leo, M.I.A., and just about everyone else channeling the early Eighties underground, the time is ripe for a Burma renaissance. Mission of Burma is enjoying a surprisingly productive second life since its 2002 reunion; if you think the band is a nostalgia act, play 2006’s scorching The Obliterati right after any other recent release. One of the best shows I saw in 2008 was Burma’s San Francisco performance of everything from Signals, which reached even further into the band’s back pages with the dark and mysterious “Peking Spring.”

Matador’s 2008 reissue of Signals actually improves on and completes the original version. This year’s model adds four tracks to the original EP’s length, including both sides of one of my all-time favorite singles (Clint Conley’s wonderfully grumpy grad school anthem, “Academy Fight Song,” and Roger Miller’s frenetic “Max Ernst”) and two formerly instrumental tracks from the same sessions (“Devotion” and “Execution”) that the middle-aged Burma gang gave a vocal makeover sometime after recording The Obliterati. Without the dynamics of the original Signals‘ signature number, “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” the reworked songs still blend beautifully, sharing a style that has one foot in the conservatory and the other in the mosh pit. The sum total is thirty-five minutes of heavenly bliss disguised as punk rock. About the only thing I miss is the lyric sheet from the original release, which arranged all the words in alphabetical order.

Mission of Burma, “Academy Fight Song”

Mission of Burma, “This is Not a Photograph”

Also worth owning are Matador’s re-releases of Burma’s 1982 album Vs., whose rawer aesthetic comes closer to the band’s live sound, and the then-posthumous 1985 live album The Horrible Truth About Burma. The latter’s two covers—the Stooges’ “1970” and Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness”–make fitting bookends for Burma’s aesthetic reach. All the reissued CDs also feature DVDs and concert-footage from early Burma, circa 1979-1983. And if you want to go back even further, YouTube now has footage of Miller and Conley in their pre-Burma band, Moving Parts, doing a prototype version of “Max Ernst.” The keyboardist who looks like he floated in from a Yes concert is Erik Lindgren, who went on to join Roger Miller in his avant-garde ensemble Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Lindgren also played in the Space Negros, a band responsible for of one of the all-time great album titles, The Space Negros Play Generic Ethnic Muzak Versions of All Your Favorite Punk/ Psychedelic Songs from the Sixties.

Moving Parts, “Max Ernst”

Mission of Burma, “Peking Spring”

Mission of Burma, “All World Cowboy Romance”

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.

2 thoughts on “The Wonderful Truth About Burma

  1. Wonder why Burma is practically alone in being able to re-unite 20 years later and keep all of the good stuff going on. Not a touch of lame-ness. Never seem old-and-in-the-way. It’s like they took a 20-yr cigarette break and picked right up where they left off.

    Thanks for the tips on the re-releases. Sounds like I’ve got some catching up to do.

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