Agony Shorthand

Monday, December 15, 2003
MISSION OF BURMA LIVE TO AIR…..Was re-blown away by the majesty of one of my all-time favorite bands, MISSION OF BURMA, this past week, courtesy of a CD that comprises two on-air recordings they made for Boston’s WERS radio in 1980. Last time I remembered how great and ahead of the curve this band were was during my post-2002 reunion show Burma frenzy, when I re-listened to their entire, every-song-a-classic catalog over AND over AND over again. That show, by the way, dispelled any hide-bound notions I had about the lameness of reunion gigs. The July 2002 show in San Francisco was easily most fantastic rock show I’ve seen in, like, a decade! Just when they were peaking during the encore, having kicked out the jams through “Fame and Fortune” and “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate”, they cranked out a million miles fast cover of one of the greatest first wave punk tunes ever, THE DILS' “Class War”. I’m pretty sure I fainted.

These radio sets are from April 1980 and September 1980 respectively, pretty early in the band’s brief career – in the first one, Roger Miller talks skeptically about whether or not their first 45 (“Academy Fight Song / Max Ernst”) will ever be released (!). “Max Ernst” in particular, always a quirky and confusing (but good) song on the 45, is delivered in raw and aggressive fashion live – somehow they missed the spirit of their own world-beating song when they got it onto vinyl. The April 1980 set also has a Peter Prescott-sung tune that has never appeared elsewhere and to the best of my knowledge was unrecorded. It’s lopey and a little more whimsical than most Burma output, maybe more in line with Prescott’s later Volcano Suns work than with the most refined and geometrically angular Mission of Burma. Both sets contain a great many of the unreleased tunes that never saw official light until long after the band’s demise, like “Execution”, “Peking Spring” and “Progress”. One also has the amazing distorted instrumental piece “Tremelo”, which layers and unwraps a simple riff into its piece parts to hypnotic, entrancing effect. Fantastic stuff, and one of the rare radio or recorded live shows that actually adds to a band’s legend rather than detracts. I’ll make a case for Mission of Burma joining Black Flag, The Flesh Eaters and The Minutemen as the prime exponents of the early 80s American underground, one of the most fertile times and places for rock music anywhere, ever. Now that’s something!