I am reminded of another Boston area band that began their illustrious career of indie `fringe’ rock with a very strong EP. The Pixies’ Come on Pilgrim certainly turned some heads, even causing later fans and critics to wonder whether this eight track gem was the beginnings of indie rock. Not to take anything away from the Pixies, one of my favorite bands, but truth be told, they were in the right city, but six years too late. You see, Mission of Burma had already really laid the groundwork for indie rock in 1981 with Signals, Calls, and Marches, a six-song EP that was blisteringly aggressive, but distanced from punk, yet melodic and catchy as hell, but distanced from pop.
The first time I heard the brilliant single, “Academy Fight Song,” reproduced here as an intro to the EP, it was as a cover by R.E.M. I honestly don’t remember if it was live, or on a bootleg, but I do remember that it wasn’t their song, yet it sounded like it should have been. And today, Clint Conley’s tune is as driving, accessible and arty as it was back then. The B-side, “Max Ernst,” is Roger Miller’s perfect jagged balance to Conley’s smoother harmonies. I can only imagine what it felt like to hear the groundbreaking sound of Mission of Burma when this single was released. In 1981, I was listening to Human League, Oingo Boingo, Billy Idol, The Police, Thomas Dolby, Devo, Soft Cell, the Cars and U2. Burma would have blown my little ten-year-old mind.
Matador, bless their big indie hearts, add two previously unreleased tracks from the `Academy’ sessions in “Devotion” and “Execution,” making sure to let us know that the latter is NOT the demo recording from the Taang LP, presumably Forget. After those two welcome `newbies’ comes one of the best and most recognizable opening lines of 80’s indie rock, “Once I had my heroes,” a line that many bands over the years re-interpreted as a reference to MoB in their cover versions. That is the opening line, of course, for what is probably and deservedly Burma’s best known track, “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.” This is the song that started the EP proper, and could be argued as the song that began what is now known as the `indie sound.’ Again, it wasn’t quite punk, and definitely not pop. It had smart lyrics and a sing-along hooky chorus, yet retained an angular and wiry edge that was not found in the day’s punk, new wave, metal or top 40 fare.
For years, I couldn’t understand why people liked Come on Pilgrim more than either Surfer Rosa or Doolittle. But I have to tell you, despite how much I love Vs., I lean a bit toward Signals, Calls, and Marches, now finally understanding the power of an introductory EP, the raw sound provided with it and the aura surrounding a truly outstanding and electrifying debut. After the Conley-penned masterpiece “Revolver” come four straight Miller tracks, piling on the harmonic post-punk angst. After hearing “Outlaw,” it’s difficult to think that Steve Bartek and Danny Elfman weren’t influenced heavily by Roger Miller’s herky-jerky guitar work and delivery, most evident in Boingo songs like “Wild Sex (In the Working Class).” “This is Not a Photograph” was probably the closest thing to punk on the EP, yet still provided enough melody to let in those needing something more accessible to hold onto. The background vocal “oooh’s” of “Red” typified the type of distance between Burma’s sound and punk music, then coming out fast and furious from Los Angeles. This song in particular tied in with similar genre-changing bands of the time such as U2, while in turn influencing many future bands, such as the aforementioned Pixies. Closer “All World Cowboy Romance” ends things dramatically with an instrumental coda that could almost be described as post-rock.
In total, the debut EP from the legendary Mission of Burma, Signals, Calls, and Marches, is expanded by Matador to ten songs, now making it a proper album length. On top of that, they’ve included a DVD of early performances from Boston venues `The Space’ and `The Underground.’ To review the three Matador reissues (frankly, a word that doesn’t do justice to the packages the label put together), I was given downloadable mp3’s. This is quickly becoming an industry standard in the changing face of the music business and the onslaught of technology, so I wasn’t surprised. But, while I am more than grateful to be given the mere chance to listen to these great pieces of indie history, I have to wonder at what could have been. You see, all of these releases were also put out by Matador on 180 gram vinyl, and both vinyl and CD versions came with the performance DVD’s, both of which I am missing out on. I would imagine that the best way to hear Mission of Burma simply HAS to be on vinyl. There’s just no way around it. But, Matador, you can make it up to me. There’s still time to send me those vinyl packages, making me the happiest `oldest’ kid on the block. But, even if you don’t, I ain’t mad at’cha. Mission of Burma in any form is a gift beyond description.