When Mission of Burma resurfaced in 2002, reuniting and playing shows after an absence of nearly twenty years, someone told me that I simply had to go see them. He said they were at least the loudest, if not the best band he had ever seen perform in person. Now, that’s a lot to live up to, especially after that long a hiatus. And, really, would they still be the loudest band ever after guitarist Roger Miller’s bout with tinnitus? All reports claim they still were, and unfortunately, I still haven’t had the chance to find out. What I do have, thanks to the recent Matador reissues, is a chance to hear `vintage’ live performances from Mission of Burma. The Horrible Truth About Burma was originally released in 1985, two years after the band called it quits. When it first hit shelves, it was no ordinary live album, and that’s probably why Matador chose to include the collection in its trio of Burma re-releases.
I’ve usually been disappointed with live albums. Most of the time, live albums are a random document of one anonymous stop on their latest tour, playing mostly songs from their latest album, and a few scattered hits. If you went to see the show, the album is a pale comparison to the actual experience. If you didn’t happen to see the show, the album is still a mere stopgap solution to either give the band more time in the studio or fulfill a contractual obligation. There have been a few exceptions, but only a very few. Mission of Burma, with The Horrible Truth, did something that hadn’t really been done before. They filled the live album with songs that had never seen proper release. So, in effect, it was an entirely brand new album!
Starting with the instrumental opener, “Tremolo,” complete with the `ahead of their time’ audio dynamics of Martin Swope, The Horrible Truth About Burma is both a valid experience of Burma’s live sound and a chance to hear what had not been heard before. “Peking Spring,” the second track, is one of the true standouts here, which is probably the reason it ended up on a few later MoB compilations. How this Clint Conley-penned piece of melodic aggression never ended up getting the studio treatment is beyond me. Also of interest in the set are the appearance of two covers, one a rollicking version of the Stooges’ “1970,” and the other an epic version of Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness.” With that, the original release of the album ended, with a lot of reason for MoB fans looking for new material to rejoice, yet also scratch their heads.
A few years back, Rykodisc did their own re-release, adding three more tracks to the live set, but in the process, re-sequencing the tracks and removing any between song crowd noise. With this Matador release, the original running order is restored, and so is the crowd, as obnoxious as they may be. Matador includes the extra tracks, even throwing in one more of their own, never before released. These songs end up to be a few of the most definitive Burma tracks ever, “Trem Two” and “Learn How” from Vs., and the now classic “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” from Signals, Calls, and Marches. The last track alone should solidify Mission of Burma’s place in rock and roll history. Matador adds the infectious Vs. track, “Weatherbox,” with its fantastic dual vocals, crunching buzzsaw guitars and hypnotic rhythms.
Although most live albums throughout the history of rock and roll will be and should be dismissed, The Horrible Truth About Burma is certainly not among that group. Both in its original conception and subsequent re-releases, the collection has proven itself over and over again to be both unique and worthy on its own merits. What Matador has done with this new re-release, without having even mentioned the included DVD featuring the evening set of MoB’s last Boston show (the afternoon set apprises the Vs. DVD), is present the absolute definitive edition of an oft-overlooked gem from one of America’s premier post-punk bands. Until I harness the time-travel powers provided by the island on Lost, allowing me to go back to 1983 to see these last shows, I’ll just have to live with this document. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t close enough.
Big Black- Pigpile
Jawbox- My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents
The Fall- Fall in a Hole