In 1979 Peter Dayton recorded Mission of Burma’s first single Peaking Spring/This Is Not A Photograph. The singles weren’t for stores. Instead, they were given out to college radio stations with the hope of promoting the then unknown Mission of Burma. It worked. MIT’s radio station WMBR loved “Peaking Spring” so much it became their most played song of 1979. The band was off to a great start. Everyone in Boston was talking about them.
The band was generating enough buzz that Rick Harte, owner of indie label Ace Of Hearts Records, went to go see them in concert. He didn’t understand their music, but he liked two of their songs. Figuring two songs was good enough for a single, Rick signed Burma and released their first commercial single Academy Fight Song/Max Ernst. Released on June 1980, within weeks the single sold out its initial 7,500 pressings and received heavy airplay on college radio throughout Massachusetts. It was good enough that music magazine Boston Rock crowned them best local band and Academy Fight Song/Max Ernst best new single. Even more impressively Academy was featured on influential magazine New York Rocker’s list of the top 10 best singles of 1980, sharing print space with mega rock stars like The Clash, Elvis Costello, and The Pretenders. Pretty soon Burma was opening for major label bands like Gang of Four, The Cure, The Buzzcocks, The Dead Kennedys, and The Fall.
On July 4, 1981 Mission of Burma released their first EP Signals, Calls, and Marches. The band received heavy airplay on Boston FM super-station WBCN, lead single “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” topping their charts at number six. Because Signals was released over the summer it didn’t receive any college radio airplay, but regardless Signals snagged fifth place on Rockpool’s progressive charts between superstar artists Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Pretenders. By the time 1982 rolled around, Signals had sold out all ten thousand of its initial pressings.
You’d think with all the exposure and critical acclaim a major label would have sucked them up by now. Problem was, Mission of Burma sounded so different live then they did on record that people often mistook them for two different bands. On vinyl Burma sounded like a very arty punk band with smart pop sensibilities and a little avant-garde eccentricity injected into the mix. Live, Mission of Burma was impossibly loud; a sonic maelstrom of frenzied chaotic sounds. A common insult the press would write was “Mission of Burma would sound good live if they were all playing the same song”. Peter Prescott played his drum kit like he was soloing the whole time. Clint Conley shredded impossibly fast up and down his bass like he was Jimi Hendrix, while Roger Miller’s guitar amp was cranked up so loud he would wear industrial strength earplugs underneath the noise cancelling headphones they give you at gun ranges to avoid going deaf. While all this was going on Martin Swope would manipulate their sound live with a tape deck from the PA system. An impressive feat considering the sampler hadn’t been invented yet and wouldn’t for many more years.
Vs impact on the music scene is hard to ignore. Everybody from Nirvana to Sonic Youth to The Pixies to REM to Moby would cite Vs as a major influence. Pearl Jam’s second studio album is named after Mission of Burma’s debut LP in honor of how much it’s affected Eddie Vedder’s life and sound.
Vs received universal critical acclaim upon its release, but sold poorly. Mission of Burma was too far ahead of their time, and broke up in 1983 due to Miller’s worsening tinnitus, low audience turnouts, and lack of interest from live audiences. The band would reunite in 2002 and go on to release another three critically acclaimed albums, but despite their success nothing they’ve done comes close to Vs. It’s an album so far ahead of its time it still feels futuristic in 2011. Vs is an album that will continue to inspire and push the limits of innovation far into the future, earning it a perfect four out of four.