In The Burning Sea In The Laughing Lights: Signals, Calls, and Marches Turns 40

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Mission Of Burma – Signals, Calls, and Marches

Released July 4th, 1981 on Ace of Hearts Records

Produced by Richard W. Harte

Post-punk hit its peak in 1979-1981 – a three-year period where some of the most influential and revered acts in the genre released their earliest, hottest work. Both of Joy Division’s albums came out in this period, as did the first two Gang of Four records, both Swell Maps records, and The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds and Faith. Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing makes the honorary cut, having been released at the end of 1978. Near the end of this white-hot period came what might be low-key the most influential of all: Mission of Burma and Signals, Calls, and Marches.

The band came out of Boston, which had never been the most fertile creative ground for bands in the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. Aerosmith came out of there, to be sure, but they weren’t exactly the most startling or new band, being basically a collection of good-times Stones wannabes. There was the band named after the city, of course, but they were only cutting-edge in terms of their production; the music was standard 70’s pop hard rock. The Cars put out their debut in 1978, which was probably the most cutting-edge the city had gotten since The Standells did “Dirty Water” in 1966. This has always been an odd note in the history of American music. The city is home to several of the most well-known schools in both America and the world: Boston University, M.I.T., friggin’ Hahvaaad ferchrissakes. You would think that all those densely packed post-secondary bodies would give rise to something but until the Eighties it was an also-ran in American rock.

The Eighties changed that, and not just because that’s where the Pixies got big. I mean, seriously, most of it is because that’s where the Pixies got big; who else has had such an outsized influence on rock ‘n’ roll? Many of those same bands also took some influence from Mission of Burma, though, so we can pinpoint the moment when Boston went from rock ‘n’ roll afterthought to breeding ground of influential bands to Independence Day, 1981. Not that they’ve been as such lately but let’s not rag on the city too hard. They’re Red Sox fans after all, and that’s a big enough burden to bear.

Mission of Burma had an advantage in their earliest days as they had a local record label that believed in them. Rick Harte, who owned Ace of Hearts Records, spent a great deal of time producing their songs just so; if you’ve ever caught one of their live videos on YouTube from back in those days, you’ll know that there is a vast gap between the visceral explosion of their live shows and the rather polite by contrast sound they put out on their first EP. Roger Miller has a funny story about that gap. A little while after the release – 1981 or ’82 – they were playing a show in Cleveland and beforehand a girl came up to them talking about how much she loved the band and especially how much she loved “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”, which the band had rightly pegged as their ‘hit.’ When the show started, though, the crowd seemed almost terrified – backing up against the back wall and not applauding or cheering or even jeering the band. The band tried heckling them but the non-response continued; the crowd just didn’t know what to make of this violent, noisy band.

Someone was listening and responding, though. The band’s mix of jagged, amped-up post-punk and thoughtful, avant-garde-referencing lyrics made all sorts of people make subtle adjustments to their sounds. R.E.M.’s Murmur came out two years later, and if there isn’t an undercurrent of the same stuff that makes Signals, Calls and Marches great running through it I will eat my hat. Fugazi and Nirvana were two other groups that at one point or another claimed Mission of Burma as an influence. As big an influence as the Pixies were, they didn’t shape alternative (and later indie) rock alone; they had definite help from another hometown band. They would go on to release a full-length record, the classic Vs., in 1982 but then break up. It wasn’t until 2002 that they reformed and started putting out great music again as though there had been no time at all in the interval. As far as post-punk reunions they might be the top; they certainly fared better than Gang of Four, whose work post-reunion was mostly half-baked retreads with cringe-inducing conspiracy theories in the lyrics. They’ve actually put out twice as much material in the reunion period as they did in their original era, all of it well worth checking out.

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