Listen to this track by Bostonian post-punk noise architects Mission of Burma. It’s “Secrets”, the opening track of their influential 1982 full-length debut record Vs. The record followed up the Signals, Calls, and Marches EP from the previous year, creating what many critics at the time considered to be a full realization of their sound and potential.
Forming in 1979, the group pulled together a sound that drew from punk rock and British post-punk, with a smattering of American avant garde influences in the form of tape loops and sound manipulation. Like many bands in the age when the term “alternative” as applied to rock music was just a twinkle in the eye of the mainstream music press, Mission of Burma was championed by college rock radio stations, in their case in the Boston area. This opener is emblematic of their approach, which affects a kind of barely contained chaos, with traditional rock grooves being taken on in one instant and then discarded in the next.
This is in line with the song’s subject matter, which is concerned with small moments in time that precede more widely encompassing changes ahead, with human connections becoming less reliable and more frightening all the while.
For me, the appeal of this song is about how unpredictable it is. The shift from groove to groove, and the delayed vocal while the instrumental section works up a head of steam is completely disorienting and utterly compelling all at once. The rhythmic shifts suggest that the whole thing is about to fold in on itself, with the only indication that it won’t being the tightness of each groove between the players as they move from section to section. This might be mistaken for a haphazard arrangement at first, and yet with a sharper ear to what’s actually going on, it’s obvious that this sense of disorientation is by design. This is even before lead singer and guitarist Roger Miller’s vocal kicks in, spitting out the lines like he’s rapidly running out of time to say what he has to say.
The lyrics suggest a single moment that is only barely observed yet represents an ocean of meaning; not just a blink, not just a flicker, or the following of an arm, a look in your eyes that you can’t explain. The entire song is like the build up to some significant moment, of something that is about to happen, but hasn’t happened even by the end. The “secrets” that the song’s title makes reference to are not addressed directly, adding even more tension to the whole, boiling a single moment down to pure visceral feeling, like the burning in the gut one feels when one knows what’s coming, and that it will change everything in an instant.
That’s always been at the heart of so much of punk rock and post-punk like this, not dealing in large narratives that tell a single story so much as with small and relatable moments that can’t always be captured in words. This is about the primal and the instinctual rather than the intellectual, and easily explainable. As such, what we get here is all about big emotional events triggered by the smallest actions; a look in the eye, with what comes next being decidedly murky and hard to predict. As such, this song suggests the pall of insecurity felt by everyone at some points in our lives, the moments of when we don’t know what will happen next coupled with our lack of control over the outcome of the events that are to follow. It’s the pulling of the undertow, when you can’t control the wheel.
Mixed in with all of that, this song touches upon the secrets we hold inside of ourselves that can make our own gaze a frightening prospect to others, too, a source of unpredictability that can ignite the feelings of insecurity in others. Ultimately, this song feels like a snapshot of what happens between people when communication can never be fully realized, when the next thing we say, or don’t say, can initiate unalterable changes in the lives of those who seek to draw closer to us. It suggests the idea that we are very often inscrutable to each other even when we are close.
Mission of Burma were interrupted in their rise in influence by health issues, specifically Roger Miller’s tinnitus, causing the band to fragment by the next year after they released Vs . But they are an active band today, having come together again in 2002, a full twenty years after the release of their debut album. You can catch up with them at missionofburma.com.
Also, have a read of this article with MoB drummer Peter Prescott that tackles, among other things, the reason for the band’s longevity; not being given the chance to suck!