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Assessing a band and its place in a scene decades after the fact is a messy proposition. Things were likely more complicated and confused at the time then they are in anyone’s error-prone memory. But if the group left enough recordings behind, you can at least get a broad sense of where it fits in a larger subcultural context. It’s when you’re dealing with a band that barely existed within a community full of bigger stories that making those connections gets truly tricky.
So it goes with the early ’80s D.C. band Mission for Christ, whose “discography” consists of one nine-song 1983 cassette—itself more a demo than an official release—and a 7-inch with two songs taken directly from that tape. Its members had played in numerous other short-lived bands, none of which had made enough impact to indicate what Mission for Christ might be about. But the circumstances behind the single do offer a clue: It was the only release on No Trend Records that wasn’t by No Trend, a group whose own history is somewhat messy and notorious. No Trend had a reputation for alienating the hardcore scene with a weird mash of funk, blues, and art-provocateur kitsch. (In a 2002 New York Press article, guitarist Buck Parr claimed the band “was not about making music that people would actually enjoy.”) So if No Trend thought highly of Mission for Christ, maybe they were also harder to pigeonhole than most standard-issue hardcore.
That hypothesis is confirmed by The Complete Sessions, a 15-track, 36-minute retrospective CD issued by Finland’s Ektro Records. Mission for Christ might not have been as confrontational as No Trend, but its mix of sounds certainly challenges notions of hardcore’s orthodoxy: It excitedly combines elements of dub, dance, noise, art rock, and, most interestingly, unmistakable go-go beats. Perhaps that stylistic line-crossing was a political statement, but the band seems less interested in any radical message than a radically open musical sensibility. That’s evident by its name, which was neither a spiritual call to arms nor a sarcastic dig at religion, but simply a tribute to a musical inspiration: the in-house band at a church called Mission for Christ.
Still, there are some political signifiers here; it was probably pretty hard to be a band in D.C. in the early ’80s without taking some jabs at the Reagan Administration. The tape that provides The Complete Session’s first nine tracks was originally called 2 Jews, A Black, A Woman and a Cripple, copped from a phrase that affirmative action-mocking Secretary of the Interior James Watt used to describe the members of a government panel. And the tape’s best song boasts the chorus “Nancy Reagan is a plastic bitch,” chanted in a blurry Johnny Rotten snarl by singer Tex Borneo, aka David Berman (no relation to the Silver Jews frontman). It’s a great tune not so much for its rough opinions as its musical gravity. Driven by the dense bass of J.C. Agnatha (aka John Gibson), it stomps forward with the lurch of California punk slobberers The Germs, then devolves into guitar noise akin to Sonic Youth, which itself was venturing into similar amp-burning experiments just a few hours north in New York City.
Mission for Christ might not have heard The Germs or Sonic Youth, but The Complete Sessions displays a musical appetite that stretches beyond the confines of the band’s home city. An interest in numerous genres—especially dub, a hot influence in early ’80s post-punk—led them to touch the same sonic territory as arty Cleveland bands like Pere Ubu, noisy No Wave bands in New York like DNA and Mars (the bouncy rant of “He and She” sounds like a funky take on Mars’ “Puerto Rican Ghost”), and adventurous British bands like Wire and Public Image Ltd. The latter are perhaps the clearest reference point, particularly on the No Trend single’s A-side “Pennies From Hell” (a song originally written by Gibson’s other band at the time, the Psychotics). Here, Mission for Christ matches the rubbery throb of Jah Wobble and whining scrape of Keith Levene, albeit with a hint of go-go percolating in the background.
That’s an accent that perhaps only a D.C. band could’ve convincingly taken on at the time, and at their core Mission for Christ was a D.C. band (it’s doubtful they ever played outside the city). You can hear it in the single’s even more go-go-happy B-side, “Penny Dub,” an apparent “Pennies From Hell” remix that blows up the original’s syncopated bass-snare funk into big, bold letters. It’s also there in their straighter hardcore numbers; take sub-two-minute tracks like as the spitting “Psycho” and the high-speed mess “Poseur,” which sounds like a straight-edge song photocopied onto itself over and over.
In 1984, only a year after the 2 Jews tape was recorded, Mission for Christ had a near-wholesale lineup change, with only Gibson remaining. This version of the band never released anything official, but The Complete Sessions appends five decently recorded versions of their songs. These tracks lack the sharpness and consistency of the earlier cuts, but there are some nice moments, particularly the screaming insanity of “You Gotta Believe” and the slow swagger of “Blunt Instrument,” which sounds like PiL covering Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2).”
Mission for Christ would only last another year or so, with Gibson moving on to form a band with members of No Trend that sported the prog-sounding moniker Penguin’s Exploding Octopus. His mates would also disperse to an array of other projects, creating a post-history as confusing as their pre-history. But whether or not the story of this flash-in-time band can ever be told fully and accurately, the music on The Collected Sessions makes one thing clear: ’80s D.C. hardcore was messier and more unpredictable than its rigid reputation might suggest.