In conversation with Blondie’s Clem Burke
By Sarah Taylor
Between the eight hour time difference in Manchester and Los Angeles, and through the powers of Zoom, I’m speaking to new wave and punk-rock legend, Clem Burke. Perhaps known best as Blondie’s veteran drummer, Burke has played with a plethora of huge names including Eurythmics, the Ramones, and Iggy Pop, to name a few.
Clem appears to be in high spirits, raring to get back out and performing. “Yesterday I did a gig at The Troubadour!” he remarks, an air of nonchalance as he references a bar which catapulted such stars as Elton John to international fame. He goes on to namedrop a few people who took part – members of Thin Lizzy and Guns N’ Roses happened to be there too.
My eyes are drawn to a painting of Che Guevara, emblazoned against a Cuban flag, hung behind Clem. In 2019, Blondie took a trip – a sort of “cultural exchange” as Clem puts it – to Havana, playing a pair of shows to some 5000 spectators. Their experiences were documented in the 2019 film Vivir en La Habana, alongside a live EP of the same name (2021): “We gave out tickets to the locals. Being in the States, there’s always an ominous air about Cuba and a fear of communism, etc. It was great to go and actually interact with the people.” He picked up the Guevara painting at an arts fair in Havana, and enthuses about Cuba’s cultural significance and arts subsidies “which they don’t really have in the US.”
Clem is, however, here to discuss Blondie’s upcoming tour and a boxset celebrating the first phase of their immense back catalogue. Both of these projects are fittingly titled Against the Odds. Why? “Well, it’s about the success of Blondie – it’s against the odds for any kind of rock band to have that.” He notes that the title has found new meaning between the pandemic and the vinyl shortage, both of which have inflicted delays on the respective projects. “Then we’ll go right from that into a bunch of US dates and start work on a new record!”
Our palette is immense, there’s very many colours to draw from.
Blondie’s previous album, 2017’s Pollinator received a rapturous (forgive the pun) response from critics, marking a deviation in sound and tone for the band. Produced by John Congleton, it was supported by the Rage and Rapture Tour, in partnership with Scottish-American rock band Garbage, with frontwoman Debbie Harry donning a bee costume for many performances.
Commenting on their upcoming album, which will again be produced by Congleton, Clem tells me: “We’ll hopefully carry on with the sound of Pollinator. All of us finally came to the realisation that it works best when we’re all in the studio together recording the basic tracks. Pollinator was a little different because we solicited songs from various songwriters and musicians, one of which was your fellow Mancunian Johnny Marr. Most of the songs this time will be coming from within the band. We’ve got loads of demos and will hopefully start recording soon.”
One such demo, the oft spoken of but unreleased ‘Paint Your Face’ from sessions for The Curse of Blondie (2003) makes its way into the conversation. Will it see the light of day any time soon? “Probably, in time, all the post-80s recordings will be collected in a box but not any time soon. Thanks for reminding me about that song, I don’t know why that never made the record. I’m going to bring that up” Clem says, hinting at the potentiality of re-recording it.
Marr will also join Blondie as the opening act for their Against the Odds tour. “I’m a fan of The Smiths, and he’s friends with the others. People are going to get two great shows.”
With a discography spanning five decades, it’s difficult for Clem to put a finger on his favourite track to play live. “It’s all like one big song to me. I like playing the songs that people are really familiar with and the ones which the UK fans connect with most.” Notably, Blondie have scored more number ones in the UK than the US, with some of their most recognisable songs ‘Sunday Girl’ and ‘Denis’ – the latter a variation on ‘Denise’, popularised by fellow New Yorkers Randy & the Rainbows – topping the UK charts but not even being released as singles in America. “I like playing the old ones but as an artist you want to expand your musical horizons and creativity which is why we still make new music.”
Our look is still definitive.
Before taking a hiatus between the mid-80s and late-90s, Blondie released two of their most experimental albums, Autoamerican (1980) and The Hunter (1982). “Ironically when we turned in Autoamerican, the record company said we don’t hear any hits and that had ‘The Tide is High’ and ‘Rapture’ on it.” Of The Hunter, Clem remarks “we were all really satisfied with that album. There’s a song called ‘English Boys’ I particularly like that could’ve been a great single. Songs like, ‘War Child’, sure I contributed all the percussion.”
However, Parallel Lines (1978) is undoubtedly the definitive Blondie album, from its iconic Roberta Bayley-shot cover art to its succession of solid hits. Widely regarded as a start-to-finish classic, the record encompasses such songs as ‘One Way or Another’, ‘Hanging on the Telephone’, ‘Picture This’, ‘Sunday Girl’, and of course, ‘Heart of Glass.’
“We were never particularly sure what the world would think of what we were doing” Clem comments. The album was recorded when Blondie returned from a huge tour in support of 1978’s Plastic Letters, having recruited guitarist Frank Infante and bassist Nigel Harrison, thus becoming a six-piece. Clem notes the influence of Kraftwerk and Donna Summer on ‘Heart of Glass’ as well as the backlash the group faced by fusing disco music with punk-rock and new wave.
Initially, a slower demo known as ‘Once I Had a Love AKA The Disco Song’, the band reworked it with the support of producer Mike Chapman, whose previous credits included Sweet and Suzi Quatro. Surprisingly, Clem didn’t take to the track at first, but now acknowledges it as being “very innovative. By the time we got to ‘Rapture’ I was well on board with switching up the medium of the music […] you’ve got to have an open mind, you can’t just be tunnel vision. Our palette is immense, there’s very many colours to draw from.”
Perhaps their signature song, ‘Heart of Glass’ has stood the test of time. Clem explains how it “floated around the charts for about 50 weeks before it got into the top 5. It had a very long life of cumulative sales to keep the record alive – I don’t think you get that now with the internet. Everything is so instant […] Luckily, we have a great foundation to build on and the internet has helped a younger audience to see what we’re all about.” He compliments Miley Cyrus’ recent rendition of the song – “she did a great job.” Commenting on Blondie’s legacy, Clem says “Our look is still definitive. I think I’ve had the same haircut my entire career. We were fashion forward at the time, especially Debbie’s style.”
Always on the lookout for new and exciting bands, Clem mentions Italian rockers Måneskin as a particular favourite: “They were just on SNL. It was refreshing to see them with a few amps, no backing tracks, no elaborate production, just more what a band’s about; their charisma, sexuality, and their whole vibe coming across as individuals not with all this other media going on […] they’re a perfect band. I like Lana Del Rey a lot, and a band in LA called Primadonna.”
He acknowledges the double-standard faced by female musicians, noting Debbie Harry’s talent for song writing as well as her inimitable stage presence. “She was so glamorous; she was like our David Bowie or Mick Jagger, but her glamour kind of overshadowed her ability as a songwriter in a lot of ways. It’s just kind of catching up with us now. That was my whole modus operandi; I wanted to be in a band with someone who had that kind of power and Debbie has a great attitude.”
We never thought being commercial was wrong we just wanted to be able to do it on our own terms
In her 2019 autobiography FACE IT, Debbie describes the audition process for drummers – an advert stating ‘FREAK ENERGY ROCK DRUMMER WANTED’ – attracting the attention of a 19-year-old Clem. He explains “Debbie, Chris, and myself were in other bands on the glam-rock circuit in New York.” They would frequent Club 82, a disco bar which did a weekly rock night. “I had a band called Sweet Revenge at the time. When they put the ad in, I already knew it was them and then I talked to them on the phone. […] I really think they liked my shoes! They were red small-platformed shoes, very glam rock. […] I brought my high school mate in, Gary Valentine, he wrote ‘Presence Dear’ and our first single ‘X-Offender’, he was basically a poet who knew a few chords but wasn’t a bass player. I knew he could do it. It really was that DIY aesthetic. We never had stylists or record company people telling us what to do. Just shared aesthetics and an audiology of how we thought music should be. The whole scene was evolving in New York – everyone was influencing one another, there was, like, a synergy that happened. But maybe we had a little more commercial look of things – we never thought being commercial was wrong we just wanted to be able to do it on our own terms similarly to Warhol with his art – he wanted to be a commercial artist, but he didn’t compromise.”
Throughout his career, Clem has played drums for several musical heavyweights, notably the Ramones, Eurythmics, and Nancy Sinatra, whose family he likens to the American equivalent of British royalty. In fact, he’d been asked to join the former a handful of times. He describes the experience with some disdain: “I was asked on a Monday and they expected me to play on the Friday without ever rehearsing with them. Johnny [Ramone] just really looked at it as a job. He didn’t want to do any extra work and whenever you get a new member you need to do extra work.”
During this brief stint, he was christened Elvis Ramone, a name inspired by the “combed back” hairstyle he wore during a tour with Eurythmics in support of their debut album. “I came up with the name I didn’t want to be Clemmy Ramone. An Argentinian artist did a reproduction of a photo, Elvis Ramone.” FACE IT (2019) also includes an abundance of fan art depicting iconic images of Debbie Harry. Clem shows me one of his favourite gifts from a fan: a custom-made plush doll of him.
The most important thing is to be able to make your mistakes in public.
Whilst on the subject of gifts, it is notable that Clem gave one of his drum kits to the University of Chichester in 2008 as part of the Clem Burke Drumming Project. He will receive an honorary doctorate there later this year. The drumkit in question was recently played by BBC weather presenter Owain Wyn-Evans as part of his charity drum-a-thon for Children in Need, a project Clem was “happy to be a small part of.”
But his involvement with Chichester dates back some 15 years when Professor Marcus Smith wrote to Clem asking him to be part of his study on the physical and mental effects of drumming. “He would wire me up, take my blood levels, he would come to Blondie gigs and do it. It’s very academic. […] I’m older now, being able to do what I do, you’ve got to stay on top of your game with your mental and physical health.”
Last time Clem was in the UK, he played with tribute band Bootleg Blondie. He was watching the band play at a football recreation hall when they invited him on stage for a song. This soon developed into Clem joining the group for the rest of their tour. “We rehearsed, I curated the set, choosing older songs that we don’t necessarily play in the legitimate Blondie.”
Expecting to be playing smaller venues, Clem was delighted to join Bootleg Blondie at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2019. “My name was up on the marquee. It was a bit controversial with my partners in Blondie, but I think it only enhanced the whole Blondie experience. In the UK there’s a big market for tribute bands. It’s all about the music, they want to hear the songs and have a night out.”
With some unexpected time on his hands over the past two years, Clem has been working on a memoir, due out in 2023. “It’s probably going to be called ‘The Other Side of the Dream’ because I’m basically on the other side now. When you want to have a career, you have goals […] The dream basically came true for all intents and purposes. I really can’t complain about anything, I’m very fortunate.”
Clem is adamant about having no regrets, and attributes his, and Blondie’s success to hard work and determination. “I did a lot of things right. I was going to college, working a job, and playing in the band simultaneously. Not a lot of people were willing to do that. It took effort. I had to take the bus and a train, sometimes carrying gear, to get to Club 82.”
When I ask what his best piece of advice would be, he says “The most important thing is to be able to make your mistakes in public. CBGBs was like a workshop. It didn’t have to be picture perfect. It’s all about the effort.”
Blondie’s box set collection Blondie 1974-1982: Against the Odds will be released later this year.
Blondie will embark on a UK arena tour during April and May 2022, including a date at Manchester’s AO Arena on 1st May. You can buy remaining tickets here.
FACE IT by Debbie Harry is available to buy as a hardback here and is set for release as a paperback in Autumn 2021.