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IN THE FLESH
Preparing to hit the UK on their upcoming Against The Odds tour, Duncan Seaman meets legendary drummer Clem Burke to talk all things BLONDIE and much, much more…
IN a white-walled room bathed in California sunshine, drummer Clem Burke is holding court with Vive Le Rock over Zoom. Over his left shoulder hangs a portrait of Che Guevara imposed upon the Cuban flag, a reminder perhaps of Blondie’s 2019 trip to Cuba that was captured on film by Rob Roth in his documentary ‘Vivir en La Habana’.
Now aged sixty-seven but looking a decade younger, Clem cuts a friendly, enthusiastic, and highly talkative figure as he looks back over his multi-stranded career that began in the late 1960s and has included stints with the likes of Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and Chequered Past, the band he formed with Michael Des Barres and Sex Pistol Steve Jones, as well, of course, as his 47-year association with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein.
Latterly, he reports, he’s been filling in for the absent Gina Schock in The Go-Go’s, made records with The Rockettes and The Empty Hearts, worked on some recordings with Glen Matlock and Echo and the Bunnymen, and formed a covers group in Los Angeles. “I kind of looked at it as a pub rock band,” he says. “We’re actually doing some Dr Feelgood songs, so that’s been fun.” A memoir is also in the works.
In April and May he will be back in the UK with Blondie on an arena tour that has been much postponed over the last two years. “The reason the tour is called ‘Against The Odds’ is because of the pandemic – we didn’t know whether we’d be able to male it through when it was originally announced,” Clem explains. “Also, we have something for fans coming out in August, it’s a deluxe box of everything on Blondie – a book, demos, etcetera – we also entitled that prior to the tour, it has the chance with Blondie, or really anyone, having any success, it’s against the odds in the world of rock’n’roll. We thought it was very apropos.”
Music played a fundamental part in Clem’s life from an early age. He remembers growing up in the New Jersey working-class town of Bayonne, sharing his mother’s fondness for pop radio. “For everybody of my generation The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, that was the inspiration,” he says. Across the Bayonne Bridge lay Staten Island, and beyond it, Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, where he saw his first gigs. “When I was in High school, I would skip off to buy tickets for the Fillmore,” he says. “Even my dad once in a while would take me and a couple of friends out to go and look for hippies in Greenwich Village; he’d probably go off to the bar somewhere and pick us up later. It was really a thriving musical scene there at the time: the Village Gate, the Cafe Noir, the places where Bob Dylan would play.”
A keen drummer from the age of thirteen, he made his first foray into a professional recording studio at the Manhattan radio station WABC a year later, performing with his high school garage rock band. “We were chosen to take part in a battle of the bands… I’m fourteen years old playing at Carnegie Hall,” Clem remembers fondly.
By his late teens he was in another band called Sweet Revenge who, he says, “used to do a lot of Bowie and Mott The Hoople” to which they added some originals. “Our big song was called ‘Fuck The World’, pretty punk rock,” he recalls. Hanging around at Club 82, Clem encountered the likes of New York Dolls, Wayne County, Teenage Lust and The Harlots of 42nd Street. He remembers: “The 82 was where Joey Ramone was still into his Jefferson Starship music, he was in a band called Sniper, they would play in Queens at a place called Coventry where Kiss started up. People like Lou Reed and David Bowie would hang out there, it was a very late-night, dark basement club that was basically a gay dance club or drag show club and one night a week they would have rock’n’roll, so you would get the Neon Boys playing there, famously the New York Dolls played one year on Halloween when they were all in drag except for Johnny Thunders, who refused to wear a dress.”
Among the hundred or so regulars at Club 82 were The Stilettos, fronted by Debbie Harry, with Chris Stein on guitar. When they broke up in late 1974, Clem remembers Chris and Debbie put an ad for a drummer in ‘The Village Voice’. “I saw it and called them up,” he says. “We had a meeting at a little studio they had around the corner from Madison Square Garden. I don’t think we even played any music; we just had a chat. We had a lot of common denominators that were influences upon all of us: things like the girl group/Ronettes stuff, The Stooges, the Velvet Underground and David Bowie.”
The nascent Blondie also briefly Fred Smith on bass, but when Fred left to join Television, Clem brought in his school mate Gary Valentine. At Gary’s audition, Clem recalls: “He just sat at the piano playing one of his songs and maybe read a poem. He became the bass player although he’d never really played bass before. That’s how it all coalesced, the four of us. To me, that’s the genesis of Blondie.”
Gigging regularly at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, Blondie became part of the New York punk rock and new wave scene. Following the addition of keyboard player Jimmy Destri, they released their eponymous debut album on Private Stock Records in December 1976. Although not initially a commercial success, Clem remembers the album being raved about by Lester Bangs. “He absolutely loved it,” he says. “His points of reference were fantastic. He was comparing it to the girl group stuff but also Question Mark and The Mysterians and I think he said the best Duane Eddy guitar since ‘Born To Run’. ‘X Offender’ and ‘Born To Run’ are quite similar in some ways, but it was unbeknownst.” Featuring lyrics by Debbie and music by Gary, ‘X Offender’ would provide their first breakthrough, in Australia. “I always say that song wasn’t the sound of Blondie live but it was the sound of Blondie in the recording studio showing what can be done with the right circumstances,” Clem says. “I think that record is timeless and it’s immaculate. People always say, ‘how did you feel when you heard that record?’ As a matter of fact, it probably never got played on the radio, but it did get played all the times on the jukebox at the CBGB bar.”
In early 1977 Blondie supported Iggy Pop and David Bowie on tour. Blondie’s association with Iggy would later lead to Clem drumming on Iggy’s 1982 album ‘Zombie Birdhouse’, which Chris Stein produced. Although the album was “not what it could have been”, Clem has fond memories of touring with Iggy beforehand. “He was doing a spread of stuff of his material from The Stooges into the ‘Lust For Life’ album and ‘The Idiot’. In the best song he used to go ‘This is a song I co-wrote with a guy called Bill Shakespeare’, it was entitled ‘The Winter of My Discontent… His mandate was ‘I want you guys to play this as fast and as loud as possible’. Also there would be no food allowed backstage, only drugs and alcohol.
“On a day off we would go out to a restaurant together. When Iggy would order he’d say, ‘I’ll have the chicken, the lobster and the steak, bring them all at once’ and he would just gorge himself on food. There’s a lot of stories from that tour. We opened for the Rolling Stones for two nights. Seventy thousand people in the audience at Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, Iggy’s hometown. We got so much stuff thrown at us it was unbelievable, Iggy was covered in blood. This was before metal detectors, he’s standing on the edge of the stage, stuff is flying in his face.”
By the release of ‘Plastic Letters’ in 1978, Blondie were signed to Chrysalis and on their way to stardom via the hit singles ‘Denis’ and ‘(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear’. The latter was written by Gary, who was “ejected from the band” prior to the album’s recording. He was replaced by Frank Infante, while the line-up was further augmented by British bassist Nigel Harrison. “Sable Starr recommended Nigel to audition,” Clem recalls. “We had an audition at the soundcheck at the Whisky a Go Go one day. Nigel had come to the show one day and recorded it then at the audition he knew all the songs. He would always have a tape recorder and a pair of binoculars when he’d get to a hotel, going ‘Look at what’s going on over there’. Right after we brought Nigel in we went on a six-month world tour that was funded by Chrysalis. Our manager at the time, Peter Leeds, who everybody thinks he’s the evil monster but I just don’t see it that way, he got Chrysalis to bankroll a six-month world tour, we went out as a six-piece. We went to Australia, we spent Christmas on Keppel Island on the Great Barrier Reef, we spent New Year’s playing in Bangkok.”
By their third album ‘Parallel Lines’ Blondie had finally broken the US; spearheaded by the disco-infused single ‘Heart of Glass’, the LP went on to sell 20 million copies worldwide. The record was produced by Mike Chapman, who had previously worked with The Sweet, Mud and Suzi Quatro. Clem remembers the Australian producer being “the personification of Crocodile Dundee, he looks like that guy, he acts like that guy”, adding: “We wouldn’t have been able to make ‘Parallel Lines’ without Mike and the six members of the band. With ‘Heart of Glass’, the song is timeless, it was controversial at the time, the whole Disco Sucks movement. Going back to the Club 82, aside from the New York Dolls and having what they called their ‘rock night’… there was no DJ playing rock & roll music, all the music was disco of that era, ‘Shame Shame Shame’, ‘Rock The Boat’, Labelle, all that music, and that I think was seeping into our influences. One of my favourite albums is the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack.”
‘Heart of Glass’ was the first of six UK number one singles for Blondie. To this day, Clem says he feels a strong affinity with London: “I can’t believe I don’t live there,” he says. “The longest I’ve stayed is maybe a year. Back in the heyday Nigel and I were going to buy a flat on Kings Road, but it had mould at the time.” That stay, in 1981, followed Blondie’s decision not to tour their album ‘Autoamerican’, a move which still seems to baffle Clem. “In retrospect it’s probably my favourite Blondie album, it’s kind of like our ‘Sgt Pepper’ for lack of a better analogy,” he says. “We had Tom Scott on saxophone on ‘Rapture’, a big part of that song; we had some brilliant percussionists – Alex Acuna, a verifiable first-call percussionist in LA, and Ollie Brown, who played with the Stones; Ray Brown, the jazz bass player, and Was Way Watson plays on it.”
While flat-sharing with Nigel Harrison in Pimlico, Clem encountered Annie Lennox of Eurythmics one night at Planets nightclub in the Burlington Arcade. “Boy George was the DJ and Lemmy was there and Phil Lynott and Michael Jackson. He had a band aid over his nose because he had probably had plastic surgery but he was telling people he was trying to emulate Adam Ant,” he remembers. “I was just at the bar and an attractive lady came up to me and it was Annie and she asked me round for Sunday lunch in Crouch End… So I went out and met (her and Dave Stewart), they were in the process of working with Conny Plank (on Eurythmics’ first album ‘In The Garden’) and they said ‘do you want to come with us?’ and I did and that was amazing. The first thing Conny said to me was he recognised the influence on Blondie by Kraftwerk on ‘Heart of Glass’.”
Blondie did reconvene for one more album, ‘The Hunter’, but split in November 1982 (then reforming in 1997). Although things were becoming more acrimonious between them in the Eighties, Clem says the break-up “definitely did not” feel like a relief. “I was twenty-six years old, I was expecting to retire at thirty,” he says. Looking back, though, he feels the signs were there were apparent when both Debbie Harry and Jimmy Destri made solo albums in 1981. “What should’ve happened was that combined material could have made a great next Blondie record to follow up ‘Autoamerican’ but instead they went separate ways,” he says. Turning down a chance to play at the US Festival that Steve Wozniak staged in California proved to be the final straw. “There was a so-called New Wave day, there was Elvis Costello, The Police, The Pretenders, who’s missing on that list? We were offered to play it, but we weren’t touring at the time. It was five hundred thousand dollars to do that show. The Ramones did it. I always look at that as really obvious way to show how bad things went when you turn down something like that.”
After Blondie came Chequered Past, a supergroup who might have achieved more had their lead guitarist Steve Jones not been, as Clem remembers it, “trying to kick a heroin habit with ginseng and curry”.
“He was in New York at that point (following the break-up of The Professionals) and he used to come round mine, I’d give him some money here and there,” he says. “He was a junkie. Michael Des Barres came to New York and we put the band together for a one-off with Frank Infante and Steve Jones and Nigel and myself and Michael and we played at a place called The Peppermint Lounge. That was right when Blondie was disbanding, and our publicist said ‘Guys, you’ve got to keep going with this’, but then Frank went off to play with Iggy, so we got Tony Sales in when we came out to LA.
“Nigel and myself and Steve were on a plane thinking that Steve was as well as he could be, but as we were landing, he said, ‘We’ve got to get some heroin right now or I’ll die’. We knew who to call, a guy called Danny Sugerman, we contacted him, and we got some dope for Steve. Then sooner or later he got himself into a programme, then he got messed up again on drugs.
“It wound up with Michael and Pamela Des Barres and Steve was living with them, but when they went out of town Steve stole all their possessions, he sold Michael’s leather jacket and Pamela’s autographed Beatles album from 1964, then obviously he couldn’t work with us any longer. Then we got Lawrence Juber from Wings to take Steve’s place. He’s a brilliant musician but to get to Lawrence from Steve is kind of strange. We did a showcase for a Paul Atkinson, who was the guitarist in The Zombies but he was later a record exec. He said he’d never gone to a showcase where he saw the band break up in front of him while they were auditioning for a record deal.”
In 1987 Clem briefly played drums with the Ramones, under the self-chosen pseudonym ‘Elvis Ramone’. What should have been an enjoyable experience was, he says, marred by Johnny Ramone’s refusal to rehearse. “With the Ramones there was no rehearsal and they played too fast really at the end, you heard Joey slurring and Dee Dee’s strumming his bass, it was trial by fire,” he says. “It was good that Marc Bell got sober and probably made the call ‘can I try out again now?’ because he was used to it, but (my time in the band) was handled in a weird way because I got the backlash that I wasn’t capable of playing with The Ramones.
“The shows are on YouTube and ninety per cent of the comments are like ‘it sounds great’, and the fact is I never rehearsed with them, I just went, we started playing in the madness of the Ramones. Joey and Johnny were not talking to each other, Dee Dee stayed in the back of the van rolling joints and talking crazy stuff. Dee Dee was a genius, but you know… The saddest thing is that he didn’t survive, he didn’t die of natural causes, the other three had cancer, he OD’ed. Do you know how massive he would’ve been now? He would have been like Iggy, because he wrote most of the songs, he was already fronting the band, he was due to play a gig on the Saturday night (in 2002) but he died two days before. I saw him that week after the Hall of Fame.”
Still, he adds: “It’s amazing how many people acknowledge the Elvis Ramone thing now. It was funny with the photo session because they had one road case that had maybe a dozen leather jackets in it and they were like, ‘just choose one and put it on’. I’ve got a great photo that George DuBose took. It was in Rolling Stone immediately that I’d joined. The Ramones; when the next Rolling Stone came out it was in that I’d got kicked out of The Ramones, but I’ve got a nice-sized portrait photo of the four of us that George DuBose did. We did that session on the roof of a building in New York which is now Google… but at that time it was just empty office space, where people had their studios and things.”
Blondie tour the UK in April and May