Blondie's Clem Burke on Debbie, Dylan ... and playing for JK Rowling

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The core members of Blondie. From left, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry and Clem Burke
The core members of Blondie. From left, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry and Clem Burke

Imagine having a better-than-ringside seat for every gig ever played by Blondie, one of the best-loved and most iconic rock acts of the last 50 years. You’d either have to be truly blessed, truly loaded – or be the band’s drummer.

Clem Burke probably wouldn’t describe himself as loaded. But he would certainly cop to blessed and for the simple reason that he is indeed the man behind the kit, an integral part of the band’s rhythm section since 1975 and, if you believe those who know their buzz rolls from their double strokes, one of the best rock drummers around.

Now 67, he still holds his place on the Blondie drum stool and that’s exactly where he’ll be when the band’s Against The Odds tour kicks off its UK leg this month. Delayed two years because of the pandemic, it begins in Glasgow on April 22 – an appropriate starting point for the New Jersey-born musician, who has a strong personal connection to and affinity with the city.

“I have many memories of Glasgow,” he tells me over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “We famously played the Apollo on Hogmanay, must have been 1978 into 1979 [it was actually December 1979]. It was broadcast on the Old Grey Whistle Test around the entire UK and we had pipers come out at midnight. They were doing Sunday Girl on the pipes, then I was doing a tattoo kind of drum beat.”

You can find the footage on You Tube. Lead singer Debbie Harry wears red and white stripes, her blonde hair bobbed and fetchingly dishevelled, her arm windmilling as she sings. Burke is in a gold lame suit like the one The King wears on the cover of 1959 album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. The band open with Dreaming, and as the spotlights wheel across the stage you can see Burke’s flailing arms hammering out drum roll after thunderous drum roll.

HeraldScotland:
HeraldScotland:

Two decades on, during what Burke refers to as “the so-called comeback of Blondie” (they reformed in 1997 after a long hiatus), the band graced another iconic Glasgow venue.

“We did two nights at Barrowland, which was really amazing. My wife is Scottish – she was born in Scotland, though you wouldn’t really know it because her parents emigrated here – so when we first got back to together and played the Barrowland, her whole family turned up. I had never really met them before.”

That was in late 1998, shortly before the release of No Exit, Blondie’s seventh studio album and first for 17 years. It even spawned a number one single, Maria, putting the band back on the top spot almost 20 years to the day after they first hit it with Heart Of Glass. There have been four further albums, the last featuring former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who is their special guest on the upcoming tour. A new album is due out next year and there’s also an archive release imminent. Titled Against The Odds it covers the years 1974 to 1982 and features all six ‘classic’ albums as well as a disc of outtakes, unreleased songs and alternate versions of favourites.

Meanwhile Harry’s status as a bona fide rock icon has been burnished by a generation of younger female musicians who cite her as both influence and reference point, and the band’s canny synthesis of punk, disco, reggae and hip hop – all styles bubbling around in the musical stew of 1970s New York – has kept that back catalogue sounding timeless and eternally appealing.

Put simply, Blondie are the ABBA of punk.

The band formed in New York in 1974 around the nucleus of Harry and Stein, who were then playing in a band called The Stilettoes. Burke joined a year later, as did his old school friend Gary Valentine and keyboard player Jimmy Destri. Valentine left in 1977 and was replaced by Frank Infante, while Destri stopped touring with the band in 2004. Other members have come and gone, and today’s line-up consists of Harry, Burke and Stein alongside Leigh Foxx, Tommy Kessler and Matt Katz-Bohen.

Unlike his band-mates, Burke was always an unashamed rock and roller. He was, he admits, “dead against Heart Of Glass”, with its Kraftwerk/Giorgio Moroder inspired electronic groove. He was raised on different fare. On the frenetic Keith Moon and the efficient, unshowy Ringo Starr, for instance. Or on the work of session drummers such as Earl Palmer, who played with Little Richard and Fats Domino, and Hal Blaine, a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew which functioned as Phil Spector’s house band and who later recorded with The Byrds and The Beach Boys.

“I was in search of the other musicians I needed for me to become a rock and roll star, which was my ambition,” he recalls. “In order for me to have a really good group, to try to have some kind of success, I needed to find my Bowie or my Marc Bolan or my Jim Morrison. That person was Debbie … I think with Debbie and the band we put some glamour back into rock and roll, in a good way.”

As for the hiatus and the breakup which followed, that came in 1981 when Blondie hit pause while at the peak of their popularity. They did return to the studio to record The Hunter and toured in support of it in 1982. But by the end of the year, they had disbanded.

“The whole thing kind of went pear shaped as far as I was concerned,” Burke says. “When we took that break between 1980 and 1982, that was at the height of our success and we never toured in that period.”

He cites the example of the Us Festival, organised by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and held in 1982 and 1983. Across the two years of its existence the festival hosted bands such as The Clash, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, The Police, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Cars, U2, The Pretenders and David Bowie.

“But it’s very obvious that Blondie is missing from that roster. We were offered one of the headlines slots and for whatever reason we didn’t do it. It was like $500,000, which was a lot of money for one gig, and still is to this day. That was when we really went astray. I think what happened is we sold so many records, everybody made a bit of money – some more than others – and a complacency set in as far as a work ethic.”

One benefit was that Burke was able to stretch his own wings. A musician’s musician, he seems to like nothing better than helping out in friend’s bands, whether it’s in his local LA pub (he’s paid in beer and fish and chips) or in the Blondie tribute act he sometimes joins on stage.

That’s right, a Blondie tribute act.

More seriously, in the early 1980s he began what would become a long association with The Eurythmics, and the list of other musicians for whom he has performed drumming duties reads like a Who’s Who of rock’s pantheon of greats. Among them are Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Iggy Pop and Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly.

“The common denominator with most of these people is music. You can sit and talk about music, so that’s the grounding. When I worked with Pete he had just come out of rehab and hadn’t played in a while. I spent a few weeks with him just kind of jamming in the studio. I think that was the most nerve-wracking because Pete’s very meticulous in his arrangements and he wants things a certain way – though obviously Keith Moon was the antithesis of that.”

And Bob Dylan? “Working with Bob was amazing,” he says. “There’s a lot of unspoken communication.”

The pair recorded together in a studio in Crouch End in London. “We did have a few dinners and a few pints in the pub next door called the Harringey,” Burke recalls. “It was always interesting to walk in there. Crouch End has been gentrified like lots of other places. It’s hip now. But at the time it was a smoky working man’s pub next door to the studio. It was pretty interesting to go in there with Bob. People did a second take because it was so incongruous for Bob Dylan to be sitting there in this pub.”

So, five years after they last played Glasgow and four decades after that Apollo gig, Blondie will soon be back in the city. One celebrity uber-fan who may make the journey to the SSE Hydro to watch them is JK Rowling. She invited them to perform at a Bonfire Night party at her Perthshire home during that 2017 tour, and was photographed with Debbie Harry. Chris Stein helpfully posted the snap on social media.

“The theme was the Seven Deadly Sins, so she had a McGlutton room and then she had this room that was all portraits of people like Trump,” Burke recalls. “It was like a movie set. She’s a Blondie fan, that’s why we played. It was a pretty interesting thing to do.”

Or just one more interesting thing to do in a near 50 year succession of them.

Blondie play the SSE Hydro, Glasgow on April 22

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