It is late January 1964 and the kids from Bayonne, New Jersey are excited as they travel to Central Park Zoo in New York City on the yellow school bus. The vehicle is filled with the laughter of children, as they swap baseball cards, display the contents of their Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bugs Bunny lunch boxes. A few of the kids start to sing the theme tune to Rawhide. A dark haired kid occasionally joins in with a smile, as he picks up his comic book and he wishes he could be bitten by a radioactive spider, or get caught in a nuclear explosion and become a superhero.
Then a few weeks later in February 1964, in the front room of his parent's house, the dark haired kid receives a prophecy, from his TV set. Right before his eyes he sees four dashing young men on a popular talk show playing their music. He thinks to himself that they don't need the powers of the yellow sun of earth to make them fly, it's the songs that give them their power. He bangs his hands on the coffee table in time to the music, much to the annoyance of his father. The dark haired kid from Bayonne has just been hit by a meteor of music, as he finds himself transforming from a school kid to a drummer in a pop band.
Clem Burke born 24th November 1954 Bayonne, New Jersey, is a drummer who has been in the forefront of popular music since 1976. He joined Blondie a year before in New York where he passed an audition under the watchful eye of Debbie Harry (Lead Singer and Songwriter) and Chris Stein (Guitar and Songwriter). Apparently he was the last one to audition for this happening band, and Harry and Stein felt he perfectly fitted the bill, so Burke was more or less offered the job on the spot. There is a rumour, that it wasn't just his drumming that got him the gig, but both Harry and Stein were impressed with the red platform shoes he was sporting.
Stein and Harry had originally been in a band called The Stilettos, which had since parted company. They set about forming their own band, first they named themselves Angel and the Snakes, before they settled for the more powerful and catchy Blondie, consisting of Debbie Harry Vocals, Chris Stein Guitar, Gary Valentine Bass, Jimmy Destri Keyboards and Clem Burke Drums. Valentine departed in 1977, briefly replaced by Frank Infante on Bass, who moved over to Guitar when UK born Nigel Harrison joined Blondie on Bass in late 1977.
Their first two albums Blondie and Plastic Letters had moderate success, yet failed to make any chart impact, and it wasn't until the release of Parallel Lines in September 1978, with the support of a major label Chrysalis, that Blondie, now as a six piece, started to conquer the charts and sell out venues across the World. Now rising from the obscurity of the New York Underground music scene they played venues like CBGB and Club 82, along with acts such as The Ramones, Television and New York Dolls who also graced their stages.
By 1979 Blondie became a household name with their unique power pop sound, which used elements of sixties pop and rock, combined with current music trends. Fronted by the tuneful and powerful voice of Harry and backed with a talented band, songs such as rap based track Rapture, to the angry three chord wonder Hanging on the Telephone, became the recognisable sound of Blondie.
Like many bands that emerged from the UK or the US in the mid seventies, Blondie were quickly labelled Punk Rock and later described as New Wave, yet by January 1979 with the disco anthem Heart of Glass (which was their first global number one) it was clear to the media and the public alike that they were a band in their own right, and without the need to be pigeon holed in any musical genre. Everything seemed on the up for the band until three years later when they officially split in November 1982, due to tension amongst the band, while record and ticket sales were dwindling.
Yet the music carried on, and Blondie was cited as pioneers and inspirational by other artists, the media and the public. So in 1997 Blondie reformed as a six piece, with original members yet this time with original Bass player, Valentine, not Harrison. He was quickly replaced by Leigh Foxx on Bass. And their comeback single Maria in 1999, was number one in the UK.
Now in 2012, only Harry, Stein and Burke are the original members. During Blondie's long hiatus, the three original members stayed busy. Harry and Stein focused on her solo career, whilst Burke became a sought after drummer, working with the likes of Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett and the Eurythmics for touring and recording duties, all wanting a bit of his magic in their music. Even today, when he is not busy with Blondie, Burke is touring with ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell in the US.
It is easy to understand why Burke is a drummer in demand, with his powerful, complicated, fast and rhythmic style, moving from rock to funk on the drop of a drumstick. Visually he moves round the drum set like the late great Keith Moon of The Who, just without the madness and drug casualties. With his Mod style of dress and his intelligent approach to music, Burke has certainly become a respected and well known personality in the world of music.
And at ZANI, we were delighted when Clem agreed to a phone interview as he was enjoying his eggs sunny side up in a New York diner near Times Square:
ZANI – How did your tour with Hugh Cromwell go last year ?
Clem Burke – It was pretty good fun, we played at a combination of 'divey' punk rock bars and art galleries, like The Mercury Lounge in Manhattan, a traditional small rock club venue, you know for 300 people.
I really like doing this stuff; as it is an alternative to what I do with Blondie. It keeps me creatively stimulated on the side of performance and the other side of being a musician and an artist, I really enjoy it. Hugh is great to work with, he is well organised and creative, just an interesting guy, we have a small nucleus of touring party, a three piece band and two chaps that tour with us, it all works out pretty well. It's fun.
ZANI – Sounds good, does it remind you of your early days, when you played Club 82 and CBGB?
Clem Burke - Well sure, it is reminiscent of that era, when we started playing in places like CBGB. The audience that come and see Hugh, are a mixture of people from back in that day and younger people. Richie Lloyd from the band Television, joined us on stage and played a few songs with us, he is an amazing guitarist, and when Blondie first toured the UK it was with Television. There is a survival instinct, there are so many of us from that generation that have gone already, the three Ramones, Johnny Thunders and people like that.
I was very lucky to have been in a super successful band. It has come full circle and it amazes me to do things like this, and doing it for no other reason than wanting to play music and be creative.
ZANI - Are you considering doing a reunion gig at Madison Avenue, with people who came from CBGB and such like clubs ?
Clem Burke - I might have mentioned this possible project in previous interviews, a sort of New York Festival with Patti Smith, Television, Joan Jett. Bands like these in a big venue would be pretty exciting, but to organise it, I don't know, if everyone had a carefree attitude towards it, it would be great, but if it got political it would be a mess. It is something I would like to see happen though, but I think the show would be of more interest in London.
ZANI – You took the words right out of my mouth, I can envisage this at Meltdown, which Morrissey and Ray Davies have done. That would be a sell out.
Clem Burke – That would be good, and I liked what Morrissey did at Meltdown.
ZANI – Staying with the UK, I understand you received a doctorate from Gloucestershire University last year, due to your Clem Burke Drumming Project, is that right?
Clem Burke - Yes I did get a Ph.D. on 30th July, for my participation in a study that has been ongoing for about fifteen years now. My honorary degree was definitely an honour.
ZANI – Nice pun, tell us more about the project ?
Clem Burke - It is a study of physiology making an allegory between a footballer and a boxer. The people that initially kicked it off were involved with the UK Olympic boxing team. I was wired up to a heart monitor and blood levels, it was meant to be a one-off thing, but it became a fifteen year study, where they actually had a thesis for it. There is a similarity between a boxer and a drummer, a boxer would box for three minutes and rest, and a drummer would play a song for three or four minutes and rest in between songs. For me it was a vanity project, I was the name associated with it, but it has gone on to include many other people. It's interesting,
ZANI - Do you see the similarities between a boxer and a drummer ?
Clem Burke – Yes I do and martial arts. Two of my drumming heroes Buddy Rich and Earl Palmer did karate, Earl was a black belt. I have always been interested in fitness as a sort of by-product of what I do, and also an enabler of a certain level of fitness to be able to continue doing what I do, at my age. I am in my fifties now.
ZANI – You have given up smoking and drinking as well?
Clem Burke – I gave up smoking a long time ago, but I have the odd drink now and then.
ZANI - I understand before you became a drummer you were studying Psychology and Social Sciences?
Clem Burke - Yeah I was studying that at University Art, Acting and Music Studies. But from when The Beatles first appeared, I was interested in music and I wanted to be quote/unquote, a rock star or a pop star. More than a musician, to be famous. It is all superficial now, but that was the motivation back then.
I studied famous musicians' backgrounds and discovered, especially in the North of England, they worked in factories, then went on to become pop stars or footballers. I fall into that category, even though I was doing studies at University my motivation was to get out of my surroundings, to go somewhere, I wouldn't have been able to get out otherwise, unless it was through music. But now I am at the other end of the spectrum of the train, I see things differently. The reality has set in or what I have become, for better or worse.
ZANI – It's been a good life.
Clem Burke - Oh yeah, it's been great.
ZANI – As you said The Beatles changed your life, as it was when you were nine or ten you saw them on the Ed Sullivan show, and that inspired you to learn the drums.
Clem Burke - For most people from my generation that was the epitome, it seemed so different and extraordinary to what we were seeing in the US. A lot of the common vocabulary and the colloquialism in their songs sounded so strange, but then you realise they are just singing about their lives.
ZANI – I know you have a lot of influences, and I understand that Dave Clarke was a big influence on you.
Clem Burke - Yeah, he was a drummer, and the band was named after him, The Dave Clarke Five, and they had huge success in the US.
ZANI - I don't mind a bit of the Dave Clarke Five. Talking of The Beatles, on the Japanese release of Panic of Girls there is a cover of Please, Please Me by The Beatles, why isn't that on the US or the European version?
Clem Burke – We recorded some extras tracks that were floating around on different releases. But I have said it before, I would like to cover an album when Debbie Harry takes on the lyrics of a guy, it takes on a whole new attitude when she performs it. Ten years ago, the guitarist and I visited Liverpool; we went to see Beatlemania, came back and started playing those songs. It's fun; it seems that The Beatles might have fallen out of fashion for a while, now they are the whole fabric of music and a phenomenon that will never go away.
ZANI – So true, and going back to the point about Debbie Harry singing a male's song that is certainly the case with Denis. Trivial fact, it was the first song I had heard by Blondie and all the cool kids, especially the girls, were singing it in the school playground, so just as The Beatles inspired and intrigued you in the US, you did the same to us in the UK and got my generation thinking it must be cool to be in a band.
Clem Burke - (friendly laugh) – Thanks.
ZANI – As well as doing a covers album, I understand you would like to release an album of unreleased material ?
Clem Burke - Yeah, there is a lot of stuff floating around, but I would really love to do a cover record. I know you are working with other people's ideas, but you can bring your own interpretation to the table. We've always had a history of doing a lot of cover songs, right from the start of Blondie, interesting one, themes from James Bond movies or bubble gum songs, or R 'n B songs.
ZANI – Sounds a good idea, you seem very upbeat.
Clem Burke - It has been great when the whole Blondie thing came back together, it was a boost to everybody's life style, and to be recognised by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although that was a bit stressful for me.
ZANI – Was the stress due to former members of Blondie, wanting to play with you live on stage, and Debbie Harry not allowing it.
Clem Burke - Yeah, I am mates with everybody, Debbie Harry calls me a politician, but I don't really think that is what it is. A lot of people in the band especially Frank Infante and our original bass player Gary Valentine, I have known them since we were kids, and we grew up and moulded into the band. We remained friends, I just found things a little distasteful, from the point of view that I felt I was the only one who gave a damn about being inducted in a big way.
I was excited about the whole thing, but it went kind of the other way, but hey that's the way it goes sometimes. There's a lot of disappointment in show business, there are a lot of highs and there are a lot of lows, and you've got to deal with it all. That's the big part of having the right sort of attitude for the business, because there is a lot of let downs and a lot of heartbreak, things like that. That in particular was a sad occasion for me, very bitter sweet to say the least, but I am glad that I am in.
ZANI – I have seen the clip on YouTube. Do you think Blondie needed a sixteen year gap, so you could reform and appreciate what you have achieved ?
Clem Burke – Chris, Debbie and I knew Blondie wasn't going to go away. I wish we had stayed in touch with the original members, taken a shorter break, regrouped and carried on.
ZANI – You did take a year off in 1981, and when you came back in 1982, as we know you officially split.
Clem Burke - I know I was there. If we had carried on we probably wouldn't be doing it now, there was definitely a gimmick of Blondie being away for so long. But now it seems that every band is reforming, The Stone Roses have reformed.
When we reformed in 1997, it wasn't the usual thing to do; it seems we were kind of ahead of our time again, like saying a band can get back together, after sixteen years, record some new music and have some form of success. So many bands have reformed since our wake, but I reckon the next one will be The Smiths or I guess Oasis. I think people want to see The Smiths again.
ZANI – Part of me says yes, and part of me says no, I saw them in their heyday, and I guess you did as well, and I don't think that magic could be repeated again.
Clem Burke - Maybe, but we were able to make three or four new records, and that takes it out of the realm of nostalgia. The last tour that we did, fifty to sixty per cent of what we played was new material and the reviews gave us a lot of kudos for that. But in saying that, we were on tour in the UK and selling out, Radio 2 listed us, we were on TV, in the media, but the record wasn't really a success, I guess that is sign of the times. That is a scary kind of thing.
ZANI – It is harder, you could blame the internet, but I understand you are a big fan of YouTube, as it has won Blondie a whole new fan base.
Clem Burke – Absolutely. I have said this stuff before; the whole internet is a powerful tool. For any band who has a history, if a sixteen year old kid wants to learn or hear about a band, and see the band in its heyday, see what it is all about, that is exceptional.
ZANI – I saw a clip on YouTube in a recording studio with Pete Townsend of The Who in the early eighties, have you ever been asked to join The Who and would you have joined?
Clem Burke - I wasn't asked to join but I certainly would have liked to have been asked. Some of the bands I have been asked to join, the timing wasn't right, even with The Ramones. I have played with them a few times, and they have asked me to join about four or five times, but it wasn't the right time.
I worked with Pete on the White City record for a little while, I flew out a few times to record with him, but the record didn't come out until three of four years later, and there had been a lot of musicians who had worked on it. The time I spent with Pete in the studio, I look back on as a great experience and from my point of view, working with different artists as a drummer helps me become a better musician, I bring a lot of myself and my trade by working with all these different artists.
Pete Townsend's daughter was friends with a young girl called Justine Frischmann, and they were playing my drums in the studio, I even gave her a drum lesson. Years later she formed Elastica, I met her a few times at a festival and reminded her of that day, which was cool.
ZANI - Nice. Would you say that Blondie, in the late seventies and early eighties, were the equivalent to the Beatles in terms of Beatlemania ?
Clem Burke - Maybe in the UK. We were pretty big in the UK for about eighteen months to two years.
ZANI – I remember it well, Blondie being number one and seeing the video on Top of the Pops on a Thursday night.
Clem Burke - Thanks. But yes, there was a point where we were one of the biggest acts in the world, and when we look back at it, it's almost like we threw that away; but that is the way it goes.
ZANI – Blondie are still an important and cool band. From my research, I notice you now feel that rock and roll is now like Jazz, with an avid fan base, but it's not predominantly music anymore. That it's now for middle aged people.
Clem Burke - No, rock and roll is for all generations. But it is just if you want to particularly listen to that kind of music. I listen to Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, and there are sixteen year old kids that listen to Blondie and The Ramones, and you can see the comparison. What I meant, it isn't the biggest force in popular culture, I wouldn't consider Lady Gaga, Katie Perry or the X Factor undiluted rock and roll, it's not, it's something else, it's a different formula, it's pop music, but then once upon a time rock and roll was pop music, but I wouldn't consider it being pop as in being popular. I don't really see any rock and roll in the charts anymore, one of the last great rock and roll bands was The Strokes, I think The Strokes were the perfect band.
There was that period about ten years ago, where The White Stripes and The Strokes were bringing back the true essence of what it's like to be a true rock and roll band, I was happy around that period, and it all seems to have died away now.
ZANI – It might come back
Clem Burke - Yeah, I talk about people like Earl Palmer being a great influence to me, a great jazz and rock and roll drummer, who played with Little Richard and Fats Domino, he could play. But I feel I am carrying the torch for a form of music that isn't popular anymore. But you know when I play with Hugh Cornwall, people go crazy, and with Blondie we played to over 30,000 people in London, so we are still going well in that way. Also I feel that I am carrying the torch for the CBGB crowd, but I don't necessarily see myself as a punk rocker, although Blondie was labelled as a punk band.
ZANI – But by the time I discovered Blondie, I never saw you as a punk rock band. I understand you believe the success of a band is being open minded and to be a team player?
Clem Burke - You have to be open minded as an artist to let the art and the creativity happen.
ZANI - Finally, what landmark in New York would you say is the most symbolic to Clem Burke?
Clem Burke - The New York Stock Exchange.
Clem Burke has certainly experienced the ups and downs of the fragile music industry. Burke has lived the dream, and experienced the nightmare, and now he seems in a good place. Burke has certainly emerged as a spokesman for rock and roll, with a career spanning over five decades. In his own words he is holding the torch for the cause and is the perfect ambassador for rock and roll, as he is a charming, highly intelligent, passionate man and one of the great drummers from the past 30 years. Just like his childhood heroes, John, Paul, George and Ringo, Burke managed to conquer the world with his music and it all began when he was bitten by the Beatlemania bug.