'80s - Blondie (2010)
'Don't Panic! The Curse of Blondie is Over!'
Clem Burke is an American musician who is most noted as the drummer for the band Blondie. Recruited by Chris Stein and Debbie Harry when they were first forming Blondie, Burke remained with the band throughout the first stage of their career and was instrumental in the late 1990s reunion, as well as their current extensive tour in 2010.
During the 1980s and '90s, when Blondie was disbanded, Burke played drums for The Romantics (for whom Burke was the regular drummer between 1990 and 2004), Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Eurythmics, The Tourists, Dramarama, The Fleshtones, Iggy Pop, and Joan Jett, amongst others.
He went on to record with the superstar line-up of Chequered Past in 1983 with Sex Pistols Steve Jones, former Blondie bandmate Nigel Harrison, musician Tony Sales and singer/actor Michael Des Barres. In the late '80s, he stood in as drummer for The Ramones (under the name "Elvis Ramone") for a number of gigs.
Currently on a small club tour, featuring both Hugh Cornwell (The Stranglers) and Steve 'Fish' Fishman on bass, I had the pleasure of speaking with Clem Burke about the current tour, the upcoming Blondie tour, and about the new, delayed, but now upcoming Blondie album!
The new Blondie album, ‘Panic of Girls’ is finally being released in early 2011 - so why all the delays? "Is that when it is now," he smiles ruefully. "We like to keep people in suspense, I guess."
But why this huge delay in general? "Well, there's plenty of people that want to put it out, but not particularly on our terms. I think, if it were up to me, we would have just put it out on Blondie Records. I mean, we just did this world tour and so it would have made more sense to have made it available to the fans. And we probably would have made a bit of cash selling it on our own."
"So, I think maybe I'm butting heads a little with management as far as they want to proceed in having it released. I thought it was going to be licensed to EMI UK. Somebody told me that the only reason EMI UK wanted to put it out was that they wanted to use it to cross promote our catalogue. In other words, what's wrong with that?"
"Anyway, it's gonna come out, but I'm kinda surprised it hasn't come out yet. We all really like the record. When we did the Isle of Wight this summer, we chose to have them show one of the songs from the new record - and it was going down a storm. And I kinda thought that would put it in place to have the single released, but no."
"So, the upside from it is that we're gonna have to go tour all over again to promote it ... which is fine with me 'cause I like being on the road."
"And the Stones, I think, they would say the name of the album, tell people about it and yet it wouldn't come out for another 6 to 8 months! I think we're just kinda doing a bit of marketing that way. It's getting a bit embarrassing though that it hasn't been released yet. I think people blog about it - like Chris [Stein] will blog about how it's coming out; but then it never comes out!"
"I'm just standing back from it. I love being in the band, and I really love working with Chris and Debbie a lot. Making music with them is still great as there's a chemistry there. I think now it's just a 'when it happens it happens' kinda situation at this point."
Are all the tracks nailed down and chosen for the album? "Yeah, but we actually recorded too many songs too! We recorded like 30 songs. Yeah, this time last year we were doing it. Jeff Saltzman produced it - he produced the first Killers record."
Will the Michael Jackson song, 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough' be included on 'Panic of Girls'? "No, that was just something we did in the studio. We posted it online on YouTube. We just started doing that when Michael died. We usually sort of pay tribute to people who die if we're on the road. We did 'Hit The Road Jack' when Ray Charles died. We're big on tributes to dead people," he gently smiles.
Smells like a covers album brewing, if you ask me! "Yeah, I would like to do a Blondie covers record. I mean, cover records can be a little, 'Oh, they've run out of ideas,' but I think with Debbie singing songs that are especially from a man's point of view, with a woman singing them, adds another dimension. We used to do 'Moonlight Drive' with her sort of channeling Jim Morrison and things like that. The chemistry of all that really works. I just think we can make a really great covers record. Maybe, ... some day!"
You are drumming here for Hugh on his US club tour before you go off and tour Australia and NZ with Blondie. Is this because you didn’t want to sit at home, watch endless TV, and simply wanted to keep your hand in? "That's one aspect of it. Being a drummer you have to work with other people. I can't be out doing a solo drum tour. So, Hugh and I are friends, we've crossed paths a few times over the years. We did a Blondie tour together a few years ago in the UK when Hugh opened for us."
"I've actually been working with Steve Fishman, our bass player whose played with Hugh for quite a while, and he and I co-wrote a song on the new Blondie record. So, Hugh came out one summer, we all met up, and he mentioned he was going to set up this tour if I was available. I was. And you're right, it keeps me going, keep the chops up, and I like working with different artists."
"I kinda feel it's what I bring to the table, when I work with someone, is all the stuff that's come before. Whether it's all the stuff I did with the Eurythmics, or with Iggy, or others I worked with over the years. It's kinda my little niche type of thing."
"Not really sitting in, but collaborating with different people. I like the process. That's the main thing for me, as a musician. And the only way to do the process is to do things like this. Rehearsing, performing, traveling - the whole process."
So, do you and Steve (Fish) have an upcoming project? "Yeah, well, Steve and I began to work with Frank Infante on and off for the last couple of years. We're still trying to set up a production team between the two of us: his expertise on the bass and my, I don't know what," he laughs. "It's a bass and drum thing. We want to be the Sly & Robbie of L.A."
With ‘Heart of Glass’ being your first US hit, it’s been said your drumming was inspired partly by Kraftwerk and partly by the Bee Gee’s ‘Stayin’ Alive’! Please explain this more! "Well, the song was inspired by Kraftwerk. The treatment. Using synthesizers. When I did the first Eurythmics album in Germany, Connie Plank produced it, who also produced Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn.' Upon meeting him for the first time, he acknowledged the influence in 'Heart of Glass' and how we assimilated that into our sound and made that into an avant-garde sound."
"Which we thought it was too and we appreciated it. Because in the States we were experiencing that whole, 'They've gone disco' backlash. And he actually acknowledged that our work with the synthesizers and the whole approach was very reminiscent of Kraftwerk. And he could see that."
"And 'Saturday Night Fever,' the film was really a big picture at that time. Punk, disco and new-wave were all happening simultaneously and in New York that was kind of the backdrop. So we kinda assimilated that sound. But it's debatable who came up with what on 'Heart of Glass'," he laughs.
"I actually demo'd it for Chris and Debbie in '74 and then we routined it again with Mike Chapman in '78. But yeah, I was inspired by the Bee Gees. I just started playing that dance beat. That's what I think happened."
You also once described ‘In The Flesh’ as 'a forerunner to the power ballad' … do you still think that way today?! "I think Chris might have said that. It's actually kinda like a Doo-wop '50s pastiche. Our producer, Richard Gottehrer played special attention to that song when we were recording the record. Although the first record I really love, he was classic in that he'd single out a few songs to make and they would be the commercial singles in his mind. And the rest were filler, for lack of a better word, for the rest of the album."
What else do you remember about the recording of it? "Ellie Greenwich sings back-up on it. They also did a treatment of it with the bells. It was our first number one in Australia. In fact, we did three videos in one day with Bob Gruen, a famous photographer and cameraman, and a guy called Rich Robinson who was a journalist; he was the director."
"So, we did those videos for songs called, 'X Offender,' 'In the Flesh' and 'In The Sun.' They were just standing in front of the camera, miming. One camera shoot, kinda thing."
And what was all this about the wrongly-played video back then? "Yeah, there's a show in Australia called Countdown, so Molly Meldrum was supposed to be debuting a video for a song called 'X Offender.' And he announced it as that, but in fact the video was 'In the Flesh.' And it was on the show equivalent to Top of The Pops. And, yeah, that song is a very commercial song, and Debbie is very sensual in the video, and it's all soft focus and all that, and it became a number one."
"But it was kind of a misrepresentation of what the band was about at the time, really. And so when we got to Australia it was a bit controversial, as we were quote-unquote a 'punk band' and they got this '50s Doo-wop ballad. Like this soft-sounding thing, you know. And some people think he intentionally played the wrong song. But, I really like that song a lot, though. We're kinda planning on doing it now again when we go to Australia."
What is your favorite Blondie song to still perform live - and which one has become enough for you over the years? "I suppose, performing live, anything that gets a good reaction from the audience. When we do 'Heart of Glass' in the first encore section when everybody's kinda doing the whole thing with their hands and all that kinda stuff, it's kinda cool."
"The songs I don't like to play are the songs that I know are probably not gonna go down that well. But, we're playing them anyway. I'm kinda about giving to the audience when I do a performance. I feed off it. Something like 'Denis,' which we never play, it's just like a joke. When we go to England we just play it for fun and it's like this whole pop explosion. People just go insane," he laughs.
"Basically, you can pull the trigger or not and I kinda would rather pull the trigger and see what I'm getting back. In England, people come to our shows and think we've played songs that we haven't played! Because we're known for all these songs, they're like, 'Oh, you played that one and you played that one,' and we're like, no, we never played those! And they're like, 'Oh, no, you must've!'"
Are your set lists standard night after night these days? "No, we try to vary it. We try to have an A-B system in the set where we vary songs so that we don't get that bored. And I like doing some of the cover songs that we do. This tour that we just did, when we played in New York we did a sort of tribute to the New York bands. We did 'Havana Affair' by the Ramones, 'Pet Sematary' by the Ramones, 'See No Evil' by Television, 'You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory' by Johnny Thunders, and 'Jet Boy' by the New York Dolls - all in this set for the first encore. In New York it really kind of worked, and was really kind of cool. And we used to do covers of our peers, like 'Venus de Milo' by Television."
"But as far as songs I just don't like to play, Debbie went off and sort of did a remix of 'In the Flesh.' It was like a weird dance version of it, and I wasn't big into that at all. And also when Chris says we're gonna do 'Dreaming,' but let's do it as a country song! 'cause then you're getting into that whole Dylan area where you kinda recognize the song, but not quite. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I'm really about, when we do a live performance, giving people what they want."
And how did the last Blondie tour pan out for you? "This tour we did this summer worked out really good, because we were doing half a dozen songs from the new record that no one had available. But, encompassed into the set it worked really well. The songs are being appreciated, which bids well for the record - if it ever does come out!"
"But I really don't mind. I consider myself to be extremely lucky at this point in my life that we're able to do this still."
Any funny TV show stories to tell about the Blondie days? "We were doing a television chat show in the States and the host came in and requested 'Sunday Girl' and 'Dreaming,' neither of which we play any more! And as Chris wrote both of those, he's like, 'No, no, we're not gonna play them.' And so their guy's like, 'Why, aren't they great songs?' And we're like, 'Yeah, they are, but he wrote them and he doesn't want to play them!"
Interview: Russell A. Trunk
To keep up with Clem Burke, check out his Myspace page once a week!
Clem Burke on Myspace