“We were able to make our mistakes in public which I think was essential for Blondie especially because we weren’t the best band when we started out.”
There are bands that have a timeless sound even decades after their inception, and Blondie is one of those bands. The New York City new wave pioneers cut their teeth during the legendary CBGB scene in the late ’70s and their hits “Rip Her To Shreds,” “One Way Or Another,” “Heart Of Glass,” “Rapture,” and “Call Me” still sound as fresh and exciting as they did when they were first released.
Lead singer Debbie Harry is regarded as an icon, and both founding members guitarist and bassist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke each have a distinct influence in numerous ways. With touring bassist Leigh Fox, keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen, and guitarist Tommy Kessler rounding out the rest of the lineup, Blondie will take the stage at the Leader Bank Pavilion in the Seaport on August 29. British punk legends the Damned will be opening things up at 7:30pm so be prompt.
Burke and I spoke ahead of the show about who inspired him to take a seat behind the drum kit, learning his craft in hometown cover bands, reflecting on the ’70s and early ’80s in New York, and Blondie’s first-ever box set that’s coming out.
Who do you consider to be your initial inspiration to start playing the drums and how did you get introduced to said inspiration?
Well, probably the first record that I really liked was the Four Seasons’ Greatest Hits and those songs are recorded really, really well. It always escapes my memory who the drummer was on that because similarly Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer were also big influences on me, unbeknownst to me because they were both consummate session musicians. They played on everything from Phil Spector records to the Byrds to the Beach Boys, especially with Earl Palmer playing on all of Little Richard’s material. He also played drums for Eddie Cochran and things like that which I had heard as a kid and was inspired by. Of course, the big inspiration for most people in my generation was Ringo Starr on the Ed Sullivan Show, so it kind of starts there.
Then again, Ringo was influenced by the people that I mentioned, Hal and Earl specifically. That’s kind of where it started for me.
It’s sort of linear for you with those three guys.
Before Blondie, you were part of the cover band scene in your hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey as a drummer during the ’60s and ’70s. What was the transition like for you going from playing covers to writing original music when Blondie first started out in ’75?
My experience from being in cover bands is really how I learned. I kind of have a similar background to Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt, they were playing the CYO Centers, the teen clubs, parties, and grocery store openings. That was basically my experience and there was always the battle of the bands which was always a lot of fun.
I had one band during my freshman and sophomore year of high school and then another band during junior and senior year before I got involved with a couple of different bands doing original material which is how I met the members of Blondie in the scene in New York City at a place called Club 82. I was in a band called Sweet Revenge and we would play similar venues to a lot of other bands, it was the end of the glam rock New York Dolls scene.
I was influenced a lot by David Bowie and the New York Dolls, but I did really learn how to play by doing covers. I have a covers band now that I play with occasionally and I really enjoy. We just do music from the ’60s & ’70s and it’s always fun to do it. That’s how most people I know learned how to play. I had a few lessons, I was in drum core and things like that, but really keeping my ears open to the music of the day that I liked and appreciated is really how I learned how to play.
New York City was a special time during the late ’70s and early ’80s when Blondie started out. You had venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and along with you guys there were bands like Talking Heads, Ramones, and others pretty much starting punk rock and new wave in America. What was it like for you being part of it and being in the thick of that experience? Was it as exciting as people make it out to be these days or do you feel that it’s over-romanticized?
I would say to the best of my knowledge it would be analogous to being around the Cavern Club during the early ’60s when the Beatles, the Merseybeats, and Gerry and the Pacemakers and people like that were playing there. I think it built up, the CBGB thing had a nucleus of about 100 people, most of which were in bands. If one band was on stage like the Talking Heads, then us in Blondie would be in the audience and vice versa. We all kind of learned from one another and I like to think today Blondie kind of carries the sound of CBGB and New York City in general with all our various influences. Of course, we have a really large palate with songs like “Rapture” to “X Offender” and our earlier stuff which was more ’50s and ’60s influenced.
I was always very much well aware that a scene was starting to happen at CBGB, it was gradual. Once the media got a hold of it and people started turning up from the outer boroughs, at the time I was living and rehearsing in a loft with my other bandmates that was a block south of CBGB so essentially we would be there every night. I must have seen the Ramones 100 times at CBGB over the course of a couple years, they’d play two shows a night over a three-day stand and a lot of the time we’d be playing with them or we’d be playing with Talking Heads. It was kind of a workshop, obviously it was before cell phones with cameras and things like that and the photographer Bob Gruen had the foresight to chronicle everything that was going on from the beginnings of the New York Dolls which segwayed into the new wave New York punk rock whatever you want to call it scene. We were able to make our mistakes in public which I think was essential for Blondie especially because we weren’t the best band when we started out.
It was when we went into the studio to record “X Offender,” we kind of showed people that we could make a record. It really wasn’t the sound of Blondie live, it was the sound of Blondie in the recording studio and being produced while fine tuning our craft as it were. It was all pretty exciting, it definitely was. I was a kid, I appreciated what was going on, I was going to college, I was working and doing gigs at CBGB and getting home at five o’clock in the morning to go to school or to work. It was pretty intense but it was very enjoyable at the same time.
Outside of Blondie, you actually famously played with the Ramones for two gigs as Elvis Ramone and you’ve also played with Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, Pete Townshend from The Who. Do you have a favorite collaborator among those acts or is your favorite collaborator someone else?
I think it’s kind of obvious with Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend, but actually I played with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart on and off through the ’80s. That was a very creative atmosphere and I got to work with a lot of interesting people with them, one of which was a guy named Conny Plank who produced Kraftwerk’s Autobahn. When I first went to Germany with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart to record their first album called In The Garden, which wasn’t a big hit but it kind of got their foot in the door, I met Conny and he acknowledged the influence of Kraftwerk on the Blondie song “Heart Of Glass.” It was a great thing for us because we’re all big fans of Kraftwerk and when we did that song we thought we were being experimental, we never expected it to be the hit it became.
With vinyl being the main source of music listening back in the day, when you’d send an album to a radio programmer the idea was to put the songs that could get played on the radio as the first or second track. If the programmer didn’t like the first or second song, they really wouldn’t go deep with the record so we put songs we thought were more commercially appealing at the beginning. When you see the album Parallel Lines, you’d flip it over and track eight is “Heart Of Glass” so it’s basically a deep cut off that album. When it became the success it became, it sold very surprisingly well for all of us and we’d walk around saying that we’re trying to experiment and trying to be like Kraftwerk. It was during that “disco sucks” moment which was kind of crazy at that time, so I’d say Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend and then Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as well as far as people I collaborated with goes.
It must have been amazing just hearing Annie sing in person while being in the studio with her, she has an incredible voice.
Yeah and I’m happy to see that they’re finally being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Around 10 years ago, I was one of the people who inducted them into the one over in the United Kingdom along with Tony Blair, Mick Jagger and Bob Geldof, so it’s kind of funny.
Blondie has their first definitive box set Against The Odds coming out on August 26 but it’s been a few years since the band released their last studio album Pollinator in 2017. Can we expect any new music in the near future or do you just plan on touring in support of the box set for the time being?
As a matter of fact, the box set is called Against The Odds because of the fact that to have any kind of success in any kind of thing, show business for example, the percentage is very small. We’ve never expected to have the phenomenal success we’ve had over the years, but I was just in New York City and we just recorded a new album. We’re in the beginnings of it, we just recorded 20 basic tracks, it’s the follow up to Pollinator with the same producer John Congleton and it should be out in the spring on BMG Records. They’re very supportive of the time that it took to get this together because of the pandemic for instance. Debbie in particular is not that fond of looking back so the archival box set is really coming out for the fans, it’s more than just the first six albums.
There’s a couple discs of outtakes, demos and we all collaborated on doing a book with pictures and interviews with all six members. Seven members actually, Gary Valentine being the original bass player on the first album. We did an arena tour in the United Kingdom in April and May that was a major success after it had been postponed for a long time and we just played the Cruel World Festival in Pasadena where there were 92,000 people over two days. We played with Morrissey, Devo, and a bunch of other bands. The plan is to finish the record, do this run of shows we’re on, reconvene at the end of the year into the new year, and hopefully the album will be out in the spring.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.