Clem Burke, Blondie drummer and part of the legend since 1975, is joining Bootleg Blondie for a UK tour in 2019 to play seminal album Parallel Lines live 40 years since its release, alongside all the hits.
Mick Burgess recently caught up with Clem Burke to discuss his long and successful career with Blondie as well as giving an insight into the forthcoming Bootleg Blondie tour.
Tonight it`s the start of your UK tour with Bootleg Blondie. How do you feel ahead of the tour?
We`re at the start of the tour and we have a great repertoire of songs. We`re featuring the album Parallel Lines and will be playing that in full but we`ll also be playing a lot of the older classic Blondie songs that I don`t get to play that often nowadays. So, we`ll be doing some of the hits and some of the deeper cuts. It takes me back and makes me realise how great some of the early stuff was. We don`t get to play those early songs much anymore as Blondie are producing new music as well and we need to find space for those songs. I`m really enjoying that part of it as well. I really like those first two albums. They weren’t as popular as Parallel Lines when they first came out. It was a gradual progression for us and you just don`t seem to get that these days. We were on a small independent label when we started. Our first album came out and got us noticed but it didn`t really sell but it enabled us to carry on and grow as artists. There was almost a natural progression leading up to Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat after that. We hope that people will turn up to the shows and enjoy themselves.
Why did you decide to do a tour with a Blondie tribute band?
We used to come over every year with Blondie especially in the summer or at Christmas time but we didn`t come last year so this is a good opportunity for me to come over to the UK and play some music with my friends. I really enjoy playing live so much. Andy and Debbie Harris of Bootleg Blondie have been friends of mine for about 10 years. I went to see Bootleg Blondie play and I thought they were great. They invited me to play a song or two one night and it happened very spontaneously. After a few pints, I agreed. I really enjoyed the experience and then the opportunity arose to do this and their agent put it all together. I was free at the time so it seemed like a good idea.
How strange is it sitting behind a band who performs as the band that you have been in since 1974?
It was quite surreal at first but really it was great playing those songs that I hadn`t listened to or played in years and I realised that they were really cool songs. People just really enjoy the music and want to hear those songs. Back in the day, the image of the band and Debbie’s image and the New Wave/Punk Rock thing that was going on that was like a platform for us to get our foot in the door. Who would have thought 40 years hence that the music would still be enjoyed so much? I have to credit the forward thinking of the band who came up with musical ideas which were ahead of their time.
It`s been a couple of years since Blondie`s latest album, Pollinator, was released. Have you started work on the follow up?
Yes, we`re working on new music right now with John Congleton, the same producer that did Pollinator. We actually made that album at a place in New York called The Magic Shop and that`s where David Bowie had been working on his last album. You could really feel his vibe in there. We started that record in 2016 and took a break at Christmas and it was over that period that David passed away. Strangely enough, the studio is no longer there so it felt like a real end of an era when we finished that record.
That was your 5th album since you got back together in the late `90`s for No Exit. Is it important to you to keep pushing forward as a creative band rather than sit back on your legacy?
I think any artist wants to remain creative so when that burst of inspiration hits you, you just want to create some new music.
Playing in these clubs on this tour must remind you of your early days playing in legendary venues like CBGB`s and Max`s Kansas City. What were they like to play in?
We were so lucky to have been in New York at a very vibrant time. Whether it was the music, the films being made by Martin Scorsese or the graffiti art it was such a great time. There was everything from the Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie and Mink Deville all playing the same clubs but all doing a different type of music. The common denominator was all about the roots of Rock `n` Roll. I suppose an analogy would be like the Cavern Club in Liverpool in the `60`s. It was a bit of a private club, it was a bit of a dump but people tolerated that for the music.
There must have been a great sense of camaraderie with the other bands around that time?
As things began to build you could see there was a momentum and it was an incubator for what was to come. When I see someone from back in the day it`s like seeing an old school mate. CBGB`s was like a Rock `n` Roll High School.
Hilly Kristal the owner was great and just let you do your own thing. His basic criteria was that you had to perform original music. Some people say that the only reason he did that was so he didn`t have to pay PRS for the performance of the songs.
Your third album, Parallel Lines, is regarded as one of the great Pop albums of all time. Opening track Hanging On The Telephone was an inspired choice of cover of The Nerves song. Whose suggestion was it to open the album with that song?
The Nerves were something of a cult band but they didn`t last very long. There was a guy called Jeffrey Lee Pierce who was the lead singer in a band called The Gun Club and people like Nick Cave cite him as an influence. Believe it or not, before he was in that band, he was president of the Blondie Fan Club. We`d met him in L.A in the `70`s and came to some of the early gigs we did there. When we were on tour in Japan, he made a mixtape to listen to on our travels and that was one of the songs on the tape.
It`s not the only cover song that you`ve made your own though?
We have a history of having quite a bit of success covering other people`s material. The Tide Is High was a song by John Holt and The Paragons and we had a really big hit with our arrangement. It was also brilliant the way Debbie took on Denis Denis with her unique vocal style, which was originally by a late `50`s vocal group called Randy and the Rainbows. It`s uncanny how we are able to reinterpret other people’s music and make it our own. We did that with our latest album Pollinator too where we requested songs from other artists and we took them and made them into Blondie songs.
Heart of Glass really captured the spirit of an era. The original version Once I Had A Love was very different. Whose idea was it to do it with a disco beat?
That`s a bone of contention actually. As far as I can remember we were with our producer Mike Chapman and he was asking us what material we had. That song was incubating for quite some time and was demoed back in 1974 and had a different title. I was really taken by the Saturday Night Fever album. When I see that film, I see it almost as a Punk Rock film although the backdrop is Disco but the whole mindset made them a bunch of Punks. I thought of the song Staying Alive and took that basic 4:4 beat and brought it to the song. Although I`ve heard other interpretations of how that song was written but that`s how I remembered it.
Did you realise when you were experimenting that you`d end up with such a big hit on your hands?
Not really. We were experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines to try something different. We never realised it`d be such a big hit. Back when vinyl was the predominant medium you`d put your best songs on the first two or three tracks on the album, so when a radio programmer listened to it and liked the first song maybe they`d move on and play the next one. If you notice Heart of Glass is the fourth song on the second side. We just thought of it as an experimental song. We were very influenced by Kraftwerk, Gorgio Moroder and Donna Summer and people like that. It wasn`t what we normally did. It was interesting how the response became so world-wide for that song.
Fade Away And Radiate is an overlooked gem on the album and Debbie`s vocals are sublime. What`s the story behind that song?
That`s a great song. I think some people felt it a bit incongruous that a member of King Crimson was playing with Blondie on that but Robert Fripp added his Frippertronic guitar sounds all over the song and we were able to perform with Robert a couple of times back then as well. That song is definitely a unique song and we`ll be playing that one as well on this tour.
As a band, you were never afraid to try something different and Rapture was a huge step forward and broke a lot of ground. How did the Rap element come into your music?
The South Bronx at the time was a spawning ground for Rap music and was such a big part of the street culture at that time. Debbie and Chris befriended some of the early Rappers and they became quite enamoured with Rap music early on. Chris particularly was a big fan of R&B music in general and was always exploring new stuff that was coming through from African American culture. Rap was initially about a beat, a rhythm and basically poetry over the top of it but it didn`t really have a tune. When people say that Rapture is a Rap song, it`s not quite right as there is a song, a melody that incorporates a Rap. As Rap developed people starting sampling Pop songs like when Puff Daddy sampled The Police`s Every Breath You Take. We wrote an original song which incorporated Rap with a melody.
That song influenced quite a few other artists along the way?
We`ve worked with the Wu Tang Clan and other Rappers who said that when they were kids that was the first Rap song they ever heard. That`s quite an achievement. When we met Chuck D from Public Enemy, he was all about that song. It`s interesting how the whole musical legacy of the band has crossed over a lot of different genres.
Over the years you`ve had a fair few projects on the go including Chequered Past, The International Swingers and The Empty Hearts. Do you have any projects coming up that we should be looking out for?
With Bootleg Blondie I now have about six or seven bands on the go right now. I`ve just finished a record with The Empty Hearts that features Elliot Easton from The Cars and I put out a record with the International Swingers with James Stevenson from Generation X a while back too. I`d like to do another one but it`s hard getting everyone together at the same time as we`re all so busy.
Your drumming style is very flamboyant and you can see the Keith Moon influence there but you were also greatly influenced by Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer who played on so many classic records from the 50`s onwards. Are those guys the ones that really ignited your love of the drums?
Unbeknown to me they were influencing me quite a bit because between Hal and Earl, they were playing on most of the hit records that came out of Southern California in the `60`s. The session musicians back then were uncredited so there was an innate influence on me just by listening to those records on the radio. Hal is 90 this year which is incredible. I performed at his 80th and got to play Be My Baby in front of Hal which is a bit nerve-wracking. He`s been there, bought the T-shirt and done that. He`s such a great influence on me.
It`s hard graft being a drummer and a few years back you took part in a joint study at the Universities of Gloucestershire and Chichester where you did all sorts of physiological tests into the biology of drumming. How did you get involved in that?
There`s a chap called Dr Marcus Smith who was a Blondie fan when he was younger. He`s a sports medicine professor and was a coach for the UK Olympic Boxing Team. He came to me with an analogy between sport and drumming. He came to Wembley Arena and put a heart monitor on me and measured my oxygen levels while I was playing and that was the start of a 15-year study. He produced his thesis as a result of that and I got an honorary doctorate. A lab was opened up at Chichester University and I`m sort of the namesake for it which is a real honour. It made me think about diet, getting the right sleep, winding down after a show and a whole load of questions and it shows that there`s so much more to playing than having a beer and walking out on stage. You`ve got to stay fit and focused if you want to stay playing for such a long time.
Your starting 2019 touring with Bootleg Blondie in the UK. What do you have planned for the rest of 2019?
We`re going to Cuba in March which is a really big thing for us. We had to get it sanctioned by both governments first though. Unfortunately, the privilege that Mr Obama achieved was taken away by the current President so it`s harder to travel so freely between the countries now. We are working with a company that puts together a five-day event where you go to other cultural sites. We will do two shows with Cuban acts opening for us and we`ll be bringing some of those Latin influences into our new record. We`ll also be booking Blondie dates in the UK so we will be back very soon. I always say this and I`ve said it for 44 years now, I`ll give us another 18 months.
Bootleg Blondie play at the O2 Academy Newcastle on 3rd February.
Bootleg Blondie UK Tour Dates:
O2 Academy Oxford – 27 January
O2 Academy Liverpool – 1 February
O2 Academy Newcastle – 3 February
O2 Academy Sheffield – 4 February
Words: Mick Burgess