Clem Burke

Another interview from my time as a journalist for Rhythm the world’s greatest magazine with drums in it. Back in 1998 Blondie had been off the scene for a while and then come back with a Number 1 record, Maria, when I interviewed the drum world’s second smartest drummer (only Charles Watts beats Clem Burke in the sartorial elegance stakes)


“I never feel like a real pop star…. Clem Burke, our drummer, is a real pop star, not me.” (Debbie Harry, Q Awards, 30th October 1998). A real pop star, in fact a veritable icon, Clem Burke is also a perfect gentleman, with a surprising amount of humility for a man with his history. For example, when I ask him about some of the less well known aspects of his career he answers modestly. “I wouldn’t consider myself to be a session musician, but I do get involved in a lot of different projects.” Yet he’s got a CV any sessioneer would be proud of, that includes David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Iggy Pop, Pete Townshend, and a couple of years ago he even recorded at Abbey Road with Mark Owen – “That was a high point for me” he professes, though I assume he means recording at Abbey Road!

Of course, as an integral part of the wonderfully crafted sounds of Blondie, not to mention drummer with the Eurythmics for much of the Eighties, it’s primarily for being a pop star that Clem is famous. Rhythm caught up with him on Blondie’s recent mini tour of the UK, an experience he’s clearly enjoying, especially their recent sold out Lyceum gigs.

“They went great. You know any kind of hometown gig has a little extra stress involved, and London is almost like a hometown to us, so actually there were a lot of friends and family from all over the world that came to the London gigs. Every time we do a show in New York, LA or London there’s a little extra energy involved in the whole thing. They went really well, and I got to see people I haven’t seen in a while, my friend Paul (Cook) from the Sex Pistols, Zak Starkey, so we had like the drummers club going on!”

The notable factor in Blondie’s current resurgance is that it’s not just another cynical greatest hits reunion.

“When we decided to re-unite the band, the first thing we wanted to do was make a new record, there was no way we wanted to just come over and play the old songs without adding something to it, and it’s been a long time in the making. We’ve been involved with this for about three years, but most of it has been behind the scenes. We really had to go back and become a band again, and all those things that that entails, whether it be trying to figure out where you’re going to rehearse, what kind of haircut you’re going to have, getting the drum endorsement back together, so we were kind of just woodshedding for a while before we came out in public.”

“It was originally put to us, ‘Why don’t you guys just go and record two new songs and we’ll do a re-issue album,’ but we were all adamantly against that. We really wanted to become a band again and make a new record, and in as much as we did that I really consider the band to be a success already. You know, we went to the studio, we interacted musically for quite some time before we came out in public with it. So that’s the thing that we’re all very excited about, is that we made the record.”

And, having heard a preview of some of the tracks, it’s an excellent record, with all the power and pop sensibilty of classic Blondie. The new songs were certainly well received at the band’s gigs.

“Very much so. I co-wrote a song with Debbie, sort of a fake jazz song that was inspired by my love for jazz and Debbie’s work with a group The Jazz Passengers, so we’re doing that song in the set, that’s been going over really well. And we’re playing the single, a song called Maria, that pretty much seamlessly fits into the set, it’s sort of like a timeless Blondie song that Jimmy Destri our keyboard player wrote. Then we have a sort of bass and drum type song called Forgive and Forget that I play a tom tom sequence on against some sequencers. I’m doing about six or seven songs in the set with headphones on and click tracks, and the rest are just more lively go for it kind of things.”

The great thing is, the band are also enjoying playing the old material, giving the set an edge and energy that a band half their age would be proud of.

“Oh sure, things like Dreaming and Hanging on the Telephone are just songs that I really like and I really enjoy playing them. And towards the end of the set we sort of do a mini punk rock set, where we kind of crank it up to eleven, and that’s really fun. The set has a really good structure to it, a really good swell, and we do everything with songs from the first album right up to the new album, The No Exit record. We’ve all been getting along really well musically, that’s part of the thing as time goes on. You know, we never stopped being musicians, so we’re able to incorporate all the things we learned in our time apart and bring that into what we’re doing now. ”

That time apart includes for Clem a long stint touring and recording with The Eurythmics, a liaison that started long before most people realise.

“Annie (Lennox) and Dave (Stewart) were both big Blondie fans, and in 1980 I was in a club in Mayfair, I can’t recall the name of it, and this very attractive woman approached me, I was at the bar, and I’m always up for a chat, and it turned out to be Annie. She was telling me that her and Dave had formed this band Eurythmics, and would I be interested in working with them, and the next thing I knew, I went round Annie’s for Sunday lunch and then we left for Germany to work on that record called In The Garden. A lot of people aren’t aware that I played on that record, that wasn’t a very successful record for them. At that point I was still involved with Blondie, so we made the record and I went back to working with Blondie. And after they made the Sweet Dreams record with sequencers and drum machines, when that was being released they asked if I would go on tour with them, and by the end Sweet Dreams had become a number one record in the UK. After that , the Blondie thing was ending, and I went off and had a band in the States with Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, called Chequered Past, and then out of the blue in the middle eighties Annie and Dave called me up again and we made the Revenge record, and then we went on tour for about three years!”

And for Clem, who had a slightly different role within the band than in Blondie, working with the Eurythmics was a fine time.

“Oh fantastic! They were really great people, and there’s something to be said for being a hired hand, you know. With the Blondie thing we’re all partners, we’re involved in it, it’s a group effort and there’s a lot of decisions that have to be made, the whole democratic process. With Annie and Dave, they were just doing what they were doing and they hired me to play drums with them and it was great. They did actually ask me to join the group in the early eighties when I was still in Blondie, so I had to turn them down at the time.”

For those unfamiliar with their history, Blondie formed in the mid seventies, and came from a very healthy scene that revolved around New York’s legendary CBGB’s club, a place that spawned and nurtured some of the most seminal bands to come from that period, including Talking Heads, The Ramones, and Television.

“That whole time was a special time. I think it comes along every ten years or so, there definitely was somewhat of a musical revolution going on then, and the CBGB’s thing was very low key as well, because it was going on from 1974, but only when the British punk explosion happened the CBGB’s thing became more well known. It only involved about a hundred people, like if the Ramones were on stage all the rest of the bands would be in the audience kind of thing, so it was a really good musical interaction going on back then, and I think everyone was learning from one another as well, picking up a hairstyle or a guitar lick or whatever, people were like feeding off each other and there were a lot of common denominators going on. But at the same time, the whole good thing about the CBGB’s scene, all the bands were quite different, whereas I think a lot of the English bands were all out copying the Ramones, it was more regimented.”

Regimented is something you could never accuse Blondie of being, and a variety of styles and approaches to their songs were always a key ingredient in their sound.

“That had a lot to do with Blondie’s success, and Chris Stein’s inspiration to first take us to R&B or to reggae and dance music and things like that. There was a lot of opposition to us going in those directions at the time, and I think they seem a lot more common place now.”

I wondered whether Clem meant opposition within the band?

“Some within the band. From my point of view I was interested in more traditional forms of rock’n’roll at the time, but of course in retrospect I realise how much foresight Chris had. He’s not really satisfied with the common place, he would be changing, like ‘Let’s go a different rap with the song.’ For instance with Heart of Glass, Chris and Debbie wrote that some time ago, and we completely changed it around in the seventies, we were trying to do a sort of Kraftwerk treatment on it, with Jim Destri’s keyboards and all of that.”

“I find most artistic people aren’t really satisfied with the common place, they need to keep changing. I’m more of a traditionalist in some ways than that, but that’s the particular role of the drummer, you really can’t go out by yourself and do it, you have to work with other people, and that’s who you learn from. It’s important to be intuitive to all of that. As you grow as a musician you want to be able to grow in your style of playing as well. I think I did a pretty good job adapting to those styles, you know, and as time goes on you learn more about that stuff. We all went to see Bob Marley in 1978 and that was very inspiring to everyone.”

So it was the band’s varied influences that helped develop their innovative approach to things like dance and reggae, and helped Clem create his own individual style.

“Yeah, I tried to put my own spin on it for sure. If anything I think I did kind of develop a style, I’m not the greatest technician in the world, I know my basic rudiments, and that’s part of learning your instrument, but I like coming up with catchy little drum licks and things like that.”

Clem is a player who sees his art as constantly developing, and his heroes are certainly an eclectic bunch.

“As far as inspirations, there’s the obvious, Ringo, Keith Moon, Tony Williams, I’ve been listening to a lot of Miles Davis lately. You know, Tommy Ramone was a big inspiration to me, the original drummer in the Ramones. He taught me a lot about minimalism, how to be very minimal. Sometimes I’m accused of overplaying a little bit, but that’s sort of the Keith Moon in me, but I try to make a happy medium and mix the two. Tommy and the Ramones in general were very inspirational to me, as well as the New York Dolls.”

“On the other end there’s people like Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Max Roach, and Krupa and Buddy Rich for the showmanship, their arrogance. I try to be continually inspired by everything I hear, I’m inspired by all kinds of music in general. Right now there’s a gentleman called Earl Palmer, he was the drummer on all the Little Richard and Fats Domino stuff, and I find him a continuing inspiration. He and Hal Blaine were the two main session drummers in the sixties. He does a little jazz gig around the corner from my house in Los Angeles every Tuesday, and I’ve seen Geoff Hamilton, Alex Acuna down there, I’ve seen Charlie Watts and Keltner in a booth the last time the Stones were in town, I’ve seen Peter Erskine, it’s an amazing little scene down there, and it’s a totally informal place.”

It was interesting Clem mentioned that part of getting Blondie rolling again included “getting the drum endorsement back together!” For the current tour he’s working with the two companies he’s always championed.

“Premier have just built me a new Genista kit which I’m very happy with, a very strong kit. I’ve pretty much always played Premier, and I’ve been working with Zildjian since 1977. I started working with Premier in the early seventies and I’m just using a basic Genista, actually the rack tom is custom, it’s a 14” by 10”, a 14” head by 10”deep, and a 24” bass drum and a 16” and 18” floor. It’s a basic kit, basically your John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell kit, just the sizes are a little overblown. They’re great drums, they have the history in the UK, and they’re doing really well in the States now, I really like the drums a lot.”

I remembered seeing Clem playing live with the Eurythmics using a much bigger set up.

“Well, I was using a Premier Black Shadow kit, the same dimensions as I just spoke of, but also incorporating a Simmons kit, with the Simmons snare, three Simmons toms and the bass drum. But on the Eurythmics tour everyone thought we were playing to sequencers and drum machines and all that, and the fact is we were doing it all manually, none of it was programmed, it’s just that the musicianship was of such a level that we were able to do it. I mean, I was always asked ‘Are you playing to a click track?’ because of the reputation of the band, people thought that. But it was all very organic. They would break down what they were doing and go a completely different direction, that’s one of the things that Dave was into.”

Being a bona fide pop star, my time with Clem was fairly limited, (but as Rhythm was actually the only magazine granted an interview with any of Blondie on their short visit, I’m certainly not complaining). Before we finished, Clem had some sound advice to pass on.

“I just want to say to anybody who’s interested in playing the drums, you really need to get on a health regime. Your heart is the most important muscle in the body, and you really need to develop that. You don’t want to feel any sort of pain when you play, and the only way to do that is kind of through weight training and running and things like that, because drumming is very physical. Also, I’ve been a vegetarian for a very long time. The obvious pitfalls are good to avoid, the drugs and the drink and all that, but you know, it’s a learning process. But you do need to have your endurance together. And it has other benefits, your wife will like it too!”