Clem Burke of Blondie

Clem Burke of Blondie

CLEM BURKE
INTERVIEW by STEVE OLSON

A-Rip-Bam-Scram,
Pounding like no other. When you’re pro,
so it goes,
from here to eternity.
Back Beat Boogie…
Understatement…
In the pocket, all his own. It’s business, baby.

Hi, Clem. How are you doing?
I’m great. I couldn’t be better.

Tell me about the Empty Hearts.
The band is great. I think we’re a rare breed. I don’t really think there are many bands out there that are as good as our band. We’re a classic rock n’ roll band in the best sense of the term. We’re four friends that got together who know how to play really well, and threw around a little bit of Chuck Berry poetry and a couple of really classic guitar riffs and made some really exciting music. I’m really happy and excited and proud of the Empty Hearts album. The more people listen to it, the more they seem to get into it. We got together, maybe a half dozen times in a room and jammed on songs and threw out some lyrics and some grooves and let the music evolve naturally. We were lucky we got Ed Stasium to co-produce the album with us. He’s great. He worked with the Ramones for a long time, and the Smithereens, Talking Heads and Living Colour. He did the “Cult of Personality” song. He’s like the fifth member of the band. He’s a big help and a really instinctual producer. His first mandate was no click tracks. He thinks, if you know how to play, you should just go into the studio and do it.

Excellent. Who’s in the band?
Andy Babiuk from the Chesterfield Kings is the bass player. The Chesterfield Kings are forerunners of the whole garage rock movement. Andy is also a writer and an author. He did that Beatles Gear coffee table book and the Rolling Stones Gear book. Wally Palmar of the Romantics is the lead singer, harmonica player and rhythm guitar player. He and I worked together, on and off, for about ten years. I was in the Romantics in the ‘90s, so he and I have a history. Elliot Easton from The Cars is an amazing guitar player, and he and I were trying to put a band together with the late Doug Fieger about ten years ago. Elliot and I always planned on doing something together. We’re all products of the ‘60s British Invasion and Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Gene Vincent. Then there’s the whole glam rock, Small Faces, prior to glam rock thing, so Ian McLagan [R.I.P.] played keyboards on the album. We did the record with a total punk rock attitude of do it yourself. No record company or anything.

How long did it take to record?
It was ten days with the mixing. The chemistry was there from the first time that we got in the studio. The caliber of the musicianship and the roots of the music, the exuberance and energy we’re giving off… It’s rock n’ roll. It’s a rock n’ roll record based on the music of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Where did you draw your influences to become such a good drummer?
Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, it all really starts there. Earl Palmer played on all the great Little Richard records, like “Good Golly Miss Molly” and Fats Domino. He was the drummer on Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” and he was the drummer on “La Bamba” and “River Deep Mountain High”. The last ten years of his life, he was a pretty good friend of mine, and I used to go see him play quite a bit. He was a role model for me. Unbeknownst to me, Hal and Earl were my major influences because they played on every hit record out of L.A. in the ‘60s. I didn’t know their names when I was a kid. Hal did all the Spector stuff. They were my main inspiration. Then there’s Dino Danelli from the Rascals and Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls and Woody Woodmansey from Spiders From Mars and, obviously, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and Keith Moon and people like that.

What about Krupa?
Gene Krupa was before my time, but I liked that movement. Sal Mineo was a big influence on me. There was Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. For me, it really starts with music from the ‘50s, the real roots of rock n’ roll. That’s where it all began, with D.J. Fontana, Elvis’ drummer, and people like that.

How did you get into rock n’ roll? Did you hear it on the radio or from an older brother or was it just the energy?
Most of my generation got into rock n’ roll from the Beatles and the Stones. They re-introduced the world to American blues and soul music and things that were a bit neglected. That led me to a deeper understanding of the basics of where rock n’ roll came from. It’s hard for kids now to believe how important rock n’ roll music was to generations before. Now rock n’ roll has to be like what jazz was like to our generation when rock n’ roll took over. There’s an avid fanatical fan base for it, but it’s not pop music. I wouldn’t call rock n’ roll pop music at all. It’s more like jazz. It’s an American art form, and it’s not really that popular. It’s interesting.

It’s interesting and also bizarre to me.
I think it can still be dangerous. We just played with Robert Plant, with Blondie, and after the show, he came up to me and told me what I did was dangerous, so I took that as a compliment from Robert Plant. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Right. How did you come up with the name the Empty Hearts?
Well, Steven Van Zandt has been a friend for quite some time. I had a band with Steve Jones, from the Sex Pistols, in the ‘80s, called Chequered Past and we did a six-week tour with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, which was Steve Van Zandt’s band after he left Bruce Springsteen’s band.

Was this when he was playing that “Sun City” song?
This was before “Sun City.” This was when Voice of America was the album. He did an album called Men Without Women and then he did the album, Voice of America, which had songs like, “I Am a Patriot.” That was his political album before “Sun City.” I go back with Steve from the ‘80s. When we were doing the Blondie album, Eat To The Beat, the Springsteen band was in the studio next door at the Record Plant doing The River album. We’re both from Jersey, and Steve is good friends with Andy Babiuk, our bass player. Andy was one of the music consultants on the David Chase movie, Not Fade Away. Have you seen that?

No.
David Chase, the director of The Sopranos, had a budget to do whatever he wanted to do. He could have done the Godfather IV and taken it to the limit and made gangster movies forever. Instead, he chose to do a movie about growing up in Jersey in the ‘60s, and being in a rock band. The movie is great. James Gandolfini is in it. I went to the NY Film Festival to see it and found it really inspiring. Andy worked with Steven Van Zandt and David Chase on that film. He was the one who made sure all the ‘60s gear in the film was authentic. He had to make sure the right Fender logo was on the guitar and the right mount was on the bass drum and the cymbals and amps were correct. A lot times, in films, the details are a little bit askew. It’s like when you see people try to dress like Marlon Brando and they wear a pair of Levi’s rolled up but, if you don’t see the selvedge denim line on the jeans, it’s just not what it’s supposed to be. ‘The devil is in the details.’ That’s probably one of my favorite sayings of all time. If you look at signing a classic music business contract, obviously, the devil is in the details there. When people say these things, they really have a lot of meaning, even though they have become trite. It’s like a lot of the things that Oscar Wilde said. “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” It’s things like that. “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” That stuff is great. It’s poetry. It’s beautiful. Getting back to Steven Van Zandt, I did an album with the Romantics called 61/49 and I played on a few tracks that came out when Steven was starting up his Sirius radio program, Little Steven’s Underground Garage. I went to the party for the debut of the station in New York and I pitched the Romantics album to Steven, which is a really great record, and Steven began an association with the Romantics and Wally Palmer, based on that. He has this secret list of band names and he let us take a look at it. The list was great and the name the Empty Hearts didn’t seem to be being used. We all like the Stones song, “Empty Heart” and then on the Empty Hearts album, we have a song “Fill An Empty Heart” so it all lined up. We had the song and Steven had the band name, and it worked. It’s a bit dark, but it’s always good to have a bit of negativity thrown into the mix.

Without the yin and the yang, you don’t got shit. Do the songs have the same basic structure of a rock n’ roll song?
Yeah. It’s a rock n’ roll record. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s interesting, with the Internet and the feedback we’re getting, people seem to really be liking it. Of course, that could all be an illusion. People that take the time to comment on the internet, what else are they doing in their lives? I don’t know. I don’t comment on the internet. I like to tweet. I think tweets are the best way. It’s a limited medium and it’s instant. I never did Facebook. I set up a music page on MySpace when it first started out, but I never went on Facebook. I know a lot of people that have gone through trials and tribulations because of Facebook. People didn’t realize when it started that so-and-so was going to see something that so-and-so said and it was all gonna backfire. I never got into Facebook. It’s such an oxymoron, for me, because there’s no privacy being on stage. Of course, if you’re standing on a stage, you’re not trying to be private are you? With the internet, it’s extended beyond the confines of the room and the performance, therefore, there is no privacy on stage anymore. If you say something on stage that might be said in the heat of the moment, it’s not just for that room anymore. It’s going to go out there and there’s no way to prevent it. There’s no way to stop people from bringing their phones into shows. It just isn’t going to happen.

How do you feel about music on the Internet as an artist and a performer?
I feel like the more accessible the better. The Internet has been a tremendous tool for Blondie because it allows younger generations to see what the band was about in the old days. We did a TV show in Sweden in 1978 and we never thought we’d see it again. Now you just press a button and there it is. I think that’s a help in promoting. I think if people really like something, they’ll go above and beyond to get it. I think the business model of the Grateful Dead is the modern day business plan in the music business. The CD is just the promotional part of the whole entity. It’s the promotion for the t-shirt, the gig and music licensing. The music has to be accessible for people to be able to hear it. For young artists, it’s hard to make a living in the old school way. You have to develop your fan base. That’s what’s going to give you an income. It’s not about whether your song is on the Internet for free or not. I think the more accessible the better because that’s the day and age we live in. The Empty Hearts album was posted on YouTube, and I looked at a couple of comments that were like, “This is great. I’m going to go buy it.” The Grateful Dead had a separate area for people to come in with tape recorders to tape the shows. They never had a major hit record, but every concert was sold out.

Right. Where did you grow up in Jersey?
I grew up in North Jersey, around Hoboken. Manhattan is just on the other side of the river, so I was exposed to the culture of New York City at a very early age. I used to go in and walk around Greenwich Village and look at the hippies when I was a kid, and go to the Fillmore East. Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s was where I hung out as a late teenager. I moved to Manhattan when I was 18 and lived in a storefront on the Lower East Side.

How did you get into playing rock n’ roll?
It’s really all I ever wanted to do. I put in my 10,000 hours and I really devoted myself to it. I was in bands when I was in school. It was my whole social life. I never did sports. I never cared about school. Somehow I wound up in college, but it wasn’t my goal to be in college. I was always in bands from the time I was a teenager.

Why did you pick drums?
One of the reasons was because I’m left-handed. I picked up the guitar left-handed and it was difficult for people to show me how to play. I can play a bit now. With drums, I sat down at a right-handed kit, so I started playing drums, traditionally, although I still tend to lead with my left hand. Ringo Starr is left-handed and Dino Danelli from the Rascals is left-handed, but both play on a traditional right-handed kit. It makes it a little bit different with my style of playing. I’ve been told by other drummers that some of the things that I do are hard to replicate. I think it has to do with me being left-handed and other people being right-handed and trying to do some of the fills that I do. I started playing drums and got together with other musicians and started playing at high school dances, bar mitzvahs and one thing lead to another. I’ve just always done music.

How did you get into Blondie?
That came out of the streets. We used to all hang out at Club 82 on 82 East 4th Street in Manhattan, which was a gay disco that had rock n’ roll one night a week. The New York Dolls would play there, and a guy called Wayne County had a band called Queen Elizabeth, which became Wayne County & the Electric Chairs. Lenny Kaye, (the guitarist for Patti Smith), Tommy Ramone, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry and David Bowie would hang out at Club 82. That’s where the New York glam rock scene was going on at the time. We all met in that scene. I remember one day, Jerry Nolan, the drummer for the New York Dolls, showed up with a rockabilly haircut, and that was it. He was the first person to cut his hair in that scene. Up until then, everyone looked very rock n’ roll with shag haircuts and things like that. Then I remember Tommy Ramone cut his hair really short and everyone started cutting their hair really short and dressing in black and becoming beatniks. The whole New York music scene in the ‘70s was based on bohemia and the Beat Generation. It was Patti Smith and the influence of William Burroughs and people like that. It wasn’t a “punk rock” scene. It was a beatnik scene. Everything was very minimal. Blondie, the Ramones, Television and Patti Smith all came out of that aesthetic. That’s where we all met and then we all started playing at CBGB’s. I always compared that to an actor’s workshop where you could go and make your mistakes in public and no one really cared. There was only a handful of people there. Places like that don’t exist today. People say, “Oh, if we had a place like CBGB’s today, we would capture it and broadcast it on the internet immediately.” With Blondie, we started playing when we could barely play and then we progressed. We started writing songs and doing it all in public. There were so many people that would stay in their bedrooms and practice all day long and not ever get out in public and play. I thought that was counterproductive. I’m all about the performance and the spontaneity. I think rock n’ roll is like jazz as far as the live performance goes. There’s a lot of room for improvisation. That’s how I look at it when I get on stage.

Do you love to be on stage?
Yeah. We just came off this Blondie tour and we played with Jeff Lynne who has reformed the band, E.L.O. We opened for him in front of 50,000 people in Hyde Park in London. The Blondie tour was very interesting. We played with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Thurston Moore’s new band. The Strypes opened up for us in Ireland and we did a show with Gary Clark Jr., the blues guitarist from Austin, who I like a lot. I like touring. We did the iTunes Festival at the Roundhouse in London and Chrissie Hynde opened up for us. That was really fun because we did a tour with The Pretenders in Australia a few years back. I really appreciate the fact that the band, Blondie, that I founded when I was 18 years old, along with Chris and Debbie, is still going. It enables me to do a lot of things. Chris Stein has a new photography book, Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk, and Debbie is always doing acting bits, but we always get back together and do Blondie, so it’s the best of both worlds.

Excellent. The guys in the Empty Hearts don’t all live in the same city, so take me through how that works.
To get the album together, Wally and Andy, came to L.A. where Elliot and I live and we rehearsed here in L.A. We did the recording in Rochester, NY, where Andy has a recording studio. We all flew to Rochester and woodshedded and then recorded for about ten days.

It sounds like you still get excited to do new projects.
I do. I’m really proud of the Empty Hearts record, and it’s fun to see it build. We created new music that we’re really happy with and the fact that we had a great time doing it made the whole thing worthwhile. Now we want to go out and play that music for people and spread the rock n’ roll. Some people think rock n’ roll is an outmoded cliche form of music. I think it’s a really high-energy, exciting, positive art form.

I agree.
We’re out to show people what a real rock n’ roll band is like.

I love rock n’ roll.
You and Joan Jett both. [Laughs]

Exactly. Why do you think that rock n’ roll has become like a jazz form?
Well, for one reason, it’s beyond middle-aged. I was born around the time that Alan Freed coined the phrase ‘rock n’ roll.’ That’s when rock n’ roll was new. It was young. It’s no longer young. Rock n’ roll is more than 50 years old now. Plenty of the people that play rock n’ roll are older than 50 years old, so it has evolved. As it evolves, it becomes not necessarily a part of youth culture. Pop culture is modern day culture. People are more interested in crappy reality TV shows than they are a Picasso painting. Rock n’ roll is somewhere in the middle. Dance music and computer-generated music is modern pop music. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and Pharrell is modern music. None of that music is rock n’ roll, to me, and none of those people are rock stars. Little Richard is a rock star. Chuck Berry is a rock n’ roll star. Mick Jagger is a rock n’ roll star. Pharrell is not a rock n’ roll star. He’s a pop star and he’s dominating popular culture. That’s the dichotomy that exists. There’s plenty of young kids that love rock n’ roll music, but it’s not the dominant popular culture force. How many young kids are interested in the Rolling Stones? To you and I, the Rolling Stones are probably the ultimate rock n’ roll band, but lots of people don’t really care. It’s just of another time. It’s the same reason I went to see Elvin Jones play to 50 people, at the Village Vanguard, when he should have been playing to 50,000 people. It’s like Miles Davis. It’s the same thing. Earl Palmer played every Tuesday at this little jazz club, and I would go and see him and he was so inspiring. He played on tons of hit records and he just evolved and continued. He did it all. He played with Frank Sinatra and he played to 50 people. If you consider yourself to be a working musician, which is what I consider myself to be, you play to five people or 5,000 people or 50,000 people. It doesn’t matter. It’s what I do.

You’ve been doing it for how long?
I started my first band when I was 12 years old. There’s been a lot of ups and downs. The funny thing with Blondie is that the appeal is pretty broad and international. We had so much success with Blondie that it has allowed us to have a life and a career. I hate to think, if we were a cult band, what kind of shape we’d all be in. People always go for the obvious, when we all sit down for an interview. They’re throwing out comparisons to Lady Gaga or Madonna to Debbie. I always point out that Debbie is much more like Mick Jagger or David Bowie. She’s not a song and dance person. She’d be the first person to say that. Blondie is a traditional rock n’ roll band. We just happen to have a woman as our front person. When we play, we do our thing for two hours and people go nuts and we make everybody happy and it’s a rock n’ roll experience.

Talking about Blondie, how was it to go from playing CBGB’s to becoming this huge phenomenon?
Well, you don’t get a handbook with the success, and I think there were a lot of mistakes made in the first go-round. The fact that we’ve been together longer this time around really says something. I guess we’re older and wiser. The success was just always building. We did a lot of touring to promote the band when we first started, but, at the height of our success, we never really played. Between 1980 and 1982, which was the peak of Blondie, we never performed live. We did an album and a couple of videos.

Why?
People were just caught up in their own things at the time because of the phenomenal success. It wasn’t like we needed to tour to earn money, which is the opposite today. You have to tour to earn money now. You’re not going to earn money just putting out records, which is why we’re always on tour. Early on, we had phenomenal success that enabled us to have a career and not necessarily need to go out on tour. A lot of people got burnt out on touring, although we did some great tours. We toured with David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the Kinks. Then we went to England and toured with great bands like the Buzzcocks.

How was it opening for the Kinks or Bowie and guys that influenced you as a kid?
I have a distinct memory of playing Max’s Kansas City, two shows a night for two nights and getting into an RV after the second show at about 2 am. There was one bed in the RV, and the five of us slept in the bed together, all of Blondie, driving through the night to Canada. We had no idea who was driving, but we wound up in Toronto the next morning. We got to Massey Hall and crashed out in the dressing room before the show and, the next thing I know, the door opens and Iggy Pop and David Bowie walk in. It was very much like a dream sequence. Iggy and I had the same shoes on, these Anello and Davide boots. It was the company that made the shoes for the Beatles. They used to have a shop on Oxford Street. At the time, there was a Polyphonic synthesizer that had just come out and our keyboard player, Jimmy, had one and David was interested in that, so they hit it off. They also had other recreational things in common behind closed doors. It was great. To watch Iggy Pop and David Bowie perform every night, along with the Sales brothers, when I was 18 years old, it was amazing to see. Those friendships have carried on. Those guys were the main influences for us. David Bowie and Spiders from Mars changed my life. I was just hanging out with Woody Woodmansey in London. He and Tony Visconti have a band called Holy Holy and they were doing some gigs where they do The Man Who Sold the World album. Tony produced Bowie’s last album, The Next Day and The Slider. He produced Marc Bolan and Morrissey too. He produced The Man Who Sold the World and he also played bass on that album. That album was never done in its entirety, so there is a collection of musicians in London doing it now. The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London was sponsoring these Bowie events and I did a lecture there last summer. I’m in the middle of trying to write a book as well. I started to go back in time in my mind and I’ve been writing short stories about little incidents. If I put it in that context, it’s good. It’s a work in progress. I have an editor. Chris Charlesworth, who runs Omnibus Press in the U.K. and who ran Melody Maker magazine back in the day. He’s been helping me. He’s an interesting guy. He’s seen and done it all. He toured with the Who and chronicled the rock scene of the ‘70s. He was one of the first people to write about Blondie back in the day.

FOR THE REST OF THE STORY, ORDER ISSUE #73 AT THE JUICE SHOP…

Clem Burke of Blondie

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