Clem Burke

About the Playing

It’s about ninety minutes before Blondie’s set at the Sea.Hear.Now festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey. It’s a beautiful early fall afternoon, and being at the Jersey Shore has put Garden State native Clem Burke in a reflective mood.

Burke is recalling the strange-bedfellow support slots Blondie occupied back in the day opening shows for Rush and Genesis in Philadelphia; Blondie’s first and only time (before today) playing Asbury Park in 1978; and his own adventures as a young man in the storied town located about fifty miles south from his hometown of Bayonne.

“As a teenager I would come here a lot, sleep on the beach,” Burke says. “I saw a lot of shows at the Sunshine Inn, the Wonder Bar, and the Stone Pony. I didn’t know Bruce then, but all the stuff that he wrote about early on, I could relate to.”

The Bruce he’s referring to is, of course, Bruce Springsteen, who cut his musical teeth on the Asbury Park club circuit in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Burke will catch up with the Boss the next day, when he turns up at the festival unannounced to sit in with Social Distortion. “Bruce told me I looked good,” Burke says with a chuckle over the phone a couple of weeks later. “I take that as a compliment. I told him I was trying to keep up with him.”

Since Springsteen has spent the past year telling stories on Broadway while seated, not traversing the globe at a whirlwind pace to play the drums seemingly every chance he gets, maybe it’s him that should try to keep up with Burke. When Blondie takes the stage at Sea.Hear.Now, the sixty-four-year-old drummer leads the charge, rolling and smashing his way across his kit, twirling his sticks, and  still looking every bit the youthful mod before the band launches into a revved-up “One Way or Another.” For the next hour, Burke  provides an unflinching pulse as the Debbie Harry–fronted band pivots from the disco groove of “Heart of Glass” to the tropical  rhythm of “The Tide Is High” to the sleek, sequenced shuffle of “Call Me” to the hip-hop flirtations of “Rapture.” For good  measure, Burke also whips metronomic heat into “Atomic” and delivers power-pop histrionics on “Hanging on the Telephone.”

After watching Blondie tear through a sixty-minute set, we’re reminded of two  things. First, as genre-bending iconoclasts go, few have enjoyed the success and  lasting influence that Blondie has. And second, precious few drummers are bringing the heat after forty-plus years in the game like Clem Burke is bringing it. 

Chalk it up to an unrelenting schedule so chock-full of gigs and sessions that Burke can’t help but keep  his skills razor sharp. We get an intimate glimpse of that workload  in My View, the recently released documentary chronicling Burke’s career, from his roots in New Jersey,  to international superstardom with Blondie, to post-Blondie stints with the Eurythmics and Ramones in the ’80s, to the multiple gigs he currently juggles. The cameras capture Burke in near-constant motion, working  at a pace that would leave some  drummers one-third his age gasping for air: pounding the drums with Blondie in front of 80,000 people at London’s Hyde Park; jogging in the streets of New York City to keep fit; playing club gigs; in the taxi on the way to the airport to catch a plane to the next gig; recording; and woodshedding with a pick-up band in a cramped rehearsal room for a one-off show.

The legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen says in My View, “Whenever you see Clem, he’s on his way somewhere, or he just got back from somewhere and he’s going somewhere else tomorrow.” That’s about right. In 2019, that “somewhere” could be a Blondie- curated festival in Cuba or the Cayman Islands, or a gig in a tiny club with one of several side bands Burke plays in, like the Split Squad, the Empty Hearts, or the Tearaways. Or it could be a U.K. theater tour, like the one he just completed as the guest drummer with the Blondie tribute band Bootleg Blondie. (Clem was donating his proceeds to charity.) “I enjoy the dichotomy of playing to a hundred people in a club,” says Burke, “then all of a sudden I’m playing to 80,000 people at a festival. It makes you appreciate each thing individually.

“I also go back to Earl Palmer,” Burke adds. “He was my role model. He played across from NBC in Burbank every Tuesday at a place called Chadney’s. He played in the lounge. Jim Keltner and Charlie Watts would come in and purposely sit on the side to watch him work. There’d be a lot of kids from PIT. I saw Carol Kaye sit in. Here’s a guy that played with Frank Sinatra and Little Richard, did the Ritchie Valens stuff like “La Bamba,” did all the stuff in New Orleans, the “Flintstones” theme, and he’s playing in a club to fifty people, really enjoying it and passing the baton in a way. Earl was a big, big learning curve for me. And such a gentleman. I think about him doing that in relation to what I do. And I say, Why not? As long as I can do it, I might as well keep doing it. As long as it’s fun and the people are my friends. I love it. It’s about playing.”

Clem Burke

MD: Was there any self-consciousness about being the subject of a documentary, giving filmmakers that kind of access? Everybody shares so much of themselves today. Whereas the players you loved—Dino Danelli, Carmine Appice, Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer—no one knew really knew much about them. There was something cool about that air of mystery.

Clem: I was going back and forth with it. I had the luxury of deciding on the final edit. I let my wife, Ellen; my tech, Rick; and my best friend, Merwin, watch it before I watched it. I asked them what they thought, and they thought it represented me. I had to resign myself to the fact that these guys were going to follow me around and film me. I had to forget, as much as I could, the self-consciousness of it all and just go for it. And I like how it came out. It’s kind of like my “Behind the Music” without the sex and drugs, or the rise and fall.

MD: Were there sex and drugs left on the cutting-room floor?

Clem: I suppose there were references made to such things. It’s been a long career.

MD: But you’ve always seemed to have your stuff together, best as I can tell.

Clem: Yeah, I’ve always been very wary of falling off the edge. Everybody needs a role model. People like Keith Moon and John Bonham, they’re role models on multiple levels. It shows you what not to do. Your amazing talent and your amazing band and your amazing luck in the music business— to not really realize what that’s all about and go over the edge is very sad. Then you have people like Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer. Hal’s still thriving. Earl thrived into his eighties. Enjoyed life, enjoyed playing.

MD: It’s hard to think about you and not think of Keith Moon—your look, your style, you played a Premier kit for so long. You owned that influence. I always thought you would’ve made a great drummer for the Who. Had anyone suggested that to you when Keith died, or in the ensuing years?

Clem: People have said that. I was actually at the party in London when Kenney Jones officially joined the Who. So I was around. But that was the heyday of Blondie. I was asked to join up with various other bands during the heyday of Blondie, but I was always about trying to start my own band. I’ve done it now, with the Empty Hearts, for instance, and I did it with Chequered Past. At the height of Blondie I was trying to form a band with Eric Faulkner from the Bay City Rollers and Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols, and the missing link was always Paul Weller. We were always trying to get Paul Weller. In the end it finally worked out for the Who. Zak Starkey is absolutely the perfect drummer for them. I’ve known him a long time. I thought Simon Phillips was a little over the top. A great drummer, but maybe a little too technical for the Who.

MD: Your love of classic bands and classic drummers has always been very palpable, and it comes across in the documentary. What are some new bands and new drummers you’re into?

Clem: I think the Struts are a really good rock ’n’ roll band. There’s a band from L.A. called Prima Donna that I like. I think Ronnie Vannucci from the Killers is an amazing drummer in the style that I like. And I like Fabrizio Moretti from the Strokes. I think his simplicity is great. And he’s obviously not new, but I like Jeremy Stacey. I saw him play with King Crimson when I was in Stockholm recently, with the three drummers—that was amazing. He’s one of my favorites.

MD: The documentary covers how you were playing out when you were fourteen and played Carnegie Hall after winning a battle of the bands. What else were you up to before you hooked up with Blondie? I know you had auditioned for LaBelle at one point.

Clem: I was going to college and living at home in New Jersey; I was eighteen-ish. I started at Jersey City University and transferred to NYU. I was perusing the “Musicians Wanted” ads in the Village Voice. I auditioned for LaBelle, I auditioned for Patti Smith, and I auditioned for Beatlemania. My look was kind of reminiscent of that period. I’m not a singer, but I went down and sat in with the band. At the time I was studying electronic music, acting, media, modern dance. I never thought, I’m going to become an actor or a dancer. It was just a way to stretch a bit, creatively. I think that’s what made me really drawn to meeting [Blondie guitarist and singer] Chris Stein and Debbie Harry. I sensed their creativity. They were artistic, and they had charisma, but they weren’t fully formed. There’s something to that.

MD: The Lower East Side artistic community seemed to be a real hot house for creativity in the early to mid ’70s, for writers, actors, and bands like Blondie and Talking Heads and Television.

Clem: It was a workshop at CBGB, and you could make your mistakes in public. That’s how we developed. We were rough and ready. That’s lacking a lot now with musicians. People expect things to be fully formed, on both ends. Record companies expect demos that are release-quality. Performance-wise, they think they want to see something from, like, Star Search or Pop Idol, whatever those shows are.

MD: Blondie was the old-school archetype. You were able to woodshed in the clubs, you got a record deal, and it took a few records for everything to really click and take off. And even when it did, you didn’t follow a formula; you kept on experimenting.

Clem: It’s hard to believe we’ve had four number-one singles [in the U.S.], and each one is different from the other. None of them had to do with what people would think of as “CBGB’s Blondie.”“Heart of Glass” was a disco song. “The Tide Is High” was reggae. Then you had “Call Me,” which is a rock/dance song or something. It was the first time we went in and played with pre- programmed synthesizer tracks.

MD: Are those 16th-note hi-hats on “Call Me” overdubbed?

Clem: The 16th notes are overdubbed. I basically played the shuffle first, with the fills. Then I overdubbed the 16th-note hi-hats.

MD: That makes me feel better. I’ve tried to play that groove with the 16th-note hats many times, and it’s hard

Clem: It’s also difficult for people to play it the way I play it, being left-handed and leading with my left hand. My tech’s a great drummer, but when he tried to play the “Call Me” beat he couldn’t get it quite right because of the [sticking]. The one thing I do try to practice is leading with my right hand. I try to practice that a lot.

MD: You mention “Heart of Glass,” and then “Rapture” came a couple of years later. A lot of rock bands were dabbling in dance music and disco around that time, but I don’t think anyone did it as well as you guys. And I think it all came down to the drums. You played like a rock drummer that seemed pretty conversant in dance music. Were you out in the clubs soaking it up?

Clem Burke

Clem: Club 82 was kind of the spawning ground for the whole New York rock scene after the Mercer Arts Center closed. I’d be there. That place was essentially a gay disco. They would have bands one night a week— Wayne County, the Backstreet Boys, the New York Dolls, the Magic Tramps…. The music that they would play when the rock ’n’ roll bands weren’t playing was disco—“Rock the Boat,”“Shame, Shame, Shame”—the whole litany of great dance records from that era. And Bowie was already experimenting with dance music around then with the Young Americans album. That’s a prime example of the type of dance music I liked. “Fascination” on Young Americans was incredible. I saw that tour. That was pretty inspirational.

That was stuff that was influencing all of us in Blondie. And that whole Saturday Night Fever album was so inspirational. I always say that’s where I finally figured out how to play “Heart of Glass” properly. Though it’s debatable how that happened. The producer, Mike Chapman, claims it was his idea, but I know I was listening to that stuff.

We weren’t listening to Journey, we weren’t listening to Rush—although, we did open for Rush, but that’s not what I aspired to. I wanted to be like the drummer in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars [Mick Woodmansey], I didn’t want to be like Neil Peart.

MD: One would think that with a career-spanning documentary, you’ve given some consideration to your legacy. What would you want your legacy to be?

Clem: The legacy of Blondie is the music. And, as cliché as it may be, Debbie’s iconic image. My legacy alone? It’s something I never did think about until lately. Over the last handful of years with Blondie, we’ve gotten all these awards. It started with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I got inducted into the Bayonne High School Hall of Fame. When you start looking at it, you do start thinking about your mortality and legacy and things like that. How I’d like to be remembered is that I really didn’t [screw] people over. That I was a quote-unquote “good guy.” I’ve tried to be that way as much as possible. But I’ve got a long way to go yet. I’m gonna live forever, ya know?

Clem’s setup

Drums: DW Collector’s series 6.5x 14 brass aux snare
6.5×14 Ludwig Black Beauty >main snare (with 30-strand wires)
10×14 tom
16×16 floor tom
16×18 floor tom
18×24 bass drum

Electronics: Roland Octapad

Cymbals: Zildjian A Custom
14″ hi-hats
10″ splash
18″ crash (two)
18″ China
16″ crash
20″ ride

Hardware: DW 9000 series stands, 5000 series bass pedal and hi-hat stand

Sticks: Vic Firth 5B wood-tip

Heads: Remo Emperor Coated tom batters and Ambassador Clear tom resonants; Controlled Sound Coated main snare batter; Ambassador Coated aux snare batter; Powerstroke P3 Clear bass drum batter and DW Coated White front head