“Clem was new wave’s premier drum showman, but his showmanship never got in the way of his emphatic, tom-heavy drumming style. And his Premier kit, with its oversize rack tom and cymbals positioned at right angles, was as striking to look at as his drumming was to listen to.”
—Superchunk’s Jon Wurster, from Modern Drummer Publications’ The Drummer: 100 Years of Rhythmic Power and Invention
It’s hard to say what would have become of Clem Burke had he passed his auditions to join LaBelle and the Patti Smith Group in the early ’70s. There’s no doubt that a player with Burke’s skills would have made a name for himself keeping time for either of those acts. But it’s hard to imagine Burke making the kind of impact with LaBelle or Patti Smith that he’s made keeping the beat with Blondie, the iconoclastic band that broke out of New York’s ’70s punk/new-wave scene with its blend of girl-group pop, reggae, rock, disco, and rap, which was commercially successful during its initial run and remains profoundly influential as the band celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. Burke’s go-for-it spirit lives within many a power pop and indie rock drummer, including Fountains of Wayne’s Brian Young and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster, and his dance-floor-friendly grooves have informed the beats of No Doubt’s Adrian Young and Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara.
Burke stood out among the rhythmic minimalists at legendary New York venues like CBGB, as a masterful drummer with taste and chops, not to mention a stylish mod look. And he remains the perfect drummer for a band that has consistently tested the parameters of what a three-minute pop song should be. “We never had any tunnel vision,” Burke says. “That’s what made us—and my drumming, I guess—unique. All those influences—disco and reggae and rap, things like Can and Kraftwerk—came out of the urban environment that we existed in. In New York City, a lot of stuff came over from the U.K. and Europe. Those influences were seeping in.”
Long before he was putting those inspirations to use on songs like “The Tide Is High,” “Heart of Glass,” “Rapture,” “Call Me,” “One Way or Another,” and “Atomic,” Burke, who was born on November 24, 1955, in Bayonne, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from where Blondie would make its bones in lower Manhattan, was cutting his teeth in the school band. Clem got his start in his grammar school’s orchestra doing whatever was required, from buzz rolls on concert snare to playing the crash cymbals on “Pomp and Circumstance.” He later joined a local drum corps, where he served as the rudimental bass drummer, picking up tricks he still employs to this day. “That’s where I got a lot of my chops from,” Burke says. “It’s pretty arduous—marching and playing all the rudiments on a bass drum and all that show stuff that a rudimental bass drummer does. I still use all those rudiments to warm up. It syncs your brain with your hands, which is the idea.”
Burke was also doing what countless other kids in America were doing in the ’60s after the Beatles’ generation-defining performance on Ed Sullivan—playing in rock bands. He notched his first rock gig at age thirteen with a group called Total Environment. By fourteen he had worked in a recording studio for the first time (tracking a cover of Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “Somethin’ Goin’ On”) and played Carnegie Hall, both part of a contest with New York City radio legend “Cousin” Brucie Morrow.
In the early ’70s Burke made the move across the river and was gigging with a glam-rock band on the same circuit as two of his future Blondie bandmates, singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein. Inspired in equal parts by the drummers of his youth, including Hal Blaine, Dino Danelli, Keith Moon, Earl Palmer, and Ringo Starr, and contemporaries like David Bowie’s Woody Woodmansey and fellow Lower East Sider Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls, Burke arrived in Blondie in 1974 as a young yet seasoned player who saw himself as a perfect fit for Harry and Stein’s classic pop sensibilities. “Being influenced by Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer helped me interpret the early Blondie material,” Burke explains, “because I could hear the girl-group overtones and the ’50s and ’60s pop overtones. I tried to incorporate all of that into my sound. It’s stuff that was kind of forgotten by that time but was very influential for me.”
Blondie released its first album in 1976 and within a few years had achieved mass critical and commercial success with songs that appealed to the rock, pop, and new-wave crowds. While “Disco sucks!” became the mantra of many rockers in the late ’70s, Blondie embraced the form, with Burke even citing the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack as a big influence, especially on the hit “Heart of Glass.” And as peers from the CBGB days, like Talking Heads, Television, and the Ramones, were occupying distinct places among rock’s avant-garde with varying degrees of commercial success, Blondie was a cutting-edge hitmaker, owner of four number-one U.S. singles between 1979 and 1981.
That success wasn’t enough to keep Blondie together amid a disappointing reception to 1982’s The Hunter and internal turmoil, and the group disbanded in 1983. After a false start with the short-lived hard-rock band Chequered Past, Burke hit his stride as a versatile drummer for hire in the mid-’80s, playing with Pete Townshend on the Who guitarist’s White City solo album, recording and touring frequently with the Eurythmics, and even working with Bob Dylan. Blondie eventually reunited in 1999, and the band has been working relatively steadily since. Burke has maintained a busy schedule outside the group as well, playing with everyone from the Romantics to Nancy Sinatra to the Melvins and working to pursue connections between drumming and health with the Clem Burke Drumming Project. Well into his fifth decade as a working drummer, Burke has no intentions of slowing down.
“When Blondie ended in the ’80s, I didn’t really have a plan but to continue playing,” he says. “That’s always been my plan. Because of the success I’ve had with Blondie, I’m able to do stuff for the love of the music, the love of the project. I just plan to keep on doing that.”