Blondie - Still Keeping Beat

With the world’s most formidable blonde, Debbie Harry, in the lead, Blondie have often been mistaken for being a one-woman show. The tom rolls in the band’s classic 'Heart Of Glass' suggests otherwise.

Long serving drummer Clem Burke, whose beats are instrumental to Blondie’s sound and their success, talks about the band’s beginnings, hanging out with the likes of Joey Ramone and Andy Warhol, and what it’s like to be part of the “dysfunctional family” that is Blondie.

The Dwarf: The fascination with Blondie continues over time, and with it, an interest in the CBGB and New York City scene in the 70s and 80s. During that era, it seemed those who weren’t part of the punk scene knew very little about it, and those who were part of it, were keen to keep others out. What was it really like? Was it that exclusive, or was the artistic spirit of New York more accessible than it seemed?

Clem Burke: The original scene at CBGB consisted of no more then 100 people, most of them in bands. Exclusive? No. There was an artistic spirit among the bands and I think we all contributed to that, it was only later with record deals and money that things began to change, it became a little more business like.

In the early days, CBGB was more like a workshop, where there was a sounding board to make mistakes in front of an audience to find out what did and didn't work, for example a new song. I think with Blondie, we were influenced by all the original CB's bands: The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Heartbreakers, Patti Smith, and we still have what i would call "the CBGB sound" in parts of our music to this day.

I will forever be grateful to the owner of CBGB, Hilly Kristal, for letting us develop and grow; it was our cavern.

New York in the 70’s and 80’s – was it wilder and more unruly than the New York of today?

New York today is much more gentrified and user friendly in many ways, but also much more expensive to live in. It's obviously very tough for anyone living the life of an aspiring artist to get by, but music and art still thrive there and I'm sure, if you look in the right place, just as wild and free and crazy as ever with lots of dreamers following their dreams.

The CBGB’s era produced great artists – Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Television - but Blondie had the greatest commercial success. You were an anomaly of the punk and new wave era. How did your contemporaries receive you? Was there any animosity that you’d broken through to commercial success, when they hadn’t?

We always wanted to get played on the radio, to be heard by the general public. I feel as though we did this on our own terms. We didn't want to characterize our music as any one thing, we were always eclectic, unlike some of the other original CB's bands. We liked disco and top 40 - as it was called, music. We covered Johnny Cash and the Four Seasons. I love 60s bubblegum music like the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Ohio Express. So we were all over the place musically, and some of those things became hits, like 'In The Flesh', 'Denis' or 'Heart Of Glass'.

We liked the way The Beatles or David Bowie kept changing. That eclecticism worked to our advantage.

We followed our own path and had a lot of commercial success that eluded our contemporaries, so I suppose there must have been some envy, but also joy in the fact that we came from the same place and we showed what was possible.

Blondie would have slotted into a lot of different scenes back then: uptown, downtown, punk, rock, disco, hip hop, rich, poor, arty. Who did Blondie hang out with / socialize with at the time?

We hung with the other bands, people like Joey Ramone, Johnny Thunders, The Ramones' art director; Arturo Vega was a good friend to the band and let us rehearse in his loft space; Debbie and Chris hung with some early rappers from the South Bronx; artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, lunch with Andy Warhol; Alan Suicide was a friend. There were a lot of loft parties with all sorts of walks of life.

Blondie has had equals in the art, writing, photography and music worlds. Your friends included the likes of William Burroughs and Andy Warhol. That exposure to a greater community of artists – what has that influence been to your music?

NYC is a very stimulating place to be and its influences are vast. The friends and artists that live there have all had an influence on Blondie; someone like Warhol showed how you can have art and commerce come together. Burrough's books and the whole beat generation had a massive impact on the New York underground rock scene, in fact most of the early inhabitants of CBGB were more Beatniks than so-called punks.

I've always thought of us as a pop art band, not a pop band; Andy's collaboration with The Velvet Undergroud and Nico set the template.

Panic of Girls proved the bond between original members Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and yourself is still strong. What accounts for that bond?

We are a dysfunctional family with a lot of history between us. The three of us began the band together and the three of us remain; together we create the 'Blondie' sound.

Blondie are heading to our shores to play a number of shows, with special guests The Stranglers and The Saints:
- Derwent Entertainment Centre, Hobart, December 1
- Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, December 3
- Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre, Adelaide, December 4
- Enmore Theatre, Sydney, December 6
- Homebake Festival, Sydney, December 8
- Entertainment Centre, Townsville, December 10
- Brisbane Riverstage, Brisbane, December 13
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