Clem Burke, (seen here on the left), drummer with Blondie, chats with Kevin Cooper about appearing on the Ken Dodd show, working with Glen Matlock, Blondie’s latest album Pollinator and their forthcoming tour of the UK.

Clem Burke, best known for being the drummer with 70s band Blondie was one of the founding members after he was recruited by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein when they first formed in 1974. He was a key figure in keeping the band together after Stein and Harry considered disbanding the band following the departure of their original bassist. The band continued until 1982 after having such hits as Call Me, Rapture, and Heart Of Glass.

Blondie broke up after the release of their sixth studio album, The Hunter in 1982, but the band reformed in 1997 with renewed success and a number one single in the UK with Maria in 1999, exactly twenty years after their first UK number one single, Heart Of Glass.

The group toured and performed throughout the world during the following years and was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2006. They have recently released their eleventh studio album, Pollinator.

In 2008 it was reported that Burke had taken part in an eight year study that analysed the physical and psychological effects of drumming and the stamina required by professional drummers, conducted jointly by the University of Gloucestershire and the University of Chichester. In July 2011 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Gloucestershire, as a result of his drumming project.

Whilst busy rehearsing and getting ready to tour the UK, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Clem good morning, how are you?

Hi Kevin I’m very well thanks how are you today?

I’m good thank you and just how are you enjoying your time up there in Edinburgh?

Well I have to say that things are good, the sun is shining and it is a beautiful day.

Well let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

That’s fine Kevin, thanks for your interest in what Blondie are currently doing. We are trying to let people know all about our forthcoming gigs here in the UK and we are still trying to get more people to hear the Pollinator album, you know, those who haven’t heard it yet.

On the subject of the Pollinator album, are you happy with the reaction that it has received?

Yes we are, we really are. We are all really proud of the album and totally happy with it. It’s great that the people are really enjoying all of the songs from the album in context with the hits that we are doing at the Blondie concerts. Hopefully, more people will get to hear it but it does seem to be getting a great reception.

Well I have to tell you that you have made me feel old today (laughter).

Really, tell me just why that is (laughter).

Well I personally feel that Maria is one of the best comeback singles ever…

(Laughter) well I would have to agree with you on that. I thought that record was really great. So what is the problem?

Well the problem is that when I looked at the single I realised that it was eighteen years ago now (laughter). Where did that time go?

I know, it is so hard to believe really. Chris (Stein), Debbie (Harry) and I have been together longer this time around than we were the first time around. This business is so unpredictable and I really don’t think that any of us ever thought that we would still be doing this at this moment in time. However, I have to say that it is really great; it is really rewarding and it has made everyone’s lives a lot better over the course of this past eighteen years, it’s great. But yes, I agree, it’s hard to believe that Maria was released eighteen years ago.

Do you still enjoy playing here in the UK?

It’s an absolute blast. We always love playing over here in the UK and we have in fact played at the Royal Concert Hall down there in Nottingham a few times now. I’m sure that the audience there will really enjoy the gig. The songs from Pollinator have been going down really well together with all of the Blondie songs that you would expect to hear which are all included in the set. We do tend to switch things around a little bit as the tour progresses simply because we do have an amazing catalogue of songs now. Having said that we can’t play everything all of the time but hopefully people will hear what they came to hear especially the songs off the new record.

I see that you invited a few outside writers to work with you on the Pollinator album. How did that workout?

Firstly I am glad that you have noticed that because it is not something that Blondie have done too often in the past; Debbie and Chris will usually take care of the lion’s share of the writing. However, as you rightly point out with Pollinator there are a lot of outside writers on the album. I feel that by doing that it gave the band some new objectivity within the recording process. Also Blondie have a history of doing cover songs that have been hits; Hanging On The Telephone (The Nerves), Denis (Randy & The Rainbows), and The Tide Is High (The Paragons). Blondie seem to have a knack of taking other people’s material and making it our own. That is what we have done with this album, although there are four or five songs on the album from within the band as well.

I have been playing the album for a few days now and I have to say that, for me, the opening track Doom Or Destroy grabs you and takes you on a journey. Would you agree with that?

Yes I would, I would absolutely agree with you on that and I would have to say that Pollinator is very much an album. The album is not just about one or two songs. We spent a hell of a lot of time sequencing it, plus we also had a few friends play on it too, the likes of Joan Jett who has been a friend of the band for many years now, Laurie Anderson and John Roberts. Just make sure that you listen to the hidden track on the CD, which I have to say is something special. It is Blondie paying homage to The Velvet Underground and without giving too much away Laurie plays the violin on that track. So yes it is definitely an album which you can listen to from the beginning to the end. People are saying that they don’t want to fast forward so that is good to hear.

A lot of Blondie fans are saying that Pollinator is your best work to date. Would you agree with that?

I personally feel that it might be the best Blondie album since the 1999 No Exit album. I think that it is very reminiscent of the classic Blondie sound and there are a lot of reasons for that. The chemistry of the band comes across. We all went into the studio together and recorded the basic tracks together which is very much an old school way of doing it. These things do tend to come full cycle if you wait long enough (laughter). We were finding that with the last couple of albums that we recorded that they were becoming more computer generated and computer programmed and so personally for me I have been waiting to record an album like Pollinator for years. But what we did find was that the songs were there and when we went to reinterpret the songs live with the band the songs were coming across more fully formed I think.

The interesting thing is that people were far more receptive to the songs in a live performance than they were to the record. So we wanted to make sure this time that we were all in the studio together most of the time and that we were recording the songs together. Of course there are studio elements added later on with mixing and all of that kind of stuff that goes into making an album but essentially the basic tracks were there. The songs were there well before the studio trickery so for me the album is very reminiscent of Parallel Lines in a lot of ways. There are a lot of diverse elements on the record together with different types of songs, but there is a cohesive Blondie sound at the same time. So in answer to your question I actually wouldn’t dispute that.

The first five Blondie albums are in my opinion pretty classic, but being the artist I am never satisfied. I have to say that you simply never know just how a new album is going to be accepted. You just have to try to do the best that you can and remember that it is really about enjoying it. So I would have to say that Pollinator is the best Blondie album since No Exit for sure. I will go with that, not the best ever but the best since No Exit. Blondie fans have been patiently waiting for an album like Pollinator and I think that they are all really happy with it but as I have said we want other people to hear it as well. What you have to remember is that these are very different times now in general.

You mentioned enjoying it, so are you still enjoying doing it?

Yes I do, I really do. I don’t think that any of us would be doing this now if we didn’t enjoy doing it. We have just completed a seven week tour back in the States. Prior to that we were on tour in Australia and back in May we had an amazing gig here in London at The Roundhouse when the Pollinator album first came out. We also got to play at the Olympia in Paris which was a truly amazing gig. We did a handful of shows here in the UK and we are coming back to play at the Radio 2 show in Hyde Park. It’s been really good; it has been a good run for us.

So as well as the enjoyment factor just what is it that keeps Blondie going?

(Laughter) that’s a good question. Well from my personal point of view the muse for me is really the new music, it always was, even back in the beginning of our resurgence. We didn’t really want to just sit back and release a greatest hits album, so we recorded the No Exit album which featured Maria and all that stuff. That was what really gave us the reason to carry on. That has always been the brief; we just happened to make a handful of new albums along the way.

You have released Pollinator on cassette; all that I have to say is why?

(Laughter) yes you are correct, Pollinator is in fact available on a limited edition cassette, I have a few. What can I say, cassette or vinyl I think that releasing your album on either of those formats makes things a little different don’t you think. I think that it is because you are physically able to hold something in your hand. I think that is an important factor to a lot of people. What you have to remember is that there are all manner of formats of music now and they are all totally acceptable.

Have you embraced the internet?

Yes I have, I think that in this day and age in order to survive in the music business you have to. The convenience of the internet has been a great tool for us because people are now able to connect the dots. I have recently seen a poster for the comedian Ken Dodd and it reminded me of the first time that we appeared on UK television. You may not know this but Blondie actually appeared on The Ken Dodd Show back in the 70s (laughter). I never really thought that I would be able to ever see that again but I can pull it up on YouTube. So as you can see the internet helps the younger fans to see what the band was about back in the day and the fact that we are still viable, making good music, playing great concerts and the fact that they are able to come along and witness it for themselves.

The internet really helps us, it allows people to understand where the band first started and where it was coming from. I personally find the internet a big plus. Our whole professional lives are out there on the internet which makes things kind of interesting. People are constantly finding old photographs and posting them on the internet which does get a little strange every once in a while but basically I have to admit that I find the internet to be a really good thing.

The only drawback with the internet is that the rather embarrassing moments tend to have a habit of coming back and biting you on the bottom.

(Laughter) yes they do but I have to say that those are few and far between with Blondie. However, we were all very young; I was eighteen when we first started the band.

Have you enjoyed the ride?

Yes I have, I really have, and it’s been a great trip. Being in Blondie has opened up so many other doors for all of us. It has allowed me to do a lot of other things along the way. It has allowed Debbie to move into acting, Chris to become an established producer together with his photography and it has also allowed me to work with some wonderful people including The Eurythmics, Bob Dylan, Wanda Jackson, Nancy Sinatra, Earl Slick, Glen Matlock and Iggy Pop. All of this starts with the success of Blondie so it’s been good for all of us.

You mention Glen Matlock, I was recently speaking to Glen who told me that he loves the time that you guys get to spend together especially when you were performing as The International Swingers.

Doing that really brings you back to the reason why you became a musician and why you started a band. It brings home the comradery, the friendship, the creative give and take, the spontaneity of performance; it all comes into play and solidifies your relationship and friendship. I like to think that ninety-nine percent of the people that I have worked with over the years are now my friends. Glen is a great guy, he is a great songwriter; we have known each other since way back in the 70s, we have always kept in touch, and I played a couple of his solo gigs that he was doing. I remember the one that he did down in Southend being great fun.

Does touring still excite you?

Yes, in fact I would say that the live performance is my favourite part of my job. I love the spontaneity, the fact that anything could happen during a performance. With Blondie there are a few things within the set that are programmed but there is still a hell of a lot of interplay between the musicians. I like to think that we don’t play exactly the same thing twice. It is all about the x factor within a live performance. It is always good to be rested, sleep is really important whenever you are on tour, you really do need to show the rest of the band that you have rested enough. As long as I am feeling happy and fit I love being on tour and I love performing.

On the subject of rest between shows, tell me about your Clem Burke Drumming Project?

The drumming project has been ongoing for a number of years now and it was setup in an attempt to analyse the physical and psychological effects of drumming together with the stamina required by professional drummers. There is a lot more to it than just having a beer and walking out onto the stage especially as you get a bit older (laughter). But that is true of anyone who is aging, you really do have to take care of yourself.

In July 2011 you received an honorary doctorate from the University Of Gloucestershire as a result of the drumming project. How did that feel?

That was so nice, it was a great day all-round together with being, for me at least, a fun experience. It was an experience that I don’t suppose I will ever be a part of again.

Do you ever think about retiring?

I really do love playing music and so I never really think about retiring particularly. It is something that I really should think of but at the moment I think that the three of us, Chris, Debbie and I realise that we are fortunate to be able to keep doing this, and we enjoy it and it is cool playing, it really isn’t working, it is just playing.

Who has musically influenced you?

I would firstly have to say The Beatles. They were a massive influence on everyone who either heard them or saw them. Basically the Beatles enlightened everyone in the USA about the real roots of rock and roll which obviously included the likes of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, all of those people are still very influential to me. Then I would have to mention the whole British Invasion, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, and then of course David (Bowie) who was probably one of the biggest influences on everyone who was in Blondie. I would also have to mention The Velvet Underground together with the girl groups such as The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las.

Then as we come forward into modern music Kraftwerk were a big influence on Heart Of Glass, at that point we really thought that we were being experimental. I later got to work with Kraftwerk’s German producer Conny Plank when he was producing The Eurythmics and he really made a point of telling me how much he enjoyed Heart Of Glass and hearing the electronic influence because it was very early on that we recorded that with the drum machine and all those kind of things. Modern day influences; I am currently listening to the last Ray Davies album called Americana. It is a great record and Blondie got to tour with The Kinks over in the States, and touring with The Kinks, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and people like that, just being around such creative geniuses you really do pick up on a few things.

There are a lot of influences; people like Hal Blaine, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, and Earl Palmer are major drumming influences. I can remember Hal from back in the 60s when he was working with The Wrecking Crew and Earl working with Little Richard and Fats Domino. People like that are major musical influences on me, even today.

You mention Ringo (Starr) as do many drummers who I get to speak to. What I personally find disappointing is that even now a lot of the British public still see Ringo as a bit of a joke.

I know what you are saying but if you are a musician then you really do understand just what Ringo did for The Beatles. You then start to fully understand just what Ringo’s contribution to The Beatles was. What you have to remember is that The Beatles are perceived in a totally different light over here in the UK than they are in the States. They really were the boys next door, and I have to say that Ringo is a truly great musician. It all starts with him together with the people who he was influenced by, people like Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer. The roots of rock and roll are really what formed The Beatles and then that informed the generation that came next.

That was a big contribution which somehow tends to be overlooked in the UK. The Beatles really took music back to the Americans. Both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles really helped out a lot of artists who were not doing that great, after their initial success, simply by covering and recording their songs. The Beatles really were at the top of a musical food chain. Ringo cannot be underestimated at all.

You have mentioned some of the people who you have previously worked with. Is there anyone left who you would like to get together and do something with?

Unfortunately my answer to that has always been Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but now we are just down to Little Richard. On the other hand I would love to just sit down with Bruce (Springsteen) and play a whole load of old rock and roll songs. I really do love what Little Richard has done but it is hard to say, you have to wonder if he will ever perform live again. But yes, people like that would be my ideal artist to work with. I think that Noel Gallagher is great. A friend of mine, David Holmes has produced Noel’s new album and I have to say that I think that the stuff that he has done as a solo artist after leaving Oasis is really great. I was a big fan of Oasis, but I’m not really sure what is happening with Liam but Noel is a pretty amazing songwriter.

Who would you pay to go and see performing live?

(Laughter) are you trying to tell me that I am tight (laughter). I actually pay to go and see many people although I have to be honest with you and say that I do like to be able to put in a request for tickets but I honestly do not mind paying to see people. I would certainly pay to see Bruce (Springsteen), Bob (Dylan), but being honest with you there are not that many things I like to go out and see in clubs anymore. I’m sure that there are things but it’s hard as you get a bit older; it is hard to find out what is happening and what is under the surface but once in a while I will get to see something really good. Having said all of that I do feel very strongly that everyone needs to support live music. That is really important.

If I had to push you what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

There have been a lot of things but I think that when Maria was released and went on to be such a big hit, that really was a major highlight because it was a new beginning. That really gave us a new lease on things. But there have been a lot of things, when we first played Top Of The Pops for example, that was a big moment for me. To be honest and going all the way back to the beginning, getting our first record deal was a major highlight. Nowadays the goalpost changes, but for us getting our very first record deal and going into the studio was a major highlight right from the very beginning.

What was the first record that you bought?

I didn’t buy it but the first record that my mom bought me was I Want To Hold Your Hand backed by I Saw Her Standing There by The Beatles. It was great seeing the four of them on the cover in their collarless jackets. I Want To Hold Your Hand was really the introduction to The Beatles for a lot of people.

Who did you first see playing live in concert?

That would have been a band called Vanilla Fudge. Their drummer and vocalist Carmine Appice was a massive influence on John Bonham which was acknowledged by Bonham himself. I saw a lot of shows back in the day and I used to go to the Fillmore East on Second Avenue near East 6th Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City quite a lot when I was a teenager. I would skip school on a regular basis in order to go over there to buy tickets for gigs.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

(Laughter) oh gee I don’t know. It would most probably have been when I was listening to Johnny B. Goode the day that Chuck Berry died. All that I can say is that there is definitely a lot of emotion in music, that’s for sure. That is one of the things about music, its cathartic.

On that note Clem let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been great. I hope to catch up with you here in Nottingham.

Thanks Kevin and yes I hope to see you at the gig up there in Nottingham. Bye for now.