Clem Burke

Dreaming Is Free:
Blondie Drummer Clem Burke Discusses The Split Squad, Super Groups, Ramones, David Bowie, and the Band That Made Him Famous

Clem Burke, a founding member of Blondie, is a very busy man.

One of the most respected and sought-after drummers working in rock ‘n’ roll, Burke fills any time available between his Blondie obligations by squeezing in a dizzying array of side projects. He works with artists as diverse as Nancy Sinatra and Iggy Pop, participates in annual tributes to The Ramones (for whom he was briefly a member), and records and tours with assortment of rock “super groups” including The Empty Hearts (with members of The Cars, The Romantics, and The Chesterfield Kings) as well as The Split Squad, with whom he will perform twice in Georgia this month.

“Today is my first day of trying to just do normal stuff, take care of some errands,” he says, speaking by cell phone from a noisy Northeastern coffee shop where the squeals of small children periodically punctuate our conversation. “It was quiet when I came in here,” he mutters apologetically.

“I’m just back from London, feeling a little jet-lagged. I was with Blondie in Australia, then we went to Germany and did some TV, and then we were in London for about 10 days. Tomorrow Blondie’s on Jimmy Fallon, and we’re trying to set up a songwriting session with The Empty Hearts. Then the Split Squad tour happens right before I go back to Europe with Blondie.”

The crunchy garage rock of The Split Squad is largely powered by the guitars of Keith Streng from The Fleshtones and Eddie Munoz of The Plimsouls; but Burke gives credit to bassist and bandleader Mike Giblin, who assembled The Squad six years ago, for keeping the ensemble “well organized and fun.” Their road trips – generally playing small halls such as The EARL and The 40 Watt Club – are a rare pleasure to which the drummer eagerly looks forward.

“The people in the band are my friends,” Burke asserts. “The whole bottom line for the Split Squad is we all just like to play music. Eddie Munoz and Keith Streng, I’ve known forever. I actually did some early recordings with Keith in The Fleshtones way back when, and I was in one version of The Plimsouls with Eddie, and did one album with them back in the ‘90s. I met Mike at South By Southwest when I was working with Cyril Jordan from The Flamin’ Groovies.”

A fifth Squad member, Josh Kantor from The Baseball Project, is unlikely to participate in the current tour due to obligations in Boston. “He’s the organist at Fenway Park, for the Red Sox,” Burke explains, adding that Kantor has been known to sneak a few bars from a Lou Reed song into his ballpark performances. “During the summertime he doesn’t generally come on tour, although he’s the type of person who, if he can make one or two shows, he’ll do it.

“We’re the kind of band that just sets up and starts playing. We’ve played in parking lots. We played during a festival in Paris in the storefront of a café, where half of us were inside the storefront and the other half were playing out in the street. And everybody played well! Mike’s a really great songwriter, and the collaborations are always good. I’m just really in The Split Squad as the drummer. Other than arranging, I don’t take much say in the songwriting because I’ve got so many other things going on.”

Burke admits that the long litany of rock supergroups to which he has belonged is “gettin’ a little crazy.” In addition to The Split Squad and The Empty Hearts, he has also hammered the hickories for The International Swingers (whose membership includes Glenn Matlock of The Sex Pistols), and long before that he founded Chequered Past (featuring another Pistol, Steve Jones). Asked if working with so many big personalities ever causes issues, he observes that age and life experience tend to mellow the participants. “I tend to think at this point in time people should be able to have their egos in check. There’s moments of course, but I think when you’re younger, you’re trying to become successful or famous, you have more of a gunslinger attitude about things. Especially guitar players. Drummers generally have to be team players. That’s one reason I play with so many different musicians, because I enjoy playing the drums. I enjoy the interaction.”

As his hero/role models, Burke cites two esteemed Wrecking Crew drummers, Hal Blaine (“He’s done everything from Pet Sounds to The Byrds”) and Earl Palmer. “Earl was a big inspiration to me, a New Orleans guy, a jazz musician who played with Fats Domino and Little Richard, Eddie Cochran. He’d play with Frank Sinatra, and then he’d play in a little restaurant bar for 50 people and not 5,000.”

The prominence of Burke’s role in Blondie has opened numerous doors. “I met Annie Lennox because she was a Blondie fan,” he says, recalling the period shortly after Lennox and her partner Dave Stewart disbanded The Tourists. “I was in a bar in London, and she came up to me and started talking about her and Dave putting a new band together.” Burke contributed drums to the debut album by Eurythmics, and shortly afterward was approached about joining The Ramones. He became the first member of that group with a stage name that did not end in “y” or “e.”

“I didn’t really wanna be Clemmy Ramone. I had just finished working with the Eurythmics and I had my hair combed back in kind of a pompadour, so I came up with the name Elvis Ramone. I feel honored that I was able to become Elvis and break the mold of the Johnny-Joey-Dee-Dee thing. It really astonishes me how many people come up to me, wherever I go, and say, ‘You’re Elvis Ramone!’ I was only there for a couple weeks.”

Burke attributes the brevity of that tenure to a simple lack of proper rehearsal. “John Ramone refused to rehearse,” he explains. “He wanted it to be just automatic – like, a new drummer, and it’s all down. When I didn’t get to rehearse with them, it was a real trial by fire.”

The trial lasted for only two concerts (Burke dubs them “warmup gigs”) before Johnny pulled the plug. “What John didn’t like was that some things went a little awry in the gigs because there’s no room for improvisation. That’s also what I didn’t like, in the end, with The Ramones, because I really view a live performance as being different every time. When I first started working with them I was kinda thinking I would kinda expand their music a little bit. I think Joey was up for that, because he was a big Who fan, but obviously the Keith Moon style of drumming is not for The Ramones.”

Joey Ramone was among those who attended a 1973 David Bowie show at Carnegie Hall, an event Burke singles out as an important early confluence of future players in the CBGB scene. “Chris Stein and Debbie Harry were there,” he recalls. “Joey was there, Andy Warhol was there, but this was before that circle of people knew each other. That whole Ziggy Stardust thing, that was a major influence on me. Bowie changed my life.”

Burke would cross Bowie’s path again at New York’s Club 82 (“a place that doesn’t really get the recognition that it deserves”) located at 82 East 4th Street. “It was kinda like a gay dance club that one night a week would have rock ‘n’ roll, basically glam-rock. Wayne County would play there. The New York Dolls would play there. People that hung out there were, like, Lenny Kaye and Tommy Ramone. You’d see David Bowie and Lou Reed there sometimes on the rock nights.” (Burke’s sole quibble with recent HBO series Vinyl is that the actor portraying Bowie “had a little too much weight on his bones.”)

At Club 82 Burke “became semi-acquainted” with his future Blondie bandmates. “Debbie and Chris had a band called The Stillettoes, and I had Sweet Revenge, like a glam-rock band. I was 18 or something and we were trying to play in New York City. So, I met up with Debbie and Chris there.” When he later answered their ad in The Village Voice and went to audition at their studio, they did not even ask him to play. “We just talked.”

After Blondie bassist Fred Smith exited to join Television, Burke drafted his roommate Gary Valentine. Valentine co-wrote “X-Offender,” Blondie’s first single, based on his experience with an underage girlfriend. “Gary knew a few chords but he’d never played bass, so it was in the real true punk rock do-it-yourself tradition, and that’s how it all came together at the tail end of the glam rock scene.

“The template for Blondie’s new album, Pollinator, was really David Bowie. We recorded it at The Magic Shop, where he had been in seclusion for the last couple of years, recording. We started work there around Christmas 2015, and you could feel him in the studio. There was even a champagne bottle that had been signed by David, from David’s birthday the year before. When we took our Christmas break is when he died, and we were going back into the studio, and then it was . . . different, in a way . . . but very inspiring. It kinda informs a lot of the songs on Pollinator. An engineer who had been there the whole time told us about what David had been going through, with his chemo and everything. I think we were the last band to do a full project in the studio. It’s not there anymore, because they raised the rent to like $40,000 a month.”

The drummer finds Pollinator especially pleasing. “It’s a record I’d been hoping to make for a long time,” he explains, “where we got everyone in the studio together playing. The last couple of records were basically done on computer, kinda piecemeal, and not really with everyone in the studio, and the chemistry wasn’t there. Now, we’re finding initially with Pollinator that people are really accepting it.”

When asked what has changed the most in Blondie over the years, Burke quickly cites the loss of keyboardist Jimmy Destri, who wrote their 1999 comeback hit “Maria.” He also mentions a general acceptance of the band that was not present back in the day. “It’s so weird to have four number one records in the U.S., since we still kinda think of ourselves as a cult band. I don’t think Bruce Springsteen’s had four number one singles in the U.S.”

When asked what has changed the least, he immediately points to the friendship between the group’s survivors. “We all contributed to making Blondie what it is. Obviously, Debbie’s image is what got us a foot in the door, but we’re all a lot older now. Debbie’s still a beautiful woman but what has endured is the music. There was an aesthetic within all the members at the time, a common denominator, and we all still talk about it, about how the differences are what really makes Blondie the sound. In the early days I was into bubblegum music and wouldn’t necessarily come up with something like ‘Rapture,’ but Chris and Debbie were going to the South Bronx. We were influenced by all our contemporaries back in the day, so that’s in the sound of the band. I’d call it the CBGB sound.

“Blondie takes precedence but in the meantime I keep playing with other groups, so when the time comes to record an album or to go on tour with Blondie, it’s not like I’ve been sittin’ home watchin’ TV. I’m in the process all the time.

“Also,” he chuckles, “no-one can refute you when you come in and say, ‘Oh, I just played a session with Bob Dylan.’ It kinda makes me look good.”

Clem Burke performs with The Split Squad at The EARL on June 8th and at the 40 Watt Club on June 9th. He returns with Blondie to Chastain Park Amphitheatre on August 6th.