Interview: Clem Burke, Blondie.
Blondie are having a good day. It’s Debbie Harry’s 66th birthday – yes, you read that right – and the band have just got back to the hotel, after a day of recording at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios. “It was really exciting – we had a really good time”, says drummer Clem Burke, who is no stranger to the studios himself.
“I did a record there with Mark Owen from Take That”, he explains, as I try to mask my surprise. “When Take That broke up, Mark did a solo record, and I was part of his band. And last year, all our road crew wanted to get a tour of Abbey Road – so, I rang up and we went over. Especially coming from the States, it’s great to go into that studio. It’s not something that you do every day.”
Although Blondie’s latest album – Panic Of Girls, their third since the band reformed in 1996 – is now available for purchase in the usual formats, it actually made its UK debut on the magazine racks a month earlier.
“Future Publications, who do Classic Rock, came to us with the idea of doing a complete Blondie magazine. It’s something that the fans have been waiting for, for a long time. There are lots of new photos, there’s archival stuff, and you get the record. It’s a different way of getting our music out there. It’s not necessarily new media, but it worked. We’re very happy with it, and we had a good time putting it together. “
In musical terms, the new album – or the new record, as Clem prefers to call it (“by definition, it’s a record of a performance”) – doesn’t deviate too far from the classic, if eclectic, Blondie template. Front-loaded with an opening salvo of gutsy, uptempo power-pop numbers, including the recent single Mother, the album begins to stretch out stylistically from the fourth track, before winding down towards a more sedate conclusion, in what used to be known as “Side Two”.
“There are some really catchy pop songs on there”, says Clem, “and there are also more left-of-centre things. Debbie’s singing in Spanish, she’s singing in French, and this is the first time that we’ve recorded way more material than we needed to. We recorded about thirty songs. Some of them will probably see the light of day later on.”
It has been eight years since the last record, but the band weren’t about to be rushed. “We completed the album more than a year ago, but we had a problem finding a proper way to release it. We wanted to do something special. Then when the fan pack came up, it seemed like a good way to launch it.”
Up until now, with just one exception – the glossy Autoamerican, which was recorded in Los Angeles in 1980 – all Blondie’s albums have been made in central Manhattan. For Panic Of Girls, the band shifted upstate to Woodstock, but the untypically rural location has had no discernible impact on their characteristically urban sound. Perhaps more surprisingly, the departure of keyboardist Jimmy Destri, who had been with the band since their very earliest days, has been seamlessly absorbed – even though this reduces the core of Blondie to just three founder members: Debbie, Clem, 56, and guitarist Chris Stein, 61.
“It’s definitely affected the dynamic”, Clem admits, while carefully sidestepping any discussion of the precise circumstances of Destri’s departure.
“I particularly miss Jimmy’s input with the writing. I don’t really know what happened with Jimmy. I thought he was going to participate in this record, in some way, shape or form, but at the end of the day he didn’t.”
On stage and in the studio, the founding trio are joined by three newer recruits – although bassist Leigh Foxx, who has been with the band since 1996, has become a familiar face to most fans. Guitarist Tommy Kessler joined last year, while Destri’s replacement on keyboards, Matt Katz-Bohen, picks up three co-songwriting credits on the new album.
Blondie have always been fond of adding covers to their original compositions, and Panic Of Girls sports a couple of unlikely additions, both rendered in a light reggae style. At Chris Stein’s suggestion, the band has tackled Sunday Smile, an album cut by Zach Condon’s critically acclaimed indie-folk outfit, Beirut. A couple of tracks earlier, Sophia George’s glorious Girlie Girlie – a UK top ten hit from 1985 – is given the full “Tide Is High” treatment, giving Debbie the chance to dabble with cheeky excursions into patois. As for the live set list, recent Blondie covers have ranged from a surprisingly successful reworking of Taio Cruz’s Break Your Heart, to a spirited thrash through The Damned’s New Rose.
The inclusion of New Rose – the first ever British punk single – is a direct reminder that, for all their later mainstream pop success, Blondie’s roots lie in the punk rock scene of mid-Seventies New York City, when they were one of a gang of bands who hung out at the tiny, grubby CBGB’s club in downtown Manhattan. The scene emerged as a reaction to the perceived excesses of the superstar rock elite that went before it, and it noisily espoused a defiantly grassroots, anti-star ethos. So when pop stardom happened for Blondie, did this cause any anguished ideological soul-searching?
“Well, we always wanted to be popular”, says Clem. “We always wanted to be on the radio. Of the music that we were influenced by, a lot of it was not considered to be cool – whether it be bubblegum music, or disco music. But people forget how subversive disco music was, when it first began. It was an underground phenomenon, in the gay clubs of New York. It was just as subversive as so-called punk rock.”
“I don’t think anybody considered themselves to be punks until the genre phrase was coined. Of course, there was punk rock in the Sixties: American garage bands like The Seeds or The Standells. But really, CBGB’s was all about a bunch of beatniks; musicians who were just trying to think outside the box a little bit.”
“We never wanted to be an underground band”, he continues, warming to his theme. “CBGB’s was like a workshop, where we were able to make our mistakes in public, influenced by bands like Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads, who were there at the same time. They actually contributed to the sound of the band, and vice versa. I think all those bands fed off each other.”
“To me, punk rock is a specific kind of music, with very loud guitars and Iggy and the Stooges influences. We loved all that, but that was only one facet of what Blondie was. We never really had a problem with the success. I think a few people were a little overawed by the success, and I also think the fact that Debbie was a woman kind of made it a little different for the guys in the band. “
“I think if she had been a man – if she was, say, Mick Jagger instead of Debbie Harry – it would have reflected differently upon the other guys in the band. But because she was such a gorgeous, beautiful, charismatic woman, it made for people going: oh, she’s the star, she’s the band. And she’d be the first person to say that was never really the case.”
One of Blondie’s great achievements was that their pop success was created and maintained largely on their own terms. Compared to most of today’s pop acts, they were given a remarkable amount of creative freedom. Nevertheless, their relationship with the music industry wasn’t entirely free from conflict. Clem remembers one moment in particular.
“The Autoamerican record had Rapture and The Tide Is High on it – but when we delivered it to the record company, the first thing they said was that there were no hits on the record. Most people didn’t know what rap music was, and things like doing reggae covers didn’t really line up with most people at record companies.”
“I think it’s to our credit that we pushed along the evolution of what pop music was. But we were never dictated to, and we never had stylists – although we had producers, and we worked hand in hand with people like Mike Chapman and Richard Gottehrer. But we actually did it on our own terms. Debbie certainly did whatever she wanted to do, as we all did. It wasn’t really pre-planned.”
Blondie might have embraced their success, but their commercial highpoint wasn’t necessarily the happiest period for the band members in personal terms.
“Well, it was a whirlwind – and it has been well documented that certain people were on too many drugs, and things like that. For me, the whole Blondie experience has been bittersweet in a lot of ways. From 1980 to 1982, which was a real height of success, when Rapture was a big hit around the world, we never really performed live, which I definitely regret not doing.”
In that case, were Blondie tiring of life at the top? Was there a feeling that they needed to step off the treadmill?
“Personally, no. Everybody dealt with success in their own way. Obviously I wasn’t in the limelight as much as Debbie was. It wasn’t planned as well as it could have been: when to take breaks and when to work, and things like that. But I’m a rock and roll fan and I love performing. We all do. If we didn’t now, we wouldn’t be doing it to the extent that we do it. But back then, it was a little different.”
Blondie Mark Two has now been together for considerably longer than Blondie Mark One, so why has Blondie Mark Two lasted so long? According to Clem, “it’s a different kind of success”, fuelled by the rise of new media in general, and YouTube in particular.
“YouTube gives us a longevity that’s unbelievable. You’d do some TV show in Berlin in 1978, and you never expected that you’d ever see it again. Now that everything’s on YouTube, younger audiences can go back and research a band, and see what we were about in our heyday. We had a very high profile back then, with video and things like that, and we did a lot of television. So that enables us to continue. I think that’s one aspect of the success that we have today. And, you know, we’re enjoying it! As a musician, you’re always learning. We’re all interested in the creative process, and that helps us to continue.”
Four years from now, the seemingly ageless Debbie Harry will reach her seventieth birthday. Does this impending “senior citizen” status put a time limit on Blondie, or will the band carry on rocking into their dotage?
“It’s not going to stop right now”, affirms Clem. “We’re already planning another record, and we’re not going to stop any time soon. But inevitably, we will stop before we drop.”
On the evidence of last Sunday’s rapturously received performance at London’s Lovebox festival (a greatest hits set, with two new songs and a riotous cover of an Eighties rap-rock classic), Blondie are in no imminent danger of either stopping, or dropping.