The Best of Blondie: The pioneering rock band comes to MASS MoCA

  • Debbie Harry in sunglasses, late 1970s. © Chris Stein, Chris Stein/Negative, Rizzoli New York, 2014

  • Debbie Harry, circa 1978, during the video shoot for “Picture This.” © Chris Stein, Chris Stein/Negative, Rizzoli New York, 2014

  • Blondie is coming to MASS MoCA August 3. Photo by Alexander Thompson.

  • Blondie. Photo by Guy Furrow

  • Blondie’s latest album, “Pollinator.”  

  • Drummer Clem Burke. Photo by Colin McMahon

  • And the Kids. Courtesy of the artist

Published: 7/27/2018 9:02:20 AM

For countless music fans who came of age in the 1970s, the name Blondie conjures up images of Debbie Harry, the iconic frontwoman of the boundary-breaking rock band that itself came of age in the 1970s in New York City, with shows at CBGB and hits like “Call Me,” “Heart of Glass” and “Rapture.” And while Harry is Blondie’s most famous face, the whole band — currently comprised of guitarist and co-writer Chris Stein, drummer Clem Burke, bassist Leigh Foxx, guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen — has a long and legendary history.

As a group, they’ve survived drug use, money woes, internal feuding, and illness. They’ve weathered breakups and makeups. In 2006, Blondie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Their most recent album, “Pollinator,” was chosen as one of Rolling Stone’s 20 Best Pop Albums of 2017. 

And now, four decades since Blondie formed in 1974, the band’s original members are looking back at their legacy. Harry, Stein, and Burke are all at work on memoirs, in one form or another. We recently spoke with Burke, who was staying at Manhattan’s Roxy Hotel, about the “sport” of drumming, his status as the “Doctor of Rock,” and some of the band’s weirder gigs over the years. “We played a show in Monaco that was definitely not the norm — a special show for Cialis,” he says. Yes, that would be the erectile dysfunction drug.

Hampshire Life: How are you doing?

Clem Burke: I just got caught in a massive thunderstorm on the way back to the hotel. I was out running, so I just had my shorts on and a T-shirt… actually, it was kind of refreshing.

HL: I’m in Northampton, and we’re also having a massive storm. Have you been to western Massachusetts?

CB: Yeah, I have been. Well, the place we’re playing [MASS MoCA] is kind of like an arts complex. We just played in western Michigan, funny enough, at Interlochen Center for the Arts. So we’re looking forward to playing. We’re not really on tour, but we’re just having some fun this summer, in and out of different places. We played a birthday party the other day in East Hampton, New York. It was actually for the gentleman that “The Big Short,” the film, was based on.

HL: I love that movie. [In the 2015 film, Christian Bale plays eccentric hedge-fund manager Michael Burry.]

CB: We get some pretty interesting gigs. We’ve done all kinds of crazy things; it’s fun. We’re getting ready to make some new music and record some new stuff because we were really happy with the last album, “Pollinator.”

HL: I was just listening to it. It seems like you have several projects happening. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein both have books coming out, and I know you’re the subject of a new music documentary, “My View: Clem Burke.”

CB: “Yeah, it has a tentative release date for September in the U.K., [which is like] a second home to us. Based on the success and the notoriety of Blondie in the U.K., Sky Arts chose to do this documentary on me — it’s kind of like my own “Behind the Music.” I do a lot of different things, as we all do in Blondie; Chris has his photography, Debbie has her acting, and I have this band called The Empty Hearts, with Elliot Easton from the Cars and a few other people of known bands, and we just recorded a new record. Blondie’s like the home base. So, there’s a lot of different things going on. I’m really happy with the documentary. I let two of my close friends watch it, and I let my wife watch it before I did. They were all very complimentary, so I just said, “OK, fine, just sign off on it.’ I can’t really perseverate on it. We played in Hyde Park to about 75,000 people last summer, and then in between I was doing various different things — I went to Liverpool with a band that I play with, and I actually got a brick from the wall in front of the Cavern from John Lennon’s half sister, Julia. Then I did this T.Rex tribute. The film kind of bookends with two big sold-out shows in London last November with Blondie. For fans, it’s cool; it’s a little inside look into things, and a lot of big fans are in it.

HL: I’m looking forward to seeing it. You’ve been known to tell some great stories.

CB: Well, I’m really happy with how things worked out for the band and for myself; you know, we had that really big break. The legacy of the band is the music, obviously, and the band’s image, Debbie’s image, the whole synergy happening at CBGB in New York in the middle ’70s — that all propelled us, and then we kind of crashed for a while. Now we’re back together — Debbie, Chris and I — longer this time than the first time. I think it’s been like 18 years already now.

HL: You’re known as the Doctor of Rock. Tell us about the Clem Burke Drumming Project, which started 10 years ago in West Sussex, in Southeast England.

CB: This group of scientists at Chichester University, they wanted to do a comparison of sport and drumming, to make the analogy between the two. It was supposed to be just a one-off thing. The band stayed together for so long, they were able to do the study over a long period of time, and actually I wound up getting an honorary music doctorate for it.

HL: So they were studying the physicality of drumming?

CB: Yeah, the mental and physical aspects of it, the preparedness, the process as you age, your body. But now they’re heading into more stuff with the brain and doing studies on people with autism and incorporating drumming into it as a positive thing that people can do if you’re not particularly interested in sports. You’re using your mind and your body when you play a musical instrument, so the way the two come together is part of the study. It’s really academic; I mean, they did the same thing over and over on me, but I guess that’s what science is about — experimenting.

HL: What did they do to you?

CB: Well, when I did a performance, they would wire up my heart, do my oxygen levels, my blood levels, my heart rate and things like that. It’s analogous to boxing: A boxer goes in for a round for about three or four minutes; your heart rate obviously is going to drop when you’re sitting down, and it’s so intense when you’re in the ring. 

HL: Did you see the movie “Whiplash,” starring Miles Teller as a talented drummer and J.K. Simmons as his sadistic music teacher?

CB: Oh, yeah. J.K. Simmons lives in my neighborhood. He’s really great at playing a prick.

HL: Thoughts on legendary drummer Buddy Rich?

CB: Buddy was notorious for reprimanding his band members — there’s bootleg tapes of Buddy haranguing the guys in the band — that they didn’t play well, or “You have to shave your beard off,” or “I can get better musicians at a high school band rehearsal.” Good old Buddy-type stuff like that.

HL: Who are some drummers you really admire?

CB: Well, there were several, but a gentleman called Earl Palmer; I was friends with him the last 10 years of his life, more or less. He played with everyone from Little Richard and Fats Domino to Frank Sinatra and for Disney soundtracks. He and another guy called Hal Blaine, both of them, during the ’60s, they were kind of the preeminent session drummers out of L.A., and they were super influential but really not by name because they never really got credited. As a kid, that’s the music that I was being influenced by, and later on in life I got to meet those guys. It’s interesting, the history of what went on. I’m very into ’60s music, the roots of rock-and-roll. Blondie, we’re progressive. The music kind of comes together from everyone’s influence: Debbie’s influence, Chris’s influence, my influence. In the context of whoever wrote the song, everyone’s going to put their spin on it, which is what we did on the “Pollinator” album. We play four or five songs from “Pollinator” in the set, over the hour-and-a-half show.

HL: What else will you play?

CB: All the obvious hits. We had four Number One singles in the states, which is kind of crazy.

HL: “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me” …

CB: “The Tide is High” and “Rapture,” which are all very different from one another, by the way. 

HL: So those four songs, can they each be traced back to which band member influenced it?

CB: Chris was a big fan of R&B, and Debbie and Chris very early on had friends in the rap scene, in the South Bronx, and they experienced that firsthand. Back in the good old days, we used to do a lot of R&B covers in our own way. Especially when Debbie sings a song written from a male point of view and doesn’t really change the gender — she sings it as is — it really becomes something else. “Heart of Glass” kicked around for a while before it became what it is. I was really influenced by the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack for that song, and I know Debbie is very much into Donna Summer. With “The Tide is High,” once again, Chris found a very obscure song by The Paragons — that’s a cover. “Hanging on the Telephone” is another cover by a group called The Nerves — that was sent to us in a mixtape by the president of our fan club at the time, a guy called Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who became a singer in this group The Gun Club. “Call Me” was a collaboration with Giorgio Moroder; Debbie wrote the lyrics, and Giorgio Moroder, the producer, wrote the music. We don’t have one particular genre of music. In a way, it becomes “Blondie music,” which is what makes it original.

HL: I hear a lot about how Blondie pioneered rap music, which is kind of surprising.

CB: Yeah. We did a collaboration on the “No Exit” album with the members of the Wu Tang Clan, and they actually said the first rap song they ever heard was “Rapture,” interestingly enough. “Rapture” is really a song with a rap in it; it’s not particularly a rap song, which I think made it more innovative. I think of it as an R&B song with an actual rap in it. First, [rap] was just about a beat, and people reciting their words, their poetry, over it like the Last Poets, a group of black poets who were around in the ’60s. 

HL: Blondie is one of the biggest legacies in pop music, but another huge part of it is just the culture around the band, the fans.

CB: Yeah, well, Debbie’s image. It was somewhat of an antithesis because we were doing stuff on the Lower East Side and on the Bowery in the mid-’70s when it wasn’t a very glamorous place. I mean, it seemed glamorous to me in a lot of ways because of the history of the Bowery — Ginsberg and Burroughs and all that. But it was pretty down and dirty at the same time, and it was incongruous for Debbie to have such a glamorous image in the context of where we were performing, for instance. But that got our foot in the door.

HL: A pin-up beauty in a punk band — that was kind of shocking at the time, too.

CB: Yeah, Debbie sometimes would get overlooked for her musical abilities — her songwriting, her lyrics, her poetry — because of her having such a strong image. People always go for the obvious comparisons — the obvious blondes, the divas — and I think of Debbie much more like a David Bowie or a Jim Morrison, a bit more androgynous. That’s kind of contradictory to the way she was so beautiful, and so feminine, and also there’s a masculine side. But that’s true of most people.

HL: Now that a few of you are working on memoirs, how do you imagine your narratives will come together someday, 20 years from now? The story of Blondie will be refracted in all these different ways.

CB: It has crossed my mind, as I get older and as I observe the legacy of other bands — people like the Ramones who were bigger than ever posthumously, a real shame in that regard. When we were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and then we got a couple of awards out of the U.K. … you start adding all that stuff up, and it is quite a legacy. I mean, they asked Ringo Starr, ‘What do you think you’re going to be doing in five years?’ And he said, “Oh, I’m going to have a chain of beauty parlors. I’m not going to be a rock-and-roll musician. I’ll be 30; I’ll be way too old for that.” Rock-and-roll itself is beyond middle-aged now, and performers have aged with it. If anything, I really consider us to be a rock-and-roll band, with an amazing frontperson. 

HL: So about the first incarnation of the band, and then the break-up and getting back together. How long have you all known each other now?

CB: Well, I met Chris and Debbie when I was 18, and that was in, like, 1974 — well over 40 years that the three of us have known each other.

HL: How would you describe your relationship with them?  

CB: At this point in time, from my point of view, it’s dysfunctional. It’s a lot less dysfunctional than it was. Also, as normal or cliché as it may sound, I do think of them as my older brother and sister in a lot of ways. I was kind of the kid, and we all did grow up together. I learned a lot from them, and I think they learned a few things from me as well.

Blondie plays next Friday, August 3, at MASS MocA. Northampton natives And the Kids open the show. For concert tickets and more information, massmoca.org/event/blondie.


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