A maiden show for a veteran band

Jews are clueless about Christian groups.

Blondie 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Blondie 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Clem Burke never really had to worry too much about what he was going to do when Blondie broke up in 1982. He still had his drumsticks. The propulsive percussionist and cofounder of the late '70s New York punk/new wave upstarts turned international pop/disco stars simply went on keeping the beat. "I was still quite young when the band stopped working, and I was lucky that I knew a lot of people," the 53-year-old Burke told The Jerusalem Post in a phone conversation from Massachusetts, where the band, reunited since 1998, is touring in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of their most successful album, Parallel Lines. "Knowing a lot of people" is somewhat of an understatement, as Burke quickly became an in-demand drummer for everyone from Bob Dylan and Eurythmics (with whom he performed in Israel in the late 1980s) to The Romantics, Iggy Pop and The Sex Pistols' Steve Jones. But he never put Blondie too far out of his mind. "I always thought that the band would get back together some day, there was some unfinished business. And the sound and its influence has lived on - the whole sort of Blondie sound is still relevant," he said, citing latter-day bands like Garbage and No Doubt as utilizing the same tough pop-sound-fronted-by-alluring-female-lead-singer matrix. Fronted by Debbie Harry, one of the few bona fide rock and roll sex symbols of the punk/new wave era, Blondie became one of the few bands, along with Talking Heads, that evolved out of the CBGB's / Max's Kansas City club scene to achieve mainstream commercial success, hit albums and singles, induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and international renown. While some mistook the band as a solo effort by Harry (Blondie) with a backing group, guitarist Chris Stein (Harry's paramour), keyboardist Jimmy Destri and Burke were really the driving forces behind their early spunky sound, which combined a black leather image with seductive '60s vocal stylings copped from The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las, and an organ-driven garage rock sound. "CBGB's wasn't really a punk scene, we never called ourselves punk. It was more of a Bohemian scene. Most of us - like The Ramones - grew up with '60s commercial rock radio - where you would hear Frank Sinatra next to The Supremes next to The Stones," said Burke. "As artists, we were lucky to have that shared experience with so many talented friends and colleagues like Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith. I think you can still hear that whole spectrum of music which came of that nurturing environment, which didn't force you into a category. It wasn't one sound or a distinct style. It was more a workshop, where everyone was able to learn to make music in public. It was trial and error, really." THE PROCESS worked for Blondie, because after two moderately received albums in the late 1970s, they were primed to make the leap into household-name status. Hiring hit-making producer Mike Chapman, the band streamlined its sound on 1978's landmark Parallel Lines and, while still rocking out on tracks like "Hanging on the Telephone" and "One Way or Another," they introduced elements of disco and dance music to the mix, especially on the throbbing "Heart of Glass," their first million seller. While some punk purists considered it an anathema, Burke found "Heart of Glass" and the crisper radio-friendly sound a natural progression which didn't contradict the band's underground roots. "We didn't set out to make a deliberate commercial record. Back in those days of vinyl, you used to put your best chances for a hit single at the beginning of the album, so the radio programmer would hear it first when he checked out the album. I think that 'Heart of Glass' was third from the end, kind of buried. We really thought of it as more of an experiment," he said, adding that the inspiration for the beat came from the German art rock group Kraftwerk and The Bee Gees' hit of the time "Stayin' Alive." "Dance music was always part of the scene around us. Back when we were playing at CBGB's, Studio 54 was happening at the same time. And in the rock clubs in between sets, the music that was usually played on the sound system was dance music. So it was natural that we would work that into our sound," he said. Eventually, the band began taking the disco approach to the extreme with the Giorgio Moroder-produced "Call Me," and despite rising record sales, an increasing lack of musical direction along with acrimonious personnel changes and a potentially life-threatening sickness developed by Stein in the early 1980s ended Blondie's reign at the top. FAST FORWARD 14 years; fully recovered from his illness, Stein began the process of reuniting Blondie in 1996, but without original members Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison. An international tour and a new album called No Exit resulted, along with an unexpected hit single, "Maria." "The only thing I was adamant about was going back out with a new record, and not just doing it for nostalgia's sake," said Burke, adding "Money was obviously a factor in reforming, but not the primary one." However, nostalgia plays a big part in the band's current tour, which brings them to the Ra'anana amphitheater on July 3rd in a double bill with British survivors from the same punk era, The Stranglers. The band is playing the complete Parallel Lines album from start to finish, followed by a selection of various hits from their different eras. According to Burke, playing the album in its entirety has been an eye-opener for him, Stein and Harry, the only original members of the band still on tour. "We had to learn a lot of those songs - I couldn't even have told you the sequence if you had asked me - but fans of that record are saying they're enjoying hearing it in order live for the first time," he said. "There are some great songs on there that we haven't played in years, so it's been lots of fun." Burke added that the band had a strong affection for the album, which, in essence, is the reason they're still around today. "Parallel Lines was a different record for us. So we attach some significance to it, it was our breakthrough record, and enabled to reach the next level. We were planning on going on tour this summer anyway, and it made sense to tie it into the 30th anniversary of the album," he said. While Burke isn't a newcomer to Israel, he's never played here before with Blondie. And after all the years of performing together, a maiden show for a veteran band is still a big thrill. "It's fun to go somewhere where the band has never played before. The combination of the history of the band and the fact that it's our debut makes it kind of fresh. "Debbie's singing great, and we're having so much fun. If it wasn't fun, we wouldn't be doing it," he said. With all the talk about anniversaries and looking back, Burke still has his eyes on the future, finding time to play in two other bands - Slinky Vagabond, featuring ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, and Magic Christians, headed by Cyril Jordan of Flamin' Groovies fame (best known for writing rock classic "Shake Some Action"). "Luckily, Blondie has become a nice home base which has subsidized the ups and downs of my own career," he said. "I feel like I always need to be creating, and as a drummer, I need to work with other people, I can't do it myself. So I end up in some really great situations."