Earlier this year, British music magazine NME presented New York punk legends Blondie with its annual "Godlike Genius" award.
Formed in 1974, the band — made up from the beginning by singer Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke — is now celebrating its 40th birthday.
Known for the hits "Heart of Glass," "Call Me," "The Tide is High," and "Dreaming," their 2014 album Blondie 4(0) Ever, is a double album made of new material on Ghosts of Download, and a collection of re-recordings of Blondie's past hits.
Currently on a world tour, Blondie performs at the Pemberton Music Festival on Friday, July 18 (www.pembertonmusicfestival.com).
Burke spoke to Pique during the European leg of Blondie's 40th-Anniversary Tour, covering everything from The Beatles to Blondie's rumoured demise.
Pique: How is the tour going?
Clem Burke: We're in Cologne, Germany. We played in Hamburg yesterday, Berlin the day before. Hamburg is fantastic for me because of the early Beatles. We actually played at this venue called the Grosse Freiheit. The basement (of the building) is the Kaiserkeller, where The Beatles played frequently in their Hamburg days, where they played with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. They were using that for the catering room, so there was a lot of history there, and I was able to go round to other venues where they performed. For me, it was amazing... they were doing six shows a night, 12-hour shifts, six days a week. It's pretty amazing stuff.
Pique: How are you preparing for tonight's performance?
CB: It's 6 p.m. here and a beautiful evening. I spent a lot of time in Cologne in the '80s with The Eurythmics (Burke is a prolific drummer who also performed with The Ramones — as Elvis Ramone — as well as with Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop). We're on stage about 8:30 p.m., and we've done the sound check already.
We're trying to incorporate a lot of songs from the new album, Ghosts of Downloads, in our show and most of our well-known hit songs. The German audiences, the U.K., have always been really good for us.
Pique: Are they responding to the new music?
CB: They're liking it a lot. The songs have come a long way from the recordings, actually, because we've been playing them on and off for the last year. Live, the songs sit well with the basic set of the whole show.
The point for us to be making new music as artists is to try new things. I don't think anyone expects you to have success like we did with "Heart of Glass," but it's not about that. It's about making the music in order to stay relevant in your mind, more than anything else. When people like the new music, that's great.
Pique: Is the band still satisfied after 40 years? Do you feel the self-expression is still strong?
CB: Oh yeah, that's the driving force. When Blondie reunited in the middle '90s (the band broke up for much of the 1980s and '90s) the main agenda was making music and that resulted in "Maria," which was a worldwide hit, basically No. 1 in most countries, except for the U.S.
That's the driving force. We have the catalogue of songs that people know and love. It's a good balance for us.
Pique: How do you compare what you are creating now, what Chris is writing now, with your earlier music? Blondie started so explosively in the '70s.
CB: What we do now still has the roots of the Blondie sound. It kind of carries a torch for the old days. Interestingly, we just played in Bergen, Norway, with Television and the first tour we did was with Television — we've come full circle.
The 40th-anniversary thing is a kind of double-edged sword. It reminds everybody how old we are! (Burke laughs.) People are asking us if we have any regrets, or 'How do you see your legacy?' We brought it on ourselves by declaring it the 40th anniversary.
We are proud of the fact that we've been around for that long, but it kind of does your mind in a little bit once in a while. It only seems like yesterday.
Pique: In another interview, Chris talked about how Ghosts of Downloads is more electronic and computer based. What does that mean for you as a drummer?
CB: I recorded my drums and they're in the mix there somewhere. I prefer to record more organically.
I actually have a side project (a band) called The Empty Heart. We have a rock 'n' roll record that is coming out on August 5. It's with Elliot Easton of The Cars, Wally Palmar of The Romantics, Andy Babiuk of The Chesterfield Kings, and Ian McLagan of The Faces. We're really happy with that record in terms of it being an organic rock 'n' roll record.
I'm trying to coerce everyone to get into the studio with Blondie and record the way we did in the old days. Maybe we'll get to that sometime, but it's so tempting to use all the modern technology. We always were incorporating things, whether it be drum machines or synthesizers backing us. Back in time, when we did "Heart of Glass," that was with a drum machine. It was controversial at the time (both Stein and Harry have gone on record to say that Burke did not like "Heart of Glass" at first because it was a disco song). But they're just tools.
Pique: It's interesting to speak to a veteran like yourself and then listen to the newbies, the 22-year-olds who grew up with it.
CB: Music is always evolving... I think there's a bit of that sound in the new Blondie, as well. When we do a live performance, quintessentially we're a rock 'n' roll band.
Debbie is one of the greatest front people in the world. She's amazing. I always make the comparison that she is like a Mick Jagger or a David Bowie... people always make the obvious comparisons, Madonna or Gaga, but for me she transcends that comparison, she's the classic front person of a rock 'n' roll band.
Pique: I saw jazz sax player Sonny Rollins not long ago, and I learned that he still practices three hours a day, even though he is 83. How do you guys stay sharp?
CB: When I'm at home I usually sit behind the drums for a few hours a day, but it's not that much fun playing drums by yourself in some ways, but in other ways it makes you more technically proficient.
Before we go on tour we rehearse; it has gotten to the point where we can just pull songs out on the day, rehearse them at the sound check (before a gig), and that's how we are as a band now. We're able to respond to whatever arises on the occasion. It's one of the great things about playing an instrument as you get older, you get better at it.
I have this thing called the Clem Burke Drumming Project. It's based in a U.K. university and it's a research-drumming project. I received a doctorate a couple of years ago for work that was going on over a long period of time.
(Burke was the subject of an eight-year study into the fitness of drummers, which ended in 2008. Researchers found the physical exertion of drumming for 90 minutes meant he was as fit as a soccer player playing a game for the same length of time.)
Pique: Is the drumming project still ongoing?
CB: Oh, very much so. I'm just the namesake for it. We do seminars and we work with (people with) autism and OCD, kids. They continue to do research in cardiology and that. It's very academic. There's a couple of doctors that run it.
I could relate to what they were trying to do because of physicality of the instrument.
Pique: How do you balance questions from journalists in terms of the interest in Blondie's past and what you are doing now.
CB: There is a legacy that exists now. The music has taken on a life of its own. There was originality when we started, our image as a band got us a foot in the door. Debbie has a great image and people paid attention to us.
I think the history of what went on in New York in the '70s is pretty significant. (During the) middle '70s, a lot of art and culture started to happen, and the music pushed a lot of ideologies forward that weren't as popular at the time. Certainly things like design and clothing, the New York scene... we never really called it punk. If anything was punk, it was the attitude. It was very bohemian, a little bit existential, a little intellectual. We had a lot of fun, too.
It has an influence, which is why we're out there now.
Pique: I read a story in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian from last summer. It talked about how Debbie wasn't sure how she felt about doing much more with Blondie. You had spoken to somebody about it.
CB: I started that rumour! I was at an opening for an (late British musician) Ian Drury art exhibit at the Royal College of Arts (in London). There was some wine involved and a journalist approached me at a particular time. I thought I was speaking off the record. I was referring to the fact that we all are (not getting any younger — Harry is 69, Stein is 64, and Burke is 58).
But we've now decided that we're going to live forever (Burke laughs).