Every so often, there’s an amazing convergence of time, place, and talent. Think Liverpool at the rise of Merseybeat, San Francisco in the Summer of Love, and Seattle during the grunge era.
When it comes to the American punk movement, there’s no greater touchstone than New York in the mid 1970s. And no better eyewitness than veteran Blondie drummer Clem Burke.
On the phone from a tour stop in San Francisco, Burke reminisces about the nascent punk scene at the legendary Manhattan bar CBGB. “A good analogy,” he explains, “is a workshop, the way actors have workshops. You’re able to screw up in public, which we did often, which a lot of the bands did.”
Humbly, but with a sense of history, Burke likens CBGB to the Cavern Club in Liverpool. With Blondie playing alongside punk pioneers like the Ramones (“Our generation’s Beatles,” he says reverently), Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and Television, it was, as Burke says, “the genesis of a major musical movement”.
And it wasn’t all just sex, Carbona, and rock ’n’ roll. One of the great legacies of the CBGB experience, Burke reflects, was the do-it-yourself nature of the punk scene and its influence on those to come. “The success that Blondie had, we did that on our own terms.”
It’s especially evident when you realize that Blondie constantly defied classification, scoring number one hits in diverse genres with “Heart of Glass” (a disco send-up), “Rapture” (rap), and “The Tide Is High” (reggae/ska). “Our music was a lot more eclectic and assimilated a lot of different styles,” says Burke. “We were never really in that little punk-rock box, which gave legs to our longevity.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the group had a staggeringly gorgeous lead singer in Debbie Harry, but the band’s appeal certainly didn’t start and end there. As Burke says, “If it was only about the image, we wouldn’t be here now.” Indeed, Blondie’s really always been about infectious power-pop hooks, soaring vocals, clever lyrics (often penned by Harry), an indelible sense of mood, and a generous helping of fun.
Continuing to do things on its own terms, Blondie is in the midst of a North American tour, to be followed by dates in Australia and New Zealand. And this fall, the band is releasing its ninth studio album, Panic of Girls, which was recorded in a Woodstock, New York, studio.
“It’s a pretty organic record,” Burke says. “We tried to stay away from too much programming and things like that. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of us recording out in the countryside, but it’s maybe a bit more pastoral and rural sounding. We’re all really happy with it.”
Burke is also happy to keep the Spirit of ’76 alive. “I like to think that the sound of Blondie is kind of like 'the CBGB sound’—an assimilation of everything that was going on back then,” he says. “As we move forward, we kind of carry that torch.”
Blondie plays the Red Robinson Show Theatre on Friday (August 13).