How to do pop ‘the right way’: an interview with Clem Burke of Blondie

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How to do pop ‘the right way’: an interview with Clem Burke of Blondie

Clem Burke Blondie
Words by By Paul French

Clem has spent decades behind the kit for Blondie, having observed the changing tides of rock, post-punk and the recording industry.

“My earliest memory is playing my father’s kit along to the Four Seasons.” explains Blondie drummer Clem Burke in a sly New Jersey lilt that feels a planet away from my mumbly West Australian brogue. 

“For all of us East Coast kids they were the local heroes.”

Clem Burke

A city boy through and through, Clem is the living embodiment of everything that comes to mind when we think about guitar music in the Tri-State area—having been there to witness the golden age of doo-wop and the emergence of early rock ‘n’ roll, through to the envelope pushing (but still quintessentially NYC) flavour of the Velvet Underground and onto the infamous CBGB’s scene, to which Clem is a made man. Suffice to say, a conversation with Mr. Burke is an understanding that you are speaking with someone steeped in a deep musical lineage. It permeates every sentence. 

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“The American roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll-Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochrane, that was the foundation of what I loved from an early age,” he explains. “It just spiralled from there.”

Geography has always played a pivotal role in the sonic output of any recorded project, least of all for Blondie, who’s taut, female fronted punk-pop feels like the spiritual bridge between Madison Avenue opulence and Lower East Side hoodlumery. The result is something utterly unique, which also has the added advantage of having aged incredibly gracefully, due in part to Clem’s ability to craft perfectly ecstatic drum parts that enhance the bands propensity for three minute pop bangers- the economy of which is rare amongst his classic rock contemporaries.


“We always straddled that line between the underground and then a larger ambition to make hit singles that were universal.” he declares, while ruffling a hand through his perfectly manicured mop top.

While the uninitiated might be instantly drawn to the cool allure of Blondie’s iconic frontwoman (the inimitable Debbie Harry) anybody with a basic understanding of the nuts and bolts of record making can hear that the five brunettes behind her do a hell of a job at holding it down. It’s an aspect of his work that is a source of pride for the lifelong drummer. 

“Pre-Production was always very important for us. Being well rehearsed and going in there with a plan-I think you can hear that in many of those early songs.” he explains. 


“I always appreciated drummers like Hal Blaine (Phil Spector’s go-to session drummer) and Earl Palmer (Little Richard, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra) who were consummate studio musicians and had the kind of musicality and versatility that I aspired to. I wanted to be able to contribute to the song rather than detract.”

A craftsman in his own right, Clem’s combination of tasteful self effacement and bombastic, energy laden fills have been embedded in Blondie’s DNA since the very beginning, with the band emerging at the exact moment where recording studio technology (and particularly drum sounds) were experiencing a massive sonic shift.

Amongst studio engineers, this early New Wave period through the mid to late 70’s is considered by many to be the pinnacle of drum sounds in the open air, with Clem carting his stock Red Sparkle Premier kit to some of the most iconic acoustic environments in existence, the size and space of which are rare in the modern recording zeitgeist.

“Power Station, Electric Lady, United Western in LA-we would always start with the biggest ambient room we could and work our way inward from there, with the close mics.” he explains. “That way we could go as dry or as roomy as the song required.”

“I always like to record with as few microphones as possible, but it always seems to blow out.”

This utilitarian approach to drum sounds has served him and the band well, with Blondie’s discography doubling as a masterclass in how to do pop ‘the right way.’ 

When the band venture out here in April for the upcoming Pandemonium festival, they do so with an enviable set list in tow, stacked to the brim with some of the most infectious songs of the last 50 years: “Heart of Glass”, “Call Me”, “Hanging on the Telephone”, “Tide is High”, “One Way or Another”, “Dreaming”, “Atomic”, “Rapture” – it’s hard to think of a band with as many certified bangers as Blondie.

Given the inherent danciness of so many of their backbeat heavy hit singles, you would expect Clem to be something of a connoisseur when it comes to snare sounds, which makes it all the more surprising to hear that all of these came from the same trusty wooden Premier—albeit with different tunings, mic setups and room reflections.

Clem Burke Premier Kit

“The snare on all that early Blondie stuff is all the stock 14” x 6.5” wooden Premier snare that came with the kit.” he picks up. “These days I tour with a Black Beauty and my DW Collectors kit.”

For someone who has experienced as much success in the studio as Clem, it’s fitting that he generally opts to keep his setup clean and simple with a preference for coated heads, prized for their tasteful attack and ability to play nicely with microphones, in turn making them a common choice for session drummers worldwide. 

“I’ve always been a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to heads. Usually Remo Ambassadors. To me it’s about the tuning and serving the song. The tuning is very important.”

Kicks are an equally simple affair, with Clem sticking to his preference for 24” Kick drums and instead, putting the majority of his focus on finding the pocket and groove in any composition that comes his way. These human fluctuations in timing and groove are one of the things that separate Blondie’s music from your traditional ‘Four on the Floor’ affair. 

“There was a dance club called Club 82, who would have a ‘Rock and Roll’ night once a week,” remarks Clem.

“You would hear these organic dance records with live drums in between the bands- stuff like
“Shame Shame Shame” (Shirley & Company) ,”Rock the Boat” (The Hue Corporation) in between sets by the New York Dolls or my old band Sweet Revenge.”

“The drummers in the room were always keeping an ear out because there was just so much great playing happening at the time.” he notes.

This influence can be heard across many singles in the Blondie canon, in particular on 1978’s Parallel Lines- produced by Australia’s own Mike Chapman and whose hit single “Heart of Glass” took Blondie into unchartered technological territory.

“Mike wanted every song on Parallel Lines to be a single and that was how he approached it,” he reminisces.

“Heart of Glass in particular, took a very long time to record.”

“This was before MIDI and up until that point we had never played to a click track. I had to lay a sort of a click track with the kick to the arpeggiator on a very early Roland Synthesizer which was constantly going out of sync. In the end we had to record a few bars, comp it and drop back in and record a few more-which took seemingly forever compared to how we would normally work.”

The results more than speak for themselves with “Heart of Glass” becoming one of the band’s defining tracks. 

“Mike was the perfect producer for us, he was hands on in the way that if he didn’t like something in the arrangement, he would tell you and the song would be better for it. He would be on the studio floor conducting and given his track record and all the hit records he had written or been a part of, he had a real feel for what would work and what wouldn’t.”

Having spent so much of his adult life touring and recording, it is safe to say that Clem is a musical lifer. 

“I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t playing. Drumming has just always been there. Being in a band has just always been my social life from a very early age.”

“I like being in the studio and on stage. I don’t feel inhibited when I’m there. I enjoy it. These are places that I like to be.”

You can catch Blondie in the flesh later this month at Pandemonium Festival, tickets are available at 

Pandemonium Festival 2024

Saturday, April 20: Caribbean Gardens, Melbourne

Tuesday, April 23: Alice Cooper,  Blondie, Psychedelic Furs, Wolfmother side show

Entertainment Centre, Newcastle*

Thursday, April 25 (Anzac Day): Cathy Freeman Park – Sydney Olympic Park Precinct, Sydney

Saturday, April 27: Broadwater Parklands, Gold Coast (new venue)

Sunday, April 28: Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane (new venue)** Blondie not appearing