Rock Royalty: Blondie drummer Clem Burke talks about band's successes and failures ahead of its Mass MoCA concert

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NORTH ADAMS — Blondie's road to rock royalty may have begun before the group opened for David Bowie and Iggy Pop during "The Idiot" tour in 1977, but the gig certainly helped put the new-wavers on the fast track to fame. Fresh off the release of its self-titled debut album, Blondie arrived in Montreal for their first show with the musical icons on March 13, 1977, driving overnight to the Canadian city following a Manhattan concert, according to drummer Clem Burke.

"We got into an RV with one bed. We basically all slept in the same bed," Burke told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "To this day, I still don't know who was driving the RV."

Upon arrival, Iggy Pop and Bowie treated the band, led by frontwoman Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and Burke, with great respect.

"They kind of set the bar with how to interact with fellow musicians," Burke said.

Blondie aims to treat its openers with the same dignity.

"We try to support them," Burke said.

Northampton-based quartet And The Kids will open for Blondie on Friday, Aug. 3, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Joe's Field. Blondie currently consists of Harry, Stein, Burke, bassist Leigh Foxx, guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen. Burke is excited to return to the Berkshires and visit the North Adams institution for the first time.

"I really like Massachusetts in general," he said.

But Blondie's roots are in New York City. The group was started there in the mid-1970s by Harry and Stein, who were an item at the time. The "Blondie" name alludes to Harry's locks.

"One day, I was walking across Houston Street and someone yelled `blondie' at me. I thought, `Jeez, that's quite easy to remember,'" Harry told the New York Post in a 2014 interview.

Though Harry has undoubtedly been the group's foremost figure, Blondie refers to more than just the blonde vocalist. Stein, Burke, bassist Gary Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri rounded out the roster for the group's eponymous debut record in 1976. Two years later, Blondie experienced a breakthrough with its third record, "Parallel Lines." The album contained the hits "One Way or Another" and "Heart of Glass." The latter was the group's first of four Billboard No. 1 songs in the U.S, including "Call Me," "Rapture" (considered by some to be the first rap song to reach the top spot) and "The Tide Is High." "Heart of Glass" is a disco anthem.

"It kind of denotes an era," Burke said.

"Parallel Lines" reached its peak at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in April of 1979, seven months after its release.

"Back then, a record would evolve," Burke said, adding that an album had a "much longer shelf life" in that epoch.

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"The 'Parallel Lines' album is a phenomenon that doesn't exist today," he said.

Incorporating more of a pop sound earned the group acclaim.

"In Blondie's third album, 'Parallel Lines,' the band drops the brooding artiness of its previous records and comes on like an ambitious pop-rock group. Or rather, a rock & roll band with an ambitious pop vocalist named Deborah Harry," writes Ken Tucker for Rolling Stone.

Some of the band's underground die-hard fans were dismissive of the sonic shift, a change that people exaggerated from the drummer's perspective.

"We were so-called sellouts doing disco music, which was always ridiculous," Burke said.

A several-year run of success came to a halt in 1982 following the release of "The Hunter." The record didn't match past albums' success. Coupled with Stein's pemphigus (a skin disorder) diagnosis, and mixed in with some financial troubles, the group broke up.

"We were certainly a bit naive about certain business things," Burke said.

During the hiatus, Burke barely missed a beat — if he did at all. According to Blondie's website, Burke played with Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Joan Jett and (frequently) The Romantics during that period. When the group reunited in 1997, Burke's stature had perhaps risen.

"I had my chest puffed out about it," he said, stressing that he was being "facetious."

Ranked as one of Rolling Stone's 100 greatest drummers of all-time, Burke knows that his personal success "all begins with the success of Blondie," which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. Harry played an outsized role in receiving that honor.

"She's a brilliant lyricist," Burke said.

The group has continued releasing new work since its reunion, including 2017's "Pollinator." But if recent shows are any indication, North Adams spectators can anticipate hearing the decades-old hits that have made Blondie a pop cultural sensation.

"I think we're a great rock `n' roll band," Burke said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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