Clem Burke grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where he was high school friends with Gary Lachman, who bonded with him over their love of glam rock and later joined Blondie on drums and bass, respectively.
Debbie Harry loved songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back” when she was young, and learned a lot about singing from listening to them. “Their lyrical themes were a little bit different than sort of what I ended up with,” she recalled. “They were all sort of a smitten and slightly abused from love, relationships. And I think my position was a little bit more sneering.” One group she was drawn to was the Shangri-Las, a 1960s girl group from Queens who became punk favorites (they even reunited for a show at CBGB later in the 1970s). They sang gum-smacking odes to rebel boys, eschewing feminine clothes and copping some serious ’tude in their tunes—which often strayed into unladylike territory. “When I was a kid I thought the Shangri-Las were too commercial,” Blondie’s Chris Stein said, “but then later on it just clicked and I realized how awesome it was. I still think they’re incredible.” That 1960s girl group was one of the common musical denominators that Blondie shared, and drummer Clem Burke explained the Shangri-La’s proto-punk appeal: “They had their black leather vests and their tight black leather pants, and they sang ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss.’ They sang about dirty fingernails, wavy hair, and leather jackets, and things like that.” The Shangri-Las cast a long shadow over glam and punk rock. The New York Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss” borrowed the spoken word intro from their “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” and another Dolls song, “Trash,” copped the campy “How do you call your lover boy?” line from “Love Is Strange,” a catchy 1956 hit by Mickey & Sylvia. The group’s final album, Too Much Too Soon, was produced by Shadow Morton, who had crafted the girl group classics “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” for the Shangri-Las.
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Future Blondie members Clem Burke and Gary Valentine also hung out there when they were crashing at a friend’s storefront pad. “I was living in New York,” Valentine said, “and I was basically leading a kind of decadent juvenile delinquent life in the East Village. I was hanging out at Club 82 prior to when I was playing in Blondie.” Burke played drums in a band called Sweet Revenge, which sometimes performed at Club 82, where they covered David Bowie and Mott the Hoople songs mixed with some originals. “One of our big songs was called ‘Fuck the World,’ ” Burke said, “which was kind of punk rock.” Paul Zone, who would join his brothers’ group the Fast in 1976, was also at that Dolls performance at Club 82. It was there that he met Harry and Stein, as well as Lance Loud and Kristian Hoffman—all of whom would go on to play a big role in his life. “We all met at that Dolls show,” Zone recalled. “That was one of my first times with Kristian, at a Dolls show.” Hoffman added, “Paul and his brothers knew who we were, like, ‘Oh, it’s An American Family!’ Something like that. So Paul just came up and just started talking to us. Paul wasn’t in the Fast yet. He was kind of like the designer-manager person for the band.” Also in attendance was Roberta Bayley, who later worked the door at CBGB and shot album cover photos for the Ramones and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Bayley had recently moved from London to New York and heard about the New York Dolls, but hadn’t yet seen them. “It just happened that the Dolls were playing directly downstairs from the loft where a friend of a friend lived on East Fourth Street,” she said. “That was Club 82.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Noting that Blondie absorbed some disco influences at Club 82, drummer Clem Burke said, “The music that they would play at Club 82 in between sets would be like ‘Rock the Boat’ or ‘Shame, Shame, Shame,’ and all this dance music. The whole disco scene was going on simultaneously to the punk scene.” Early discos and punk clubs often coexisted in the same downtown neighborhoods and occupied similar kinds of spaces: lofts, storefronts, basements, and bars. But, of course, only one of these subcultures was praised by rock critics. Most white male rock writers turned a blind eye to disco’s subcultural leanings, or were outright hostile to the music and its fans. Many of these same critics also helped popularize a macho, cartoonish version of punk that had little to do with the much more artistic, gay scene that originated downtown. The fact that Blondie eventually crossed over with their disco hit “Heart of Glass” underscores how Lower Manhattan incubated several musical-cultural movements throughout the 1970s. An important early disco known as the Loft was originally located just a few blocks from CBGB, and many downtown gay bars and discos hosted punk shows. “Blondie used to play with the Ramones and lots of our other friends in gay clubs and drag clubs,” Burke said, “and the music that was playing was dance music. I always point out that disco music was probably more subversive than punk rock. That whole lifestyle—the underground clubs, the gay culture, the leather scene—all that stuff revolved around disco. Before it became Studio 54, it was an underground phenomena in New York gay clubs. That was definitely a left-of-center movement, the same way punk was.”
Bands bounced back and forth between CBGB and Max’s, as well as lesser known venues like Mother’s—a gay bar near the Chelsea Hotel where Suicide, the Fast, Ramones, and Blondie played. In the punk scene’s early days, well before the genre’s loud-hard-fast formula was established, bands were free to pursue their own unique paths. There was no unified sound or style, but by 1977 the music would be widely known as “punk”—a useful catchall term for critics and journalists, but one that flattened the nuances that existed among a diverse range of downtown musicians.
“The people that were at Club 82,” Clem Burke said, “Lenny Kaye, Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, myself, Gary Valentine, Debbie and Chris, Johnny Thunders—essentially, everybody took their platforms off, cut their hair, walked around the corner, and wound up at CBGB. That’s basically what happened, because everyone was living in the neighborhood. It literally was around the corner from CBGB.” Hilly Kristal didn’t change his Bowery bar’s name until late 1973, but it’s not as if he did any significant renovations when it became CBGB. “It was pretty much the same when it was called Hilly’s,” Suicide’s Alan Vega recalled. “The bathrooms were already horrific, even before it was renamed CBGB.” After Marion Cowings’s band Dance broke up following the Mercer Arts Center collapse, he was in a band named Squeeze that occasionally played at CBGB. He recalled that Hilly’s dogs used to run loose and defecate on the floor, so people had to watch where they stepped. “He was like a wild Bowery guy,” Cowings said, “just wild and dirty. At that time the Bowery was the Bowery. There were lots of bombed-out buildings and fleabag hotels, and lots of people sleeping on the street.”
In 1975, Blondie performed as the backing band in a revival of Jackie Curtis’s Vain Victory, with Debbie Harry playing the role of Juicy Lucy and the boys in the band wearing identical blue sharkskin suits that Chris Stein found at a discount store on Broadway. Danny Fields wrote about the show in his SoHo Weekly News column, which was the first time Blondie was mentioned in print. “That was big for us at the time,” Stein recalled, “and we got a lot of attention. We got exposed to a lot of the intelligentsia through that.” Local media outlets like the SoHo Weekly News, Village Voice, and the soon-to-be-launched New York Rocker played a pivotal role in the development of the downtown’s various arts scenes. Influential rock writers like the Voice’s Robert Christgau publicized what was happening and accelerated their momentum, creating a kind of feedback loop. Tony Zanetta was also cast in the revival of Vain Victory with Blondie, which was directed by the ubiquitous Tony Ingrassia. “I think a singer or a star needs to be able to magnify their own personality,” Zanetta said, “and Tony was really, really good at that. I mean, he worked with Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Wayne County, and Cherry Vanilla, and I think they all took something from those experiences.” Back in 1973, when the Stilettoes were performing at places like Bobern Bar and Grill, Harry and Stein hired Ingrassia to help the group with choreography, projecting a cohesive image, and singing with attitude. “Tony did a lot of stage work,” Stein said. “He was a very flamboyant and a loud guy, and was responsible for a lot of cool projects, even though he was very unsung.” Harry added, “He was a slave driver. He was making us work very hard and not to sing technically, but to sing emotionally. And that was a great lesson, to make sure that you really had a connection with what you were saying or talking about or singing about, rather than just singing a nice melody with good technique.”
By late 1975, Gary Valentine was the first to cut his hair short; then Stein and Burke did the same and adopted a retro 1960s style. “There’s a picture of Debbie and me walking down Fourteenth Street,” Clem Burke said, “and everyone is looking at us, and I’m wearing what you would call a slim-fit suit. They weren’t looking at us because we were famous, because we weren’t yet. We just didn’t dress like everyone else then.” During the early years of the CBGB scene, no one had Mohawks or any of the other styles that are now punk clichés. The people on the scene mostly took their inspiration from Beatlemania-era fashion: black jeans and skinny ties. It was a pronounced contrast from the prevailing trends of the time, when earth tones, blue denim, and bell-bottoms prevailed. Designers weren’t in the habit of making black slim-fit jeans and suits—and even if they were, the members of Blondie didn’t have the money to buy new clothes. Instead, Burke purchased thrift store suits, wore them in a tub full of water, and then walked around in the summer so that the clothes would shrink around his body. “Everybody loved the skinny ties,” Lisa Jane Persky recalled. “There was a place in New Jersey where they had brand-new ‘old stock.’ It was all these old peg-leg pants from the early sixties, and they were brand new. We used to go there and get stuff all the time.” Burke once bought a bunch of unworn 1960s clothes from that store—such as Levi’s Sta-Prest jeans and button-down collar polka dot shirts—then lugged them to the Blondie loft. Some of those items ended up on the cover of the band’s debut album, because the guys in the band often shared clothes.
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Blondie’s fortunes began to turn around soon after Clem Burke joined the band. “He definitely was a wannabe rock star,” Debbie Harry recalled. “He came in looking cool to the audition and he played well. He seemed to know a lot about music, and he was into the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, and the Ventures, all the stuff we were into.” As for Burke, he said it wasn’t really much of an audition. “We just talked, more or less,” he said. “I just knew that she was it. I was looking for my Bowie, my Mick Jagger, my Bryan Ferry, and it just turned out to be a woman instead of a guy.” Burke’s first Blondie gig was the same night bassist Fred Smith announced he was leaving to play with Television, and the despondent group fell apart again. “I kept in touch with Debbie and Chris, trying to keep the band going,” Burke said, “and then I brought Gary in. To me, that was the beginning of Blondie.” Roberta Bayley also recalled that the band finally gelled with the addition of keyboardist Jimmy Destri and bassist Gary Valentine, who moved in with Debbie and Chris. “They were more cohesive,” she said, “and they started rehearsing and trying to be a little bit more professional, and writing new songs.” Valentine taught himself how to play bass after seeing Television and other new downtown bands perform around town. “They weren’t great musicians,” he said, “but they were inventing themselves in front of you. Then you felt like, ‘Well, I could do that, too.’ And that’s what got me going.”
The Blondie Loft was a four-story building on the Bowery with a liquor store on the ground floor, about a block south of CBGB. “We went to CBGB five to seven days a week,” Clem Burke said. “It was a place to go, it was the thing to do, it stayed open late. We would rehearse at the loft and just live there, and sleep on the floor. Or sleep with other girls. Things would happen, you know, anything goes. I was a teenager. But it was primarily Chris and Debbie’s residence.” The building’s unofficial landlord was Benton Quin, whom Gary Valentine described as “a good artist, a flamboyant creative fellow, with all the eccentricities that go with that.” He rented the bottom loft floor to the bandmates and lived directly above them in a space littered with cans of urine (because there was no bathroom on his level). “Benton was a real character,” Chris Stein said. “He made a lot of cartoon-like cutout things that would get pummeled onstage by Debbie, like during ‘Kung Fu Girls.’ He also made the leather briefs that Debbie wore with that ‘Vultures’ T‑shirt in Punk magazine.” Burke recalled, “It was a close relationship with Benton and the band. It was a little micro world of our own in that loft building. Debbie helped Benton bleach his body hair, because he wanted it to be blond, and he had a lot of body hair—you know, he had all these different strange goings on.” The loft was cluttered with Quin’s large paintings, and Harry and Stein placed occult bric-a-brac on the walls. “Chris and I shared some interests,” Valentine said, “like horror films and comic books. He was keen on voodoo and pentagrams. Actually, Chris was kind of a goth in the beginning, wearing eyeliner and silver skulls.”
After An American Family became a hit in 1973, The Dick Cavett Show flew singer Lance Loud, keyboardist Kristian Hoffman, and the rest of the band out to New York to perform on the show. The two best friends had already made one attempt at living in the city and returned to Santa Barbara in defeat—“We had our New York experiment,” Hoffman recalled, “and we didn’t meet the Velvet Underground”—but this time they stayed. After their television debut, various managers and record companies encouraged the band to change their name to Loud in order to cash in on their fleeting fame. “We hated that idea,” Kristian recalled, “and Neil Bogart, who ran Casablanca Records, also wanted us to call the band An American Family.” (They eventually settled on the Mumps.) By this point, Lance Loud and Hoffman had fully immersed themselves in the downtown underground and become regulars at the New York Dolls’ gigs at Mercer’s. “We went there every single show,” he said, “so we quickly met all these wonderful people like Paul Zone, who introduced us to everybody in the Lower East Side rock scene. Everyone happened to live in a one-mile-square neighborhood, and you would just see them every day. So we did everything together—the Mumps, the Fast, Blondie. All of these things intersected, and all of these crazy people hung out together.” Because of the hype surrounding An American Family, Loud was probably the best-known person in the nascent punk scene. “Lance was a larger-than-life figure,” Blondie drummer Clem Burke recalled. “He was probably the first bona fide celebrity I ever met.” He was a magnetic frontman, though not necessarily the greatest singer (but this was punk rock, so it didn’t really matter). “Lance loved performing, and he would sweat gallons,” said Persky, who became a good friend. “He was just so blissed out when he was onstage.”
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Blondie first came to his attention when Richard Gottehrer was recording a 1976 music festival at CBGB. “I was in the truck recording all the bands for a live album for CBGB’s,” recalled Craig Leon, who was then working for Instant Records. “We did a sound check and Debbie came in the truck and she saw Richie and me sitting there, and she said to Richie, ‘I want you to make a record of me.’ ” The no-nonsense Gottehrer set up a rehearsal for Blondie to see if they had what it took to be stars—or at least release a catchy single. “I remember grinning from ear to ear throughout the whole rehearsal because the songs were so great,” he said. “She was great. You could tell right away they were special.” Unfortunately, Gottehrer had no luck convincing any major labels that Blondie was marketable, though he finally persuaded an old friend from his Brill Building years, Larry Uttal, whose label Private Stock Records was home to the 1960s pop singer Frankie Valli. Uttal agreed to release one Blondie single with an option on a full-length album, and Leon was dispatched to record their debut. The obvious choice for a single was the Valentine-penned “Sex Offender,” with “In the Flesh” as the B-side. That single was recorded at Plaza Sound (as were their first two albums), a midtown studio above Radio City Music Hall. Debbie Harry’s suburban parents took her to see Christmas shows at Radio City in the 1950s, when CBGB owner Hilly Kristal was in the chorus that backed the Rockettes. It is quite possible that Harry heard Kristal sing during a Radio City holiday show long before either was involved in punk rock. Plaza Sound Studios was a huge room that had previously been used as a radio studio for the NBC Symphony Orchestra and a rehearsal space for the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini.
From Chapter 33 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
New York Rocker covered a wide variety of bands on the scene, much like the music weeklies Melody Maker and New Musical Express did in Britain. “New York Rocker definitely attempted to look at the personalities a little more deeply and to see how the music was put together,” Lenny Kaye said. “Whereas Punk magazine was very specific in terms of what they considered ‘punk.’ ” Many took a rather dim view of that magazine, which Kaye described as a bit “Johnny-come-lately” (Punk cofounders Eddie “Legs” McNeil, John Holmstrom, and Ged Dunn Jr. didn’t start their publication until the scene was in full swing). “Punk magazine, although I was friends with those guys, that never had much appeal to me,” Blondie drummer Clem Burke said. “I just really liked the New York Rocker. It was like our version of New Musical Express or something. They wrote about the music more in-depth, and they covered lots of different bands. Punk didn’t really deal as much with music. It was more like a lifestyle.” To build buzz for their new magazine, Holmstrom and McNeil plastered punk is coming! posters all around downtown in early 1976. “When those posters went up around town,” Gary Valentine recalled, “everyone thought it was some band from New Jersey coming to play in the city.” While Punk had its detractors, others—notably Chris Stein and Debbie Harry—became fans. “People went nuts for that first issue,” said Holmstrom, who attended the School for Visual Arts in Manhattan with Stein.
The Shangri-Las were one of the common musical denominators that Blondie shared, and Clem Burke explained the Shangri-La’s proto-punk appeal: “They had their black leather vests and their tight black leather pants, and they sang ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss.’ They sang about dirty fingernails, wavy hair, and leather jackets, and things like that.” The Shangri-Las cast a long shadow over glam and punk rock. The New York Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss” borrowed the spoken word intro from their “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” and another Dolls song, “Trash,” copped the campy “How do you call your lover boy?” line from “Love Is Strange,” a catchy 1956 hit by Mickey & Sylvia. The group’s final album, Too Much Too Soon, was produced by Shadow Morton, who had crafted the girl group classics “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” for the Shangri-Las. As Burke recalled, “Bubblegum rock was part of the roots of the New York music scene. Some of the old-school guys like Richard Gottehrer or Marty Thau—who had some money and success in pop music—they understood the music because they were coming from that Brill Building mentality.” Thau was the New York Dolls’ first manager before McLaren took the job, and he had previously made a living as a record promoter for late 1960s bubblegum groups the 1910 Fruitgum Company (“Simon Says”) and the Ohio Express (“Yummy Yummy Yummy”). Thau recorded the Ramones’ first demos and released Suicide’s debut album on his independent label Red Star, and also formed the production company Instant Records with the old-school industry hit maker Richard Gottehrer. “Richie was part of that whole Brill Building rock thing,” Leon said, “which had a lot of nostalgia for us because we grew up with it on the radio when we were kids.”