Memories of two punk legends, Marky Ramone and Clem Burke: “There’s nothing too negative about fame: money always follows”

The drummers of the historic bands The Ramones and Blondie are set to join each other in Ibiza to play together, for the first time, the music that shaped their lives–and those of millions of fans

Clem Burke and Marky Ramone, who will play together at the ContrastIbiza festival on May 27.
Clem Burke and Marky Ramone, who will play together at the ContrastIbiza festival on May 27.Getty Images / Pepa Ortiz (collage)

They have been called two of the best drummers in the history of music. Marky Ramone, 69, played with The Ramones in two different eras, and Clem Burke, 67, was one of the founders of Blondie and has also played with the Eurythmics and The Ramones. Their personal and professional paths have intersected before: they both grew up in the New York of the 1950s, they came of age with the live music of the city’s legendary nightclubs in the 1970s and they reached the peak of their careers when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Ramone in March 2002, Burke in March 2006). Both of their bands defined the counterculture of their time, leaving a legacy that remains to this day.

The drummers spoke with EL PAÍS from New York. There, they are warming up their engines for their next performances. At the Contrastibiza festival in May, for the first time in their careers, they will play together the music that has influenced them throughout their lives–the sounds that led them to create their own.

Next time you will meet each other will be on the Spanish island of Ibiza, right?

Marky Ramone: Yes, beautiful.

Clem Burke: If we don’t meet on the street beforehand in New York City.

Are you in New York now?

C.B.: I’m in New York. I’m rehearsing for the upcoming Blondie tour. And yeah, we just started rehearsals and before it begins in Glasgow on April 22. So yeah, we’re here rehearsing. We’re also working on new music as well.

M.R.: I just got back from a four-country tour of South America. Unreal. I mean, talking about these young kids freaking out.

Q. Marky, you will be doing a rock DJ set in Ibiza, which is known for electronic music. You said that you started setting up your drums when you were a kid, piece by piece.

M.R.: Yeah. I just pieced the set together. I was 12 years old. I got a bass drum. I added symbols and I played to the hits of the day, to the Victrola.

One of your main influences are the Beatles.

M.R.: The British invasion, in ‘64, then you had The Who in ‘65, and then I moved on to drummers that were heavier and I liked the British invasion drummers. But then you had Keith Moon and then you had Hal Blaine, he was always there. These were my influences as kids, because when I heard the Be My Baby and those drum fills he did, I was very interested in the drumming.

C.B.: Everyone in my generation was influenced by the Beatles, because when they came on television, when we were all basically kids, the Ed Sullivan Show in America was a show that everyone watched on a Sunday night. Families would gather around the television to watch. And for impressionable young men and women, I think the Beatles really revolutionized just about everything in the way we looked at life at the time. So yeah, they were definitely a big influence.

Burke joined Blondie after reading a newspaper ad in March 1975. Thanks to the advertisement, he met Debbie Harry, the band’s vocalist, style icon and frontwoman of female punk rock bands including Blondie, with whom she achieved overwhelming success. (It is estimated that Blondie has sold more than 40 million records.) The group, however, decided to disband at the height of their success in the early 1980s, and they did not reunite until 1997. Marky’s music career started with the formation of his first band Dust in 1971. At that time, he began to frequent the New York music venue CBGB, where he saw The Ramones play. When the drummer, Tommy, left in 1978, Marky auditioned for the group. He played with them until 1982, when he left to go to rehab.

What stories do you have from the CBGB days? New York has changed a lot since them.

M.R.: New York has changed. I liked it. It was very seedy. And, you know, there were a lot of homeless. There were a lot of strikes going on. The city was in financial chaos. I played with Wayne County and Richard Hell, The Voidoids, always in the Ramones. It was like a home to hone your skills. And eventually we all got too big to play there anymore, so we had to move on.

Is there anything left of that New York?

C.B.: The attitude of punk rock, I think, still continues on in New York City and in the world in general. It really isn’t about clothes or an image. It’s kind of about just the way you look at life and anything goes and being optimistic and taking chances. And I think that’s what we all did. There was also a place called Club 82 that I played out with my band, and that’s when I first saw the band called the Stilettos. And actually I saw Mark play at the Club 82 as well with Wayne County.

It seems like you were crossing paths very often.

M.R.: Oh, yeah, everybody did. It was a friendly, competitive situation. We all sounded different, looked different. There was a mutual respect among the bands, which was a really cool thing.

C.B.: It was like a rock and roll high school.

Was it in those days when you were invited to join The Ramones?

M.R.: Yeah, Tommy didn’t want to play anymore, and he wanted to produce. Dee Dee approached me first and then the other guys and I went to one of their rehearsals and I already knew four songs properly and that was it. So I was able to play that style properly and you know the rest.

C.B.: The whole CBGB scene was kind of like a workshop for all the musicians. You were able to make your mistakes in public. Certainly with Blondie we would make a lot of mistakes on stage. And famously there’s quite a few videos of the Ramones in the early days when Mark joined, having arguments on stage with CBGB like trying to decide what song to play next and things like that.

Do you think it was a freer time in any aspects compared to how we live now?

M.R.: I can say what I feel: I think people were less afraid to say what they thought. Now it’s done on social networks. Before, you could easily say that you were liberal or right-wing, or that you were one or the other. You could say what you felt. We expressed what we thought at that time with our music.

Marky, when you had to leave the band to go to rehab, how did you achieve it?

M.R.: I had to. I couldn’t go on. I left and went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where I met a lot of people. Anyone can advise you how to approach it. I’m not a preacher, but you know when stopping is the best thing for you. I talked a lot with my psychiatrist about the need to have a normal job to be able to face the situation. I got into the world of construction, I built houses, I installed doors and things like that. Time passed, and one day I heard that the other drummer had left the band. They called me and asked me if I wanted to come back. I went to the studio and suddenly I was back in the band. Looking back now, I am happy that I made it through all that journey and am sober.

During Marky’s absence, his place in the band was taken by Richie Ramone, who soon left the band due to disagreements with the rest of the members about the division of profits. When Richie left, the Ramones asked Clem Burke to join the band to play. He did so under the name of Elvis Ramone, but he ended up leaving the group after two concerts. Marky returned in 1986 and stayed until the band’s last concert in Los Angeles in 1996. Burke played with other groups such as Eurythmics, with whom he recorded two albums, and The Go-Go’s during Blondie’s break of nearly two decades. He also toured with the singer Nancy Sinatra.

Clem, your association with women-led bands is curious.

C.B.: Blondie and Eurythmics had a lot in common. In Blondie Debbie and Chris [Stein] were a couple. In Eurythmics there was Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox, who have broken up as a couple but continue to create. I was in London and they invited me to go to Germany to record their first album In The Garden with producer Conny Plank, who also produced Kraftwerk and Can. It was very special for me to work with Conny because of his work with Kraftwerk. They were an influence on Heart of Glass, as we were kind of experimenting with electronic music. I recently did a short tour with The Go-go’s. The best thing about playing with them is that I was the most handsome guy in the band. I had a great time. They just got into the Hall of Fame. Blondie, Ramones... we’re all in the Hall of Fame. All the concerts were sold out. I’ve also toured with Nancy Sinatra. It’s funny, because she was born in northern New Jersey, like me. Yes, I think I have good chemistry with women’s bands.

What else do you have left to achieve?

M.R.: I think that’s enough. The Hall of Fame, the Grammys, the MTV awards… It’s wonderful, it makes you happy that they recognize your work.

C.B.: I would like to have a Grammy with Blondie. We have been nominated, but they did not give it to us. I have a Grammy with Eurhythmics, but I would like to win it with Blondie. You never know. I’m thinking that Will Smith might call me to give me his Oscar, since he’s ashamed of what he’s been through.

M.R.: You better wear boxing gloves!

C.B.: It was crazy, as if the world wasn’t already crazy enough for this to happen on top of it. How can someone be in favor of hitting another person?

Some people found Chris Rock’s words offensive when referring to a personal situation.

M.R.: But you don’t go up on stage and slap him! In any case, you catch him at the end of the gala.

C.B.: There is a lot of negativity. Ricky Gervais made jokes about everyone when he presented the Golden Globes. It was very dark humor. I don’t think anyone has to do the Will Smith thing. It was too much.

Marky, were you prepared for the Ramones to be over? Do you miss them?

M.R.: I think if a band goes on hiatus for 20 or 25 years and decides to come back, they will never be as good as they were. If you stop like we did in 1996, it was the right time. If they were all alive and they offered for us to come back, I don’t think we would.

C.B.: Do you think you and Dee Dee would have been encouraged to form another type of group?

M.R.: I don’t know. Dee Dee was into a different kind of music.

C.B.: He used to make rap music, right?

M.R.: Yes, I think he would have continued down that path, music that I’m not involved in. Everyone has their tastes. All I want is to keep the Ramones songs alive. Those songs are too good for anyone to play.

Blondie returned in 1997 with a bang thanks to the single Maria. Clem, did you expect the great success it had?

C.B.: We didn’t know what to expect. When we decided to go back and make an album, naturally we knew there were a lot of people interested in hearing us. We toured a few months before releasing Maria. I think it was great for the release of the album. We had a lot of success with Maria around the world, and I think it was a great way to come back and have another hit. It was a great experience to pick up the band at that time. But you never know, it doesn’t always work out.

What has been the best moment of your careers?

M.R.: Appearing on The Simpsons.

CB: When I had a band in high school, in New York. At the age of 14 I played in a small band program at Carnegie Hall.

What do you think is the most negative part of fame?

CB: I don’t think there is anything too negative. Many people know that with fame comes money. We had a lot of support from the record company. And suddenly you see yourself at 22 years old, wearing sunglasses, with your parents very proud.

M.R.: Being in [the 1979 musical comedy] Rock n Roll High School (laughs).

How important do you think your music’s contribution to fashion was?

C.B.: The clothes we wore on the cover of Parallel Lines at the time were totally out: the narrow ties, the tight black blazers… we showered in the clothes so that they would shrink. Over the years many things have become icons, but I think now the words iconic or legendary are used too much.

M.R.: Young people today like the fact that you can just wear a leather jacket, worn jeans and Converse sneakers. I always dressed like that, even when I was a kid in Brooklyn, and so did the other Ramones. We were antifashion. When jeans got holes in them, we didn’t care, and over time, ripped jeans became fashionable. When we saw fans dressed like us, we knew something was up. It was really cool.

How do you see the current music scene? Which bands do you have on repeat?

M.R.: I have a show on SiriusXm [Marky Ramone’s Punk Rock Blitzkrieg] in which I play punk music from the seventies to the nineties. I’m still waiting for something good to come out. Right now I’m going back: I’m listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison...

C.B.: I really like The Linda Lindas, some girls who are a sensation on YouTube and remind me of The Go-go’s. I’m listening to a lot of David Bowie from the sixties. Sometimes it is difficult for me to find current music, because The Killers or The Strokes seem new to me but you realize that they have had a career for more than 20 years. The new record by Johnny Marr, who is a special guest on our new tour and is a great musician, is very good. I’m, as Marky said, also going back to Little Richard and Roy Orbison.

M.R.: In music there is always something for everyone.

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