Perfect Sound Forever

Robert Quine

1942-2004: An appreciation
by Terry Edwards
(May 2007)

In the spring of 1990, Jane, Polydor's press officer extraordinaire, drove me to Brighton to see Lloyd Cole and his new band. It's always good to get out of town as many performers have a ‘thing' about London. I'd gone solely to hear guitarist Robert Quine and hoped that the songs didn't get in the way of his solos. After the show, we were duly ushered backstage to rub shoulders with the great and the good. In fact, there were very few liggers and I managed to chat with Mr Quine for the best part of half an hour, most of which I remember as if it were yesterday. His experiences and observations grow closer to my own, day by day.

I'd first seen Quine playing in the Voidoids supporting Elvis Costello at Hammersmith Palais in early '79. Bald and bearded, he was the antithesis of fashion in those post-punk days, but with a passing resemblance to John Peel and a guitar sound that roasted the opposition he was, in fact, far cooler than the "New Wave" crowd – the perfect foil to frontman Richard Hell who spent the entire 30-minute set maintaining an erection by rubbing himself up against the mike stand. They were the Glimmer Twins for the New/Blank Generation. I was hooked.

Stiff Records had licensed a 3-track EP from Hell & the Voidoids, and this had been my introduction to Quine's playing. He told me that it was the first time he'd been in a studio at the grand old age of 33 – he'd misspent his youth qualifying as a lawyer. The band recorded using downtime (periods where a studio has no full-paid sessions so it's hired out at a cut-price rate), and the client in the adjoining studio was Link Wray. Quine was under strict instructions not to mess with Wray's gear so he didn't – he just used the "Rumble" sound as it was & left the amp as if no one had touched it.

There's something tiresome & anal about people banging on about guitars & amps, but Robert Quine talked about his music in a way that transcends the usual "Guitar Player" gibberish/mystique. "I just play a Fender Strat thru a Fender Twin – and this band makes me point the amp to the back of the stage because I'm too loud," he told me, incredulously. I checked this out at the London show a week later and it was true – even on the huge stage at the Brixton Academy. No wonder he was pissed off with touring. "I hate days off – you just end up not playing & spending too much money."

In recent years, I have to say that as a touring musician I have to agree, though at the time, it seemed odd to me that you'd not value time off in foreign climes. He missed his wife and his home. "They asked me how much money I wanted to tour (for) Lloyd's album, so I asked them for a stupid amount to price myself out of the job. They agreed. I should have asked for more," he said, ruefully.

I was keen to ask him about the New York scene. "John Zorn's one of my favourite saxophonists" I offered. "Oh, we go to Chinatown to eat and discuss jazz", said Quine. "I know a hell of a lot about jazz. Can't play it though." Those few words articulated a sentiment I'd struggled with for ages – "he knew a lot about jazz but couldn't play it" will be on my tombstone, if my relatives can find one big enough. We went on to talk about Marc Ribot. "At first I thought he was just copying me, but when I got to hear a bit more, I heard that he has his own style."

Then, of course, we went on to his time with Lou Reed with whom he recorded & toured after the Voidoids split. "I thought the phone might ring a bit more after I left Lou Reed's band. It didn't ring once. Not once." So it was fortuitous that my old colleague, Dave Cummings from The Higsons, had suggested that Lloyd Cole bring Quine out of ‘retirement' once the Commotions had split up. Actually Quine had played the odd session, notably with Tom Waits, but really just spent his time practising. He really loved playing and there was a wistful look in his eye as he told me that he was careful about getting guitars maintained ever since one which had a pretty harmonic tone (due to a misshapen fret) had been ‘cleaned up' and had lost that harmonic.

Now I'm about the age Robert Quine was when we had that conversation. It's amusing to note that I've worked with several people that he played with too – he was on Lydia Lunch's album Queen of Siam, and there's a running connection between Marc Ribot, Tom Waits, Hal Wilner and Marianne Faithful which brings a smile to my lips. Occasionally, I'll want to price myself out of a job, often I'll be wandering round towns in Europe I've visited too often, wishing there were fewer days off, and I scowl a little at the Young Turks who appear to be copying the ‘punk-jazz' that I've been playing for the best part of 20 years. But somewhere 'round there, the similarities end. Quine was the innovator of punk lead guitar ("people just want me to play ‘sick' chords all the time") and although he will be remembered primarily for his work with Richard Hell - the Blank Generation album of 1977 sealed his reputation - his catalogue of work as inspirational sideman is rich and varied. Zorn, Reed, Cole, Waits, Lunch, Eno et al have a lot to thank him for.

Sadly Robert took his own life around a year after his wife died. Just couldn't bear to be apart from her. No wonder the days off were torture for him.

A version of this article appeared in Nude Magazine. is maintained as a tribute site.

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