Obituaries: Ricky Gardiner, Scottish musician who worked with David Bowie
The opening shots of Trainspotting, with Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner hurtling down Edinburgh’s Princes Street to the boppy beat of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, are among the most iconic of Scottish popular culture. Less well known, but equally important, is the life and work of the Edinburgh man who played lead guitar on Lust for Life.
Ricky Gardiner achieved local hero status in Scottish progressive rockers Beggar’s Opera before being recruited by producer Tony Visconti to play guitar on David Bowie’s seminal album Low. Gardiner is all over the first side of this classic record, with titles like Sound and Vision, Be My Wife and Always Crashing in the Same Car.
After making his idiosyncratic contribution to his influential sonic palette, he joined Bowie in Iggy Pop’s touring band, then in the studio to help compose and record the album Lust for Life, for which he wrote the low-key lap from The Passenger, one of Iggy’s signature tunes.
It’s no wonder Visconti hailed him as a “guitar genius” when news broke of his death, aged 73, while Iggy Pop himself paid tribute to ” dearest Ricky, lovely man, shirtless in your overalls, nicest guy who ever played guitar.” Thank you for the memories and the songs, rest forever in peace.
Gardiner was a self-taught musician, brought up on the diet of Italian opera gleaned from his parents’ collection of 78s before discovering, like so many musicians of his generation, the electrified marvel of The Shadows. In 1962, he joined the school group The Vostoks – named after Yuri Gagarin’s capsule – alongside keyboardist Virginia Scott, who became his lifelong partner.
Other bands followed, including The King Bees and The System, before Gardiner formed a new progressive rock band with bandmates Martin Griffiths and Marshall Erskine, using money they had earned working on the M40 Beaconsfield Bypass. While Beaconsfield Bypass might well have passed for the pantheon of progressive rock band names, they opted instead for the more cultured Beggar’s Opera, recruiting keyboardist Alan Park fresh out of his residency at Glasgow’s Locarno Ballroom and finding drummer Raymond Wilson via a newspaper ad.
Scott was called upon to supplement his revival repertoire with original material and Beggar’s Opera was granted a Saturday morning residency at the Burns Howff on West Regent Street in Glasgow.
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Their 1970 debut album, Act One, was followed by three more albums on the Vertigo label. Another Edinburgh cult hero, uninhibited frontman Linnie Patterson, toured with them until 1974, and legendary session drummer Clem Cattini played on their final albums, recorded for German label Juniper Records.
However, it was Gardiner’s later session work on Tony Visconti’s Inventory album that led directly to Low’s gig and brought him into Iggy Pop’s manic orbit when he was recruited into the live band for the far from sober Idiot tour. While others let loose, Gardiner kept his powder dry. “If others used [drugs], they had to be low-key,” he said. “I enjoy the occasional drink, but would be very happy if alcohol found its rightful place in the lab.”
The musicians came straight from the tour and entered Berlin’s prestigious Hansa studios to work on Lust for Life. Gardiner co-wrote Success and Neighborhood Threat with Bowie, and his holistic approach spawned The Passenger’s riff. According to Gardiner, “I was doodling on the guitar looking at the trees. I didn’t pay attention to what I was playing. I was in a light dream enjoying the glorious spring morning. At some point, my ear picked up the chord sequence. The riff is exactly as I took it that day. It was the gift of a glorious spring morning under the apple blossom.
Instead of joining the Lust for Life tour, Gardiner opted to stay home with his young family and start his own studio, experimenting with using computers to create meditative music.
He was a technician in search who could turn to ambient and classical styles as easily as rock. When asked to pre-record the guitar part for Bowie’s Top of the Pops rendition of Heroes, he attempted to replicate Robert Fripp’s original Ebow-assisted guitar line using feedback. “As we went through the song, my amplifier started to die,” he recalled in a 2001 interview. “As the song ended, so did the amp.”
He released a number of albums as a solo artist, including the guitar soundscape of The Flood (1985), Precious Life (1987), billed as a symphony for computer, clarinet and voice, and Songs For The Electric from 2013, a solo guitar instrumental album.
His personal creative highlight was producing an improvisational piece marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995, but its production slowed due to illness. Believing the cause to be electromagnetic hypersensitivity, Gardiner modified his studio and continued to work with Scott and his drummer son Tom Gardiner, who paid tribute to his father on Instagram, saying “it’s his spiritual side that keeps me going. really inspired and taught me a lot. We would talk for hours and hours about the meaning of life, meditation, astrology, etc., it was always an open book.
For the last 12 years of his life, Gardiner battled PSP, progressive subnuclear palsy, a rare neurological condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. His family has asked for donations to the PSP association in his memory.
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