Obituaries: Ricky Gardiner, Scottish musician who worked with David Bowie

Ricky Gardiner, musician. Born: 31 August, 1948 in Edinburgh. Died: 13 May, 2022, aged 73

The opening shots of Trainspotting, with Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner sprinting down Edinburgh’s Princes Street to the boppy strains of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, are among the most iconic in Scottish popular culture. Lesser known, yet just as far-reaching, is the life and work of the Edinburgh man who played lead guitar on Lust for Life.

Ricky Gardiner secured local hero status in Scottish progressive rockers Beggar’s Opera before being headhunted by producer Tony Visconti to play guitar on David Bowie’s trailblazing Low album. Gardiner is all over Side One of that classic record, featuring on the seminal likes of Sound and Vision, Be My Wife and Always Crashing in the Same Car.

Having made his idiosyncratic contribution to its influential sound palette, he joined Bowie in Iggy Pop’s touring band and then in the studio to help compose and record the Lust for Life album, for which he penned the low-slung prowl of The Passenger, one of Iggy’s signature tunes.

Ricky Gardiner was hailed as a 'guitar genius' by top producer Tony Visconti (Picture: Virginia Scott)

Little wonder that Visconti hailed him a “guitar genius” when news broke of his death, aged 73, while Iggy Pop himself paid tribute to “dearest Ricky, lovely, lovely man, shirtless in your coveralls, nicest guy who ever played guitar. Thanks for the memories and the songs, rest eternal in peace.”

Gardiner was a self-taught musician, raised on a diet of Italian opera gleaned from his parents’ collection of 78s before discovering, like so many musicians of his vintage, the electrified wonder of The Shadows. In 1962 he joined school band The Vostoks – named after Yuri Gagarin’s capsule – alongside keyboard player Virginia Scott, who became his lifelong partner.

Other outfits followed, including The King Bees and The System, before Gardiner formed a new progressive rock group with bandmates Martin Griffiths and Marshall Erskine, using money they had earned working on the M40 Beaconsfield Bypass. While Beaconsfield Bypass could well have passed muster in the pantheon of prog rock band names, they opted instead for the more cultured Beggar’s Opera, recruiting keyboard player Alan Park fresh from his residency at Glasgow’s Locarno ballroom and finding drummer Raymond Wilson via a newspaper advert.

Scott was called upon to supplement their repertoire of covers with some original material and Beggar’s Opera secured a Saturday morning residency at the Burns Howff on Glasgow’s West Regent Street.

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Their 1970 debut, Act One, was followed by three more albums on the Vertigo label. Another Edinburgh cult hero, the unfettered frontman Linnie Patterson, toured with them until 1974, and legendary session drummer Clem Cattini played on their later albums, recorded for German label Juniper Records.

However, it was Gardiner’s subsequent session work on Tony Visconti’s Inventory album which led directly to the Low gig and brought him into Iggy Pop’s manic orbit when he was recruited to the live band for the far-from-abstemious Idiot tour. While others indulged, Gardiner kept his powder dry. “If others used [drugs], they must have been discreet,” he said. “I enjoy the occasional drink but I would be quite happy if alcohol was returned to its rightful place in the laboratory.”

The musicians came straight off tour and into Berlin’s prestigious Hansa Studios to work on Lust for Life. Gardiner co-wrote Success and Neighbourhood Threat with Bowie, and his holistic approach birthed the riff to The Passenger. According to Gardiner, “I was doodling on the guitar as I gazed at the trees. I was not paying any attention to what I was playing. I was in a light dream enjoying the glorious spring morning. At a certain point my ear caught the chord sequence. The riff is exactly as I caught 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 chose to stay home with his young family and set up his own studio, experimenting with the use of computers to create meditative music.

He was a questing technician who could turn his hand to ambient and classical styles as readily as rock. When asked to pre-record the guitar part for Bowie’s Top of the Pops rendition of Heroes, he attempted to reproduce Robert Fripp’s original Ebow-assisted guitar line using feedback. “As we went through the song, my amplifier started dying,” he recalled in a 2001 interview. “As the song finished, 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 2013’s Songs For The Electric, an album of solo guitar instrumentals.

His personal creative highlight was producing an improvisational piece marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995, but his output slowed with 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 dad on Instagram, saying “it was his spiritual side which really inspired and taught me so much. We would talk for hours and hours on end about the meaning of life, meditation, astrology, you name it, 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 similar symptoms to Parkinson’s disease.His family have asked for donations to the PSP Association in his memory.

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