RIP Ricky Gardiner: Our Man in Berlin (and Paris)

by Marshall Bowden

Ricky Gardiner is largely remembered by rock fans for his role as guitarist on David Bowie’s Low and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life albums as well as playing on the tour with Iggy where Bowie played keyboards. He began his career as guitarist with the Scottish prog band Beggar’s Opera, and his guitar playing always had an element of cosmic energy. Tony Visconti suggested Gardiner for the Low sessions after the guitarist dropped a few guitar lines on Visconti’s Inventory, the solo album that the producer was recording. Asked what initially impressed him about Gardiner, Visconti said “He was totally left-field and completely savvy with special effects. I was in awe of him.”

Gardiner died on May 13, 2022 and though he received mentions in British papers like The Guardian, his death was not widely covered nor his work actively discussed on social media. Gardiner arrived at the right moment, the right guest guitarist for Bowie at the time, joining guitarist/music director Carlos Alomar, George Murray, Dennis Davis, Roy Young, Brian Eno, and producer Tony Visconti along with guests like Iggy Pop and Mary (Hopkins) Visconti to create an album that looms not only over Bowie’s catalog, but over the musical culture at large. 

What may have made Gardiner the perfect man for the job was that he was a dreamy, cosmically-minded guy, one who seemed like he was connected to some of the more subtle nuances of the universe. Perhaps more connected than even he knew: in 1995 Gardiner fell ill and developed electromagnetic sensitivity, which forced him to no longer work in recording studios, though he was able to modify his own studio in order to produce recordings along with his wife and musical collaborator Virginia Scott. 

Lust for Life benefited from a lot of spontaneity and was largely recorded as the moon was waxing towards full,” he is quoted as saying about his work on the 1978 Iggy Pop album. “The song ‘Success’ epitomizes this jubilant energy and the album on the whole shows imaginative qualities consistent with this rising lunar energy.” Elsewhere he comments on the convivial discussions about ‘astrology & life’ that he had with other collaborators during the sessions for Low

His playing is described as being highly creative, thoughtful, and, as Visconti suggests, not without his own sonic bag of tricks. Listen to his work on the Low track “Always Crashing In the Same Car.” It’s already one of the more haunting songs with lyrics on Low, seeming to refer to incidents that supposedly occurred during Bowie’s out of control L.A. period as well as to Bowie’s life, metaphorically, during that time. It also has a dreamlike quality, both in the lyrics and in its languid sound. Ricky Gardiner’s guitar is the first instrument to pierce the general gloom, playing a lead guitar line that grounds what has up until now been a rather nebulous affair. Then, following Bowie’s second (and final) vocal verse, around 2:20 in, Gardiner unleashes a profoundly beautiful, stately guitar solo whose tonal coloration rivals that of virtually any rock guitarist you can name. Some would assume that Eno may have treated the guitar sound here, but that wasn’t the case according to interviews that Ricky Gardiner did with Thomas Seabrook for his 2008 book Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town.

Gardiner also took a lot of photographs during the session, which have been compiled into a video by Virgina Scott. The photos, set to a soundtrack by Gardiner and Scott, show the same convivial atmosphere that Gardiner described in interviews. Part of their charm is their verite quality–random shots, taken by an amateur photographer, some a bit blurry but managing to convey a sense of life being lived even while a record is getting made. They also give the impression that, despite the fact that Bowie was a bit wobbly and the music at times somber, the making of Low was anything but a depressing experience. 

After completing Low and Iggy Pop’s 1977 tour dates to promote The Idiot, Gardiner was invited to work on the followup Iggy album, Lust For Life. While The Idiot and Low were both mostly recorded in France at the famous Chateau d’Herouville studio, Iggy, Bowie, Visconti, and Coco Schwab (Bowie’s personal assistant) decamped for Berlin for final mixes, and Gardiner went there to rehearse for the Iggy shows. He stayed on and was asked to join Bowie and Iggy as they were writing new material for Lust For Life. By now, after having participated in recording Low and then touring with Iggy and Bowie, Gardiner was one of the core players in this cycle, comfortable making contributions. He co-wrote “Success” and “Neighborhood Threat” with Bowie, but most important he contributed the signature guitar riff and feel for Lust For Life‘s standout moment, “The Passenger.” The idea, as mentioned in his Guardian obit by Ben Beaumont-Thomas, came to him as he practiced in an orchard:

 “The apple trees were in bloom and 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.”

Iggy’s ear also caught the sequence and he wrote a great set of lyrics that were likely just a travelogue of knocking around Berlin nightlife for the past couple of years seen through a lens of Jim Morrison-style poetry and half-remembered echoes of Burroughs and of European Cinema. And the whole thing is anchored by Hunt and Tony Sales and driven by Gardiner’s humble circular guitar riff. Brilliant.

According to Seabrook, Gardiner was also invited to join Iggy’s Lust For Life Tour, but as he intended to start a family he chose to return home and build his own studio. There he experimented with recording various synthesizer parts as well as string pads and percussion over which he would play guitar parts. Virginia would sometimes perform vocal parts, as on their 1994 recording as Kumara. At times Gardiner’s playing is reminiscent of Robert Fripp’s more lyrical and ambient work, at others it demonstrates the more turbulent improvisations of Steve Tibbetts. In its sustained, singing voice he occasionally brings to mind Carlos Santana. 

Ricky Gardiner’s music shares some of its atmosphere and method with the work Bowie, Eno, and Visconti were doing on Low, but of course it’s his own musical language and universe. “The Flood”, recorded in the mid-eighties, demonstrates just how much Ricky Gardiner was on the cutting edge of combining digital technology with music, and with the guitar in particular. May his energy continue to brighten the universe.

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