I first discovered Leah Kardos music and writing during my research for Silhouettes And Shadows – particularly her book Blackstar Theory: The Last Works of David Bowie (2022) and her blog post on Scary Monsters. This interview is a record of our discussion, from Leah’s first encounter with Bowie’s music, working through his back catalogue and how she experiences his albums now.

What was your experience in hearing Scary Monsters for the first time?

I was at music college when I meaningfully encountered Bowie for the first time, slightly later in life than most people. I remember clearly the day when we were shown ‘Life On Mars’ video in a lecture on glam, and my mind was sort of blown. At the time, I was a classic music-nerd hung up on complexity and virtuosity – I was really only interested in bands with good chops, virtuoso groups like Rush and Weather Report, even The Police. Bowie wasn’t as precise or clean musically, but he did so much more than that – he created drama and told a story. He used his whole self, not just his image, but his persona and history/myth, he used his voice like a paintbrush, and suddenly I realized that music could be more than its elements, it could be three dimensional, it can create a world for your imagination to live in. I never listened to pop music the same after that. 

I worked my way backwards through the catalogue, at the time Earthling was out (1997), that led me to discovering drum and bass, Goldie and Roni Size, then DJ Shadow and Placebo, Nine Inch Nails and then on and on. All the good stuff. I always felt grateful to have Bowie’s recommendations, whatever writers, artists, other musicians he liked generally appealed to me also – what a gift to be given a kind of map. One of the things that I grieved when he died was losing that sense of him being a reliable cultural compass. So anyway, I bought the CD [of Scary Monsters] as I worked my way back, and I really got stuck on it – it practically played on loop in my car for nearly 2 years. The strangeness of it was compelling, and it had this muscular, fresh and full sound, I still believe it remains timeless in its production—it sounds like it could have been made yesterday.

Scary Monsters knocked me over again when I reached my mid-30s. I could see and sort of identify with a man in that period of his life [Bowie was 33 in 1980], no longer the bright young thing, airing disappointments and self-doubt. Especially on ‘Teenage Wildlife’, the panic of getting older and younger people asking you for advice and you’re like “don’t ask me I don’t know any hallways!”. That really resonated with me. That and the rage and apathy and romance and panic of it all. Ambiguous mess of feelings that you only start to feel and understand as you begin to grow up a bit, understanding who you are and start seeing the world for what it is.

david bowie scary monsters kingdom come

What are your thoughts on ‘Teenage Wildlife’ in the context of Gary Numan; and the claim that Bowie was taking aim at younger pop stars who had been labeled as his direct musical descendants?

Listening to Numan’s Replicas you can hear how he borrows from Bowie’s style, and in this I feel like I can hear Bowie repaying the gesture with a hint of mockery. But the ‘Wildlife’ vocal is extraordinarily unhinged, like a cocktail of ‘Heroes’ histrionics with David Byrne’s shouty dynamics and Ronnie Spector’s soulful-insolent affectation. The borderline-manic delivery sheds an interesting light on the lyrics… And it’s really in the lyric that Bowie seems to diss the younger generation of musicians riding the wave of his influence.

Yes, like many of his songs Bowie manages to sound unruly and a bit manic, but in a very disciplined way.

Scary Monsters achieves a great synthesis of Bowie’s angular, funk/motoric style at the end of the 70s with more new wave production values and performance tics of bands and artists like Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo, Numan. There’s also the NYC/Lennon connection, and Bowie evoking the primal scream therapy-as-singing, which cycles back to Plastic Ono Band (which I think was sort of presaged by that revised version of Space Oddity that he made for the Kenny Everett special, which sounds very Plastic Ono Band-era Lennon to me). The call back draws attention to the passing of generations and eras, and by evoking Lennon’s transitional, psychologically quite heavy moment, he is encapsulating his own mad decade, giving us the update on Major Tom, etc.

For me this process is parodied on the earlier 1979 single, DJ. Bowie has his hand on the ‘lever’ testing and sampling the cultural climate while also trying to man the ‘tiller’ and continue shaping the future direction of what pop music can be. Jumping forward, I was keen to ask — what made you want to write your book, Blackstar Theory?

Because I came to Bowie later in his career, the late period was ‘my’ era of Bowie – the thing that I was present for. I really wanted to write about Blackstar because the whole reveal of that record, from the Blackstar music video to the announcement of his death and the aftermath of that… I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to write about it. It was also a great opportunity to double-down on my stance as a musicologist – I do get annoyed when the discourse around Bowie’s contribution to culture focusses on his fashion, his hair, his gender and sexuality and hardly ever talks about his music and what it does. So I went in with a desire to use music analysis as a way to understand Bowie better, after his life’s work was concerned with the creation of music. He made so much music, and the music is loaded with details that say so much. I wanted to begin with the music and work my way outwards from there.

I joined Bowie Net back in 1997 [the online fan community page, with a message board occasionally visited by Bowie under the pseudonym ‘Sailor’] and I felt I could speak about my era of Bowie, my lived experience as fan, using that as a lens to also try and make sense of what he did in this last period. The whole book was a very deliberate assemblage of evidence drawn from analysis, and considering what the music, imagery and references do, how they resonate or rub against each other, what ideas these combinations and constellations evoke. Like when you puzzle over some very specific, odd detail that was clearly deliberately placed there by the artist…  and then suddenly, one day, it just clicks together — that spirit really drove the book. 

It became an articulation of the themes of his whole career, and unintentionally, it sort of became an act of closure for me to write it. It’s weird, my Dad died on the day the book came out. All of that research and reading that I did finding the philosophical frames and ways of understanding and reckoning with mortality that crop up in Bowie’s last works, stuff about impermanence, nowness and Jungian ideas about striving towards individuation… all of it genuinely helped me navigate grieving for my dad.

From the cover to the concept, there’s a beautiful metaphor running from those last two albums and continued through your book – how much faith do you put into the cosmology of Bowie’s musical universe? 

While he was alive, you get used to the constant changes in Bowie’s work and perhaps those aesthetic shifts can obscure the fact that Bowie’s work is remarkably consistent. It wasn’t until he had died and the catalogue was complete did I really see and appreciate that overall coherence. Threads that run throughout: isolation, shadows, chaos, questing for love.

The star metaphors return in the last works, front and centre on Blackstar, but also on The Next Day’s ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight”’ It’s like Bowie’s body of work sits within its own galaxy, to which he added more layers, black hole metaphors, sci-fi storyline conclusions for Major Tom on the ‘Blackstar’ video, and for Thomas Jerome Newton in Lazarus. I just think he sewed up those Bowie-myth threads so elegantly, but also in a way that opens up philosophical doorways that could lead to genuine enlightenment around our im/mortal potentials.

Loaded question – do you have a favourite Bowie book?

I really like Chris O Leary’s writing [author of song-by-song books Rebel Rebel and Ashes To Ashes, and author of the blog – Pushing Ahead Of The Dame]. He’s an excellent writer and critic – he comes to Bowie’s music with an open mind, and he’s honest. He’s also brilliant at connecting the tiny-but-significant threads that make engaging with the music a deeper and more rewarding experience. His writing was the high watermark that I aspired to get close to with my own efforts. .

I enjoy David Buckley’s Strange Fascination. He’s the closest we have to an official Bowie biographer, in my opinion. I also appreciated the Bowie On Bowie book of collected interviews. Bowie did so many interviews in 2003, he was very forthcoming in that period and I feel we get a greater glimpse behind that Bowie persona. I haven’t head Jérôme Soligny’s massive Rainbow Man tome yet, but I’ve only heard good things. 

Natural follow-up: do you have a favourite Bowie song?

Today, I’ll say ‘Teenage Wildlife’. It’s the uncertainty of finding yourself an authority figure – by accident – and you just don’t know how to explain that, or to give people the answers they’re looking for because you don’t understand the question or what they want from you.

In your blog post about Scary Monsters you quote various new wave influences – how does Lodger fit into this transition; and what do you think of that album now?

The 2017 remix by Tony Visconti made a big difference to how I hear and appreciate Lodger today, it really brings the music to life and the production is so vibrant and energised. 

Lodger tells the story of ‘I’ve been on tour and seen a lot of the world, and it’s not so pretty’. Looking out on the world it does hint towards Scary Monsters in its darker edges: the depleted energy of a world-weary traveler suffering from mental health issues. In this sense, Lodger and Scary Monsters are more of a pair of records than the idea of a complete ‘Berlin’ trilogy.

Can we talk about “Ashes To Ashes” – on a musical level – it always struck me as something strange and off-kilter, but still a tight pop single – how would you explain the oddity of the song?

To begin with, Dennis Davis’ drumbeat jumps with a tripping energy, it brings in the backbeat sooner, making for a choppy and destabilized symmetry, something that’s hard to dance to.

And in the interludes and pre-chorus, the main keyboard riff is across four bars, but the chord progression shifts over three bars, so the two elements are out of balance, and phase around each other. This lends the song a subtle sense of structural destabilization, vague and blurry drama overhangs everything, nothing quite lines up like it should. It’s the central oddity – among others – that I believe makes the track so compelling as a pop song. 

As someone who has worked alongside him, what is your perspective on Tony Visconti’s production of Scary Monsters?

I have spoken to Tony about it – it was a running joke that whatever next album he and David would work on would be their ‘Sgt. Pepper’. But this album was one that they were both really proud of, and the joke goes that after Scary Monsters, they didn’t set out to make their next project the next Sgt. Pepper, but ‘the next Scary Monsters’. I thought that was really cute. After the disappointments with studio resources and crap facilities they had for Lodger, it was a priority for them to work in a good studio with great, cutting edge gear, like the Power Plant in New York and Tony’s own Good Earth studio in London. 

Are you looking into more Bowie projects / music / books in the future?

I’ve promised a chapter essay on ‘No Plan’ for a collection that is forthcoming, but the big job I’m currently working on is a 33 1/3 series book on Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love album. My head is very much in the Kate Bush clouds at the moment – I’m really loving it. [There’s a great interview on this forthcoming book – here.]

Leah Kardos is an Australian musician, writer and academic living and working in London. At Kingston University she lectures in music and music technology, and is the Project Leader of the Visconti Studio, a recording and research facility co-founded with legendary producer Tony Visconti. Leah recently produced an excellent series of videos breaking down individual Bowie tracks based upon her book  Blackstar Theory: The Last Works of David Bowie. Find out more about her work on her website –

Adam Steiner writes about music, street-art culture, architecture and poetry. His books include Silhouettes and Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps),  Into the Never: Nine Inch Nails and the Creation of the Downward Spiral and the novel Politics of the Asylum. His next book is Darker with the Dawn: Nick Cave’s Songs of Love and Death (2023) Read more about Silhouettes And Shadows

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