To honour Bowie and the many years of wonderful music he gave us, I’m presenting this post on a songwriting technique he made great use of – the cut-up technique. It’s a method that has intrigued me since I was a teenager and I’ve made use of at different times myself, especially to jumpstart ideas or take an idea further if I can.
The cut-up technique has been around a long time now and was famously used by 60s writers such as William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch – not something I’ve read, I have to admit), and apparently even earlier by the likes of TS Elliott (Wasteland). I think it was Burroughs who described it as a ‘method for altering reality’.
The method is relatively straightforward and there are lots of opportunities for you to apply your own creative impulses as you go. You simply select some lines of text and cut them up (from as little as one word, for example, to word-strings of about five words), mix them up as much as you like, and then rearrange them into new text, cutting out any bits you feel don’t fit as you go.
Here’s Bowie explaining the process in Cracked Actor, a wonderful 70s BBC doco about him that you might want to check out in full, if you haven’t seen it…
(Just by the by, it was after Nicholas Roeg saw Bowie in this documentary that he decided to approach him for the lead role in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie was exactly the look he was after for his alien.)
Not long after this documentary was aired on TV, I recall reading — in an NME, perhaps — about Bowie assiduously applying the cut up technique during the creation of the incredible Bowie-Eno trilogy of albums Low, Heroes and Lodger. If you check out any one of these albums, you can easily see that the cut-up method was probably used to kickstart many of his song’s lyrics, with their diverse images, including ‘Blackout’, as shown below, from Heroes.
Bowie went on to co-develop the Verbasizer, an early Mac app which he used to randomly cut up to as many as 20 sentences in one go, to then reassemble as song lyrics. Late last year, I was lucky enough to get along to the extraordinary ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition when it arrived here in Melbourne. Amongst the many costumes and interesting paraphernalia on display, there was also the Verbasizer on an old Mac.
Here he is again, demonstrating it…
‘A technological dream’ — I like that.
Bowie is meant to have written Hallo Spaceboy (from 1995’s Outside, an album produced by Eno, as it happens) with the aid of his Verbasizer. And now, courtesy of the internet, we can all access a version of the Verbasizer to aid us in writing song lyrics, if we so wish. It’s called the Cut Up Machine and it’s right here (but come back, won’t you?).
As a test, I cut and pasted the lyrics to Blackstar (the title and first song on Bowie’s last album) in the Cut Up Machine’s text box field, clicked the cut-it-up button a bunch of times (to really jumble up those words), and then pieced together the following from the block of words the little app spat out. ‘Died Spirit’, below, is what I came up with. (The last line, by the way, came fully intact — very fitting.)
I’m why you’re the execution.
Died Spirit at the centre.
But I’m not a smile.
At times I’m of daydreams.
On the day of talking,
I was upside-down and at the centre.
I kneel and take a solitary star.
An execution star.
A passport to a diamond place.
I’m bravely solitary.
But I’m all yours when I bravely flash.
I’m an angel of want, an angel of all.
A sacred else star.
I kneel at your side.
I died and rose a blackstar.
I quite like it. It’s a cut up about Bowie dying created through his own words and through a creative process he often employed.
I also tried the cut-up method in the more traditional, manual style, jumbling the text up on a page in front of me. For the original text source, I took the last line of every last song from Bowie’s studio albums (because, what the hell, I just thought that would be an interesting thing to do). The end result feels less random and less original in its imagery than ‘Died Spirit’ above. It’s as if, though I tried to be random, because I was more involved in the cut-up process, more of Bowie’s original images survived. It feels less successful than when I utilised the Verbasiser-like app, but it’s OK. Anyway, here it is…
Knows what the noise can do
In this rain
dies softly a supergod.
A failing star.
It’s up to you and me,
to get our feet back.
To shake it up.
To move it up.
We’re no strangers
and it’s no game.
The last of the dreamers.
Alive or dead.
The last, wild, kiss-me-goodbye
I don’t want knowledge.
I want certainty.
I want the bloody obscene.
Gimme your hands.
Gimme your hands.
Cause you’re wonderful.
And so, at last, a final few words from Bowie on songwriting…
‘…it’s the realization, to me at least, that I’m most comfortable with a sense of fragmentation … The idea of tidy endings or beginnings seems too absolute. It’s not at all like real life.’
And some final pictures…