How David Bowie, Kurt Cobain & Thom Yorke Write Songs With William Burroughs’ Cut-Up Technique

The strict real­ist mold that dom­i­nat­ed fic­tion and poet­ry for over a hun­dred years broke open in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry with sym­bol­ist French poets like Arthur Rim­baud, Stéphane Mal­lar­mé, and Charles Baude­laire. The next few mod­ernist decades made it impos­si­ble to ignore exper­i­men­tal lit­er­a­ture, which trick­led into the pub­lic con­scious­ness through all vari­ety of media. Pop­u­lar songcraft, how­ev­er, held out for a few more decades, and though styles pro­lif­er­at­ed, the stan­dard bal­lad forms—straightforward nar­ra­tives of love and loss—more or less dom­i­nat­ed into the 1960s, with the excep­tion of odd nov­el­ty records whose exis­tence proved the rule.

Though nei­ther ever aban­doned the bal­lad, it’s sig­nif­i­cant that two of that decade’s most inno­v­a­tive pop song­writ­ers, John Lennon and Bob Dylan, drew much of the inspi­ra­tion for their more exper­i­men­tal songs from poet­ry—Lennon from an old­er non­sense tra­di­tion in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture exem­pli­fied by Lewis Car­roll, and Dylan from T.S. Eliot and oth­er mod­ernist poets.

But anoth­er strain devel­oped in the fifties and sixties—darker and weird­er, though no less trace­able to a lit­er­ary source: William S. Bur­roughs’ sur­re­al­ist cut-up tech­nique, which he devel­oped with artist Brion Gysin. Just above, you can hear Bur­roughs explain cut-up writ­ing as a “mon­tage tech­nique” from paint­ing applied to “words on a page.” Words and phras­es are cut from news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and the frag­ments re-arranged at ran­dom. Bur­roughs and Gysin expand­ed the tech­nique to audio record­ing and film, and these exper­i­ments inspired avant-garde elec­tron­ic artists like Throb­bing Gris­tle and Atari Teenage Riot, both of whom shared Bur­roughs’ desire to dis­rupt the social order with their audio exper­i­ments and nei­ther of whom are house­hold names. But Bur­roughs’ exper­i­ments with cut-up writ­ing were also adopt­ed by song­writ­ers every­one knows well. In the clip at the top of the post, see David Bowie explain how he used the cut-up technique—“a kind of West­ern Tarot,” he calls it—both as a com­po­si­tion­al tool and a means of find­ing inspi­ra­tion.

In a 2008 inter­view, Bowie fur­ther explained his use of cut-ups: “You write down a para­graph or two describ­ing dif­fer­ent sub­jects, cre­at­ing a kind of ‘sto­ry ingre­di­ents’ list, I sup­pose, and then cut the sen­tences into four or five-word sec­tions, mix ‘em up and recon­nect them.” The tech­nique allows song­writ­ers, he says, to “get some pret­ty inter­est­ing idea com­bi­na­tions,” even if they “have a craven need not to lose con­trol.” Bowie almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly cre­at­ed the cat­e­go­ry of “art rock” with his appli­ca­tion of avant-garde tech­niques to con­ven­tion­al song struc­tures and rock ‘n’ roll atti­tudes.

Decades lat­er, anoth­er huge­ly influ­en­tial song­writer also made Bur­roughs’ tech­nique main­stream. Kurt Cobain, who had the chance to meet and col­lab­o­rate with Bur­roughs (above), used cut-ups to con­struct his lyrics—like Bowie, tak­ing the bits of text from his own writ­ing rather than from the mass media pro­duc­tions Bur­roughs and Gysin pre­ferred. Pop music crit­ic Jim Dero­gatis quotes Cobain as say­ing, “My lyrics are total cut-up. I take lines from dif­fer­ent poems that I’ve writ­ten. I build on a theme if I can, but some­times I can’t even come up with an idea of what the song is about.” Bur­roughs blog Real­i­tyS­tu­dio fur­ther doc­u­ments the artis­tic influ­ence of Bur­roughs and oth­er writ­ers on Cobain’s song­writ­ing.

Though Bowie and Cobain are per­haps the two most promi­nent adopters of Bur­roughs’ tech­nique, the Beat writer’s influ­ence on pop music stretch­es back to the Bea­t­les, who includ­ed him on the cov­er of Sgt. Pep­pers Lone­ly Hearts Club Band, and extends through the work of artists like Joy Divi­sion, Iggy Pop, and, notably, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who sup­pos­ed­ly drew cut-up phras­es from a hat to write the lyrics for the band’s ground­break­ing album Kid A. And though Bur­roughs can seem like a sui gener­is force, whol­ly orig­i­nal, Lan­guage is a Virus notes that he him­self “cit­ed T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land (1922) and John Dos Pas­sos’ U.S.A. Tril­o­gy, which incor­po­rat­ed news­pa­per clip­pings, as ear­ly exam­ples of the cut ups he pop­u­lar­ized.” The tech­nique can be traced even fur­ther back to found­ing Dadaist artist Tris­tan Tzara’s 1920 “To Make a Dadaist Poem.” Each case of Bur­roughs’ influ­ence on both avant-garde and pop­u­lar musi­cians demon­strates not only his well-deserved rep­u­ta­tion as the father of the underground—from Beats to punks—but also the sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between musi­cal and lit­er­ary inno­va­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs on the Art of Cut-up Writ­ing

The “Priest” They Called Him: A Dark Col­lab­o­ra­tion Between Kurt Cobain & William S. Bur­roughs

How William S. Bur­roughs Used the Cut-Up Tech­nique to Shut Down London’s First Espres­so Bar (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (11)
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  • Juan Carlo says:

    Bur­roughs is start­ing to pop up a lot in my life late­ly. This Amer­i­can Life recent­ly pre­sent­ed a BBC doc­u­men­tary about the man. I was fas­ci­nat­ed; made want to rush out and find “Naked Lunch”. (Here’s the bleeped ver­sion

  • Juan Carlo says:

    Oops, my bad, had been behind on my Open Cul­ture con­sum­ing today. Should have known.

  • Hanoch says:

    After con­sid­er­able prac­tice with scis­sors and glue in his kinder­garten class, our 5 year old is well on his way to becom­ing an expert in this tech­nique. Need­less to say, we are very proud of our lit­tle prodi­gy.

  • Lvx says:

    After con­sid­er­able indoc­tri­na­tion dur­ing a human’s most for­mi­da­ble years span­ning over a decade, our pop­u­la­tion is well on its way to see­ing absolute­ly no point in any tech­nique that seems uncon­ven­tion­al. Need­less to say, I am very proud of our stag­nant lit­tle race.

  • Paul says:

    Great to hear that Hanoch…I hope you will nev­er let dull grey cyn­i­cism destroy your son’s cre­ative tal­ents.

  • Manoah777 says:

    I remem­ber the first time I tried the cut-up tech­nique I got the phrase “you are the illu­sion in alche­my”. For some rea­son after all these years that phrase I got has stayed fresh in my mind…

  • Justin Hudson says:

    Great arti­cle! I’ve nev­er heard of cut-up tech­nique and am excit­ed to imple­ment in my song­writ­ing.

    Big thanks to [Mer­lin] Vir­tu­al Label LLC. for block­ing the Burroughs/Cobain video and mak­ing sure you get paid. Too bad you did­n’t include a for­ward­ed link to a paid site where peo­ple can actu­al­ly watch it and you can trick­le in your advert mon­ey.

    For those who are inter­est­ed you can now watch it here.

  • Clay says:

    This is not bur­rough’s tech­nique. He did not cre­ate this. French sur­re­al­ists should be cred­it­ed here

  • Gaki Gūru says:

    Sur­re­al­ism, real­ly. Anoth­er sur­re­al­ist, also hav­ing to do with David Bowie and Kurt Cobain, is Black Fran­cis of the alter­na­tive rock band Pix­ies — a band David Bowie and Kurt Cobain liked.

    I do agree it’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly Bur­rough’s tech­nique, but he did imple­ment it well. I agree with the French thing.

    One exam­ple of how that came into play (which has to do with the above), is the Pix­ies song “Debas­er”. It was about the French sur­re­al­ist film “Un Chien Andalou”. Kurt Cobain, when he helped make the song Smells Like Teen Spir­it, was try­ing to “rewrite Debas­er”, which is prob­a­bly what the main riff derives from (also, the drum part of the riff sounds sim­i­lar). So I know it is a Pix­ies rip-off, but also based off of Debas­er (per­haps the main riff is one way it is). The whole album Nev­er­mind was based off of the Pix­ies com­po­si­tion.

    Any­way, David Bowie cov­ered the Pix­ies songs Debas­er and Cac­tus.

  • metaprofessor says:

    I actu­al­ly found this page via a google search for Black Fran­cis and cut-up tech­nique. I’ve been exper­i­ment­ing with this tech­nique for the past cou­ple of months in my song­writ­ing, and while revis­it­ing the Pix­ies lyrics it was all of a sud­den very obvi­ous to me that this method was used. I was­n’t aware of Cobain’s ref­er­enc­ing Debas­er though — very inter­est­ing and very believ­able!

  • Dirk Mielke says:

    I had nev­er heard of this tech­nique. An advid read­er & writer I see exact­ly how I could use it when I’m writ­ing fast and flu­id­ly know­ing exact­ly where the piece is going..then out of nowhere I get dis­tract­ed and my train of thought goes com­plete­ly off rails caus­ing all my thoughts to pile up in a mas­sive derail­ment. Spe­cial thanks to the BBC crim­i­nal series main char­ac­ter ’ LUTHER’ for using & explain­ing the tech­nique with crime scene pho­tos. One can learn quite a bit from tele­vi­sion!

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