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.