Cutting-up bits and pieces and rearranging them to create something new.
In the wake of the sad news of David Bowie’s death, I have been thinking about the cut-up technique he used when writing lyrics. Also famously used by William Burroughs, the concept can be traced back to the Dadaists of the 1920s, where words and sentences are written, cut-up and rearranged into new text.
I have used this method whilst song-writing, when the dark shroud of writer’s block slips down across one’s vision. Coupled with overheard conversations, extracts from films, documentaries and plays, this method has served me well. I once sat alone in a pub, looking very scholarly, jotting down notes when in fact I was eavesdropping on the conversations at the bar and stealing little gems that drifted through the air. 90% was general chit-chat, but occasionally something would stand out on the page.
I would then retreat to the studio, cut them up, re-arrange them and ‘hey-presto’ a lyric would appear. I once sat down and wrote a song, stealing lines whilst watching the apocalyptic film Bladerunner. It’s an interesting thing to do because you begin to have a different experience when watching a film: you really listen to the dialogue.
My experience of writing has always been a momentous affair: moments of real clarity, moments of dread, but always revelation. I’m about to embark on a long overdue song-writing project. One that involves nothing but pen and paper: no instruments, recording equipment or technology to cloud my imagination. Like a tightrope walker without my usual safety nets, it could get messy.
However, coming back to the cut-up technique – that is one safety net that as a writer, I can fall back into, safe in the knowledge that the words will continue to flow, albeit in an unexpected order!
I’ve dug out the song I mentioned with the Bladerunner dialogue and loaded it onto Souncloud (listen below). The reason being that whilst writing this, it occurred to me that everything about this recording was cut-up, borrowed or as I like to think ‘recycled’.
This is also a concept that we also explore in The Write Factor’s Absolute Beginners writing course.
The backing vocal idea was ‘borrowed’ from Aphrodite’s Child’s The Four Horsemen (1972) featuring the late, lamented Demis Roussos. The first line melody I ‘loaned’ from a U2 tune from Zooropa (not that they will need the money). We cut-up extracts from video documentaries on The Isle of Wight Festival and The Beatles then interspersed them throughout. The reverse electric guitar idea was a classic George Martin idea we ‘shared’. The planets must have been aligned as we were honoured to have two old prog-rockers Brian Davison and Lee Jackson from The Nice play bass and drums on the track – the first time they had played together in 20 years. We ‘borrowed’ them from the late 60’s! (R.I.P Brian). Topped off with a bunch of friends singing backing vocals, all of the above was bounced back and forth between a DAT tape recorder (which we hired) and a cassette 4-track. Well done to Alex Duncan for recording and engineering it with such old and dilapidated equipment, before everything went digital and the ‘hand made’ approach disappeared. This recording is 26 years old.