David Bowie’s typically enigmatic decision not to do any interviews about his latest album, The Next Day, meant people were left to put their own interpretations on the album’s unusual lyrics and surreal imagery.
Author Ricky Moody—who writes for the literary magazine The Rumpus—recently asked Bowie to explain his thinking behind the new songs. “I wanted to understand the lexicon of The Next Day,” said Moody, “and so I simply asked if he would provide a list of words about his album, assuming, like everyone else waving madly trying to get his attention, that there was not a chance in hell that I would get the list.”
To Moody’s surprise, Bowie responded by sending him a list of 42 words which supposedly provided the framework for the critically-acclaimed album. Here they are:
Maybe the answer can be found in a 2008 interview with Bowie. In it he described how he often comes up with interesting lyric lines by employing the ‘cut-up’ writing technique used by postmodernist author William S. Burroughs in his controversial novel Naked Lunch.
‘Cut-up’ is a literary technique designed to add an element of chance to the creative process.
It involves taking a finished line of text and cutting it into pieces—usually with just one or two words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged to create a brand new text.
The cut-up concept can be traced back to the Dadaists of the 1920s, but it was developed further in the early 1950s by painter, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin—and then popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Burroughs.
David Bowie explained: “You write down a paragraph or two describing several 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.
“You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this,” he said. “You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
This technique is also said to have influenced Kurt Cobain’s songwriting. And Thom Yorke applied a similar method on Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. Yorke reportedly wrote single lines, put them into a hat, and drew them out at random while the band rehearsed the songs.
Here’s Bowie explaining his cut-up technique in the 1975 BBC TV documentary Cracked Actor …
So there you have it … If you want to get all Bowie-esque and create some unusual and intriguing lyrics, simply reach for your lyric notebook and a pair of scissors – and start cutting and pasting!
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