A Grunge Cut Up Technique case study – Something Awful Happens

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It’s been almost a year since I first read about the Cut Up technique and how artists such as David Bowie and Kurt Cobain used it to create the lyrics to some of their songs. I was really interested in it as a way of sparking creativity and included it as one of a few tips for lyric writers in my ‘How to generate inspiration for song lyrics – part 1’ blog post.

More recently, I also had an article called ‘The Cut Up Lyrics Technique’ published in the April 2019 edition of the excellent Write Away online magazine.  In that article I called out how the cut up technique helps to counter the human brain’s tendency to think in too linear a fashion. The randomness that the technique introduces can make for lyrics that are more obscure and, hopefully, more interesting.

So, having embraced the concept, I thought I better put it into practice! This article looks at what happened when I explored a Grunge Cut Up technique approach. 

So Done – an early experiment and an interesting idea

Cut Up technique experiment - So Done lyric
Cut Up technique experiment

The idea with the Cut Up technique is that you cut random words or phrases from magazines/newspapers and then play about with them to see whether a lyric idea emerges. However, you can also go online for your inspiration and David Bowie was doing this many years ago, by using random word generators.

I decided to go with a slight variant of that online approach. I looked at my @TheLyricSlinger Twitter feed and picked out 10 phrases that caught my eye. And I chose 5 of them from famous rock stars, with the other 5 coming from other random followers.

My phrases included the Twitter thoughts of Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Sebastian Bach, P!nk, and David Coverdale. I managed to include all of the phrases in my resultant lyric, apart from Coverdale’s. His Twitter words were ‘Did I turn the bath off?’. My creativity didn’t quite stretch that far!

My resultant lyric is called ‘So Done’ and is about an aging gangster who’s trying to get out of that life. Here’s some of the lyrics:

So Done

(Intro)

I’m sick of the drunks with zero respect

The punks in the clubs completely wrecked

Who think they can take my legend away

They’re lucky to live for just one more day

 

(Verse 1)

So I’m packing my bags

Wanna leave this life behind

Hanging up my guns

And burying my knives.

It’s a young man’s game

I ain’t young no more

Crouching in the dark

On a hard wooden floor.

 

(Written by Simon Wright, February 2019)

 

Something Awful Happens – a Grunge Cut Up Technique lyric

Grunge Cut Up Technique - Something Awful Happens
Grunge Cut Up Technique

I was pleased by how my ‘So Done’ lyric turned out and really liked the approach of taking phrases from rock stars and splicing them into a rock lyric. So I decided I would try something similar again.

Around about that time, I had also entered a Song Collaboration Contest on the MuseSongWriters website. I was entering as a lyric writer and was paired with an American musician called Joe. Joe and I exchanged emails and he mentioned that he was mainly into grunge and alternative rock. So I started overloading on grunge music via Spotify, which was good fun.

Although I didn’t use the cut up technique for that contest, I decided that I would have a go at using it subsequently. This time, instead of picking on tweets by grunge stars I looked at interviews that some of the leading grunge names had done. And, wow, what a treasure trove of great phrases that process revealed!

My 8 phrases this time were:

My grunge cut up technique experiment was ready to be launched!

The lyric that emerged

Something awful happens lyric
Something awful happens lyric

If you read those phrases there’s a real sense of angst and melancholy. This is perhaps not surprising given that Cobain, Cornell, and Bennington committed suicide, while Weiland died of a drugs overdose. The fate of some of these grunge stars adds pathos to their words.

I’m conscious that this context will also have contributed to the phrases that I selected. So not quite as purely random as some might expect from the Cut Up technique. However, they were a selection of phrases with real potential and I just wanted to be able to do them justice!

The two phrases that really leaped out at me were (My brain’s) like a bad neighborhood’ and Every time I start to feel good, something really awful happens’. So they really were at the heart of the story that I started to tell. My protagonist was going to be in a bad place mentally. And he or she had experienced a situation where something awful happened after they had started to feel good.

Here’s the lyric that emerged:

Something Awful Happens

(Verse 1)

There’s no heating and my breath snakes to the vents

I rub the glass to see a little clearer

I see a ghost mourning its decay

And I want to smash through the mirror

 

(Chorus)

Every time I start to feel good

Something awful happens

Like the day that girl kissed me

And my school burned down.

Every time I start to feel good

Something awful happens

Do you think they would have missed me

If I’d melted into the ground?

 

(Post Chorus)

My brain’s like a bad neighbourhood

And I medicate myself

These are my last rites

Yeah, I medicate myself

 

(Verse 2)

There’s no rewind and my story’s out of control

I rub the lamp to get a little nearer

I see a jinn mocking my dismay

And I want to smash through the terror

 

(Chorus)

Every time I start to feel good

Something awful happens

Like the day Holly kissed me

And my school burned down.

Every time I start to feel good

Something awful happens

Do you think they would have missed me

If I’d melted into the ground?

 

(Post Chorus)

My brain’s like a bad neighbourhood

And I medicate myself

These are my last rites

Yeah, I medicate myself

 

(Bridge)

It might be a little weird

But this what we do

She said, she said, she said

On her last day at school

Play with fire

And everyone gets burnt

The smoke still stings my eyes

 

(Outro)

It’s getting pretty dark

It’s getting pretty dark

As I medicate myself,

It’s getting pretty dark

It’s getting pretty dark

Medicate myself

As I barricade myself

As I barricade myself

As I placate myself

Yeah, something awful happens

 

(Written by Simon Wright, April 2019)

 

Ambiguous meaning?

Silhouette of two people with lots of question marks
Ambiguous Lyric Meaning?

I didn’t really set up with a clear outline of what the story was going to be for this lyric. I think I wrote the ‘My brain’s like a bad neighbourhood’ section first, then the ‘Something awful happens’ section. And I had ‘Bad Neighbourhood’, ‘Something Awful Happens’ and ‘Medicate Me’ all as possible song titles. Ultimately it was the ‘Something awful happens’ words that kept getting stuck in my head so that resolved that question.

The key part to this lyric was when I wrote the ‘Like the day that girl kissed me / And my school burned down.’ Lines. I don’t know where they came from – maybe Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ novel/film got dredged up.  Anyway, whatever the inspiration, it then gave me the task of excavating what that was all about. I see the Bridge section as hinting at what may have happened but I’m happy for it to remain ambiguous. Whatever meaning readers/future listeners want to place upon the lyrics is fine by me.

Next step – get the lyric converted into a song!

Image depicting colourful musical notes
Song

I posted the lyric on the MuseSongWriters website for feedback and it got a good reception. So I then uploaded it onto the Kompoz music collaboration website, where it’s also attracted some nice comments.

I hope that some musicians will come along and transform it into a great grunge rock song. While I was feasting on my Spotify diet of grunge songs, the band that really caught my attention were Alice in Chains. I already knew about Nirvana and Pearl Jam and liked them from the 1990s but somehow I had missed out on Alice in Chains. They are great and I could see my ‘Something Awful Happens’ lyric being done in a style similar to theirs.

I’ll let you know if it does make it from the written page onto a song.

Why not have a go at the Cut Up technique yourself?

Just do it! wording on a post-it note
Just do it!

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article about my grunge cut up technique experiment. Maybe it will inspire you to research the Cut Up technique and give it a go yourself? If so, that would be awesome! And I’d love to hear how you get on.

For me, my next Cut Up foray is in a planning stage. I’m going to try something similar but with a Dead Rock Stars theme …

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