Soul Love

Soul Love.
Soul Love (live, 1973)
Soul Love (live, 1978).
Soul Love (rehearsal, 1983).

I was in love once, maybe, and it was an awful experience. It rotted me, drained me, and it was a disease. Hateful thing, it was.

David Bowie, interviewed by Cameron Crowe in Playboy, September 1976.

“Soul Love,” so sweet on its surface, so often interpreted as a picture of “youthful romance” (as per 1001 Greatest Albums) or as a message of universal peace and brotherhood, is rather clinical at heart. Love, whether that of a mother, lover or priest, is shown as being amoral, delusive, pointless and ruinous. (Love is “sweeping over cross and baby,” as if it was a plague or an infestation.)

The song opens with a mother at her son’s tombstone (the son likely killed in a war, having died “to save the slogan”), with “stone love” suggesting both a resolute, enduring love and a lifeless emotion. The priest kneels at the altar in bliss and in blindness. The teenagers, who are so besotted they believe they’re the first to ever fall in love, are just the puppets of instinct (“idiot love will spark the fusion”).

Blessed with a fine melody and layered with harmonies and, after the second verse, Bowie’s alto saxophone, the track gets unsettled by odd time signatures in the verse—it’s either in 7/4 time or it moves to 2/4 time on every fourth bar (the sheet music says the latter)—while Bowie again pairs major and minor chords (G to E minor and B minor, the same as in “Ziggy Stardust”).

The track begins with Woody Woodmansey’s drum pattern (a contrast to the slower, ominous beat of “Five Years,” sequenced before it), supplemented by bongos and shakers, then by Bowie’s acoustic guitar strumming and Trevor Bolder’s five-note bassline. Bowie’s vocal parallels the arrangement in part, starting as just a sung whole note (“stone”), then two quarter notes in the next bar, then six notes in the third, etc. Mick Ronson keeps to the background until the chorus. He and Bowie each take a solo verse: Bowie gives a passable alto sax solo, Ronson mainly keeps to the vocal melody.

Recorded 12 November 1971. Played in a few 1973 shows, a fixture of the 1978 tour, a rarity of the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour. It was the B-side to a re-issue of “All the Madmen,” and the Stage version was released as a single in Japan. Mick Ronson’s 1975 country-ska remake, retitled “Stone Love,” was later included on reissues of Play Don’t Worry.

Top: Alan Merrill and Yoshiko Mandai, Meiji Park, Tokyo, 1972.

7 Responses to Soul Love

  1. col1234 says:

    It might be “sweeping over/cross a baby,” in the chorus, but it really sounds like DB is singing “cross AND baby.” Ronson, though, definitely sings “cross a baby.” Anyone should feel free to weigh in on this fascinating topic.

  2. spanghew says:

    The lyric sheet (at least in the Ryko reissue) has “cross a baby”…but lyric sheets have been known to be wrong. At any rate, “sweeping over/cross and baby” is a much better lyric…making of “cross” and “baby” emblems of a sort, powerless against the onrushing invasion of “love”…even though (perhaps?) they ought to have more resistance… Yes, the song’s cynical (and the fifties rock I-vi-IV sequence reinforces that, parodically)…but the line about “love is not loving” actually adds a cryptically redemptive not: what is it to be “loving” that’s different from the “love” Bowie’s lyric condemns?

    A song I’d overlooked – and a better lyric than I would have guessed.

  3. This is a great little series of articles which I only discovered the other day. Like the way you balance historical info. comments on the music progressions, analysis of the lyrics and above all you are not afraid to say when a song is lame or excellent

  4. Emannekat says:

    ‘Sweeping over/ ‘cross a baby’ makes me think of the plagues of Egypt.
    ‘Sweeping over/ cross and baby’, on the other hand, suggests Jesus and the end and the beginning of his life. Either way, it’s a pretty ominous image, of innocence doomed (and both link up with the religious imagery of the second verse).

    But, although the portrayal of love is bleak, I don’t think it’s a bleak song so much as tender. There’s compassion for the ‘so many people’ he’d just sung about in Five Years.
    The second verse seems on the brink of his later demand for A Better Future.

  5. President Joan says:

    I just discovered there are lyrics at I checked out Soul Love and it seems you’re right, Chris.

    “Sweeping over cross and baby” according to the Man’s own web site. Seems to be the official version, then?

  6. Anonymous says:

    This song is so beautiful

  7. […] bam thank you ma’am A most intriguing track, because of it’s mystical feel, is “Soul Love” which, for me at least, evokes the existentialist Catholicism of Unamuno‘s The Tragic […]

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