Reissues: Soul Love

A “minor” song on Ziggy Stardust, possibly spun out of “Five Years” (with which it shares a drum figure intro, a near-identical verse chord progression and a sense of pity for a set of doomed people), “Soul Love” has become one of the Ziggy songs I still enjoy hearing when it turns up. Bob Fay did a nice version of it at a reading of mine last year (speaking of which, I’ll be doing the same event—a book festival in my hometown in MA—next month. Subject will be Bowie and Iggy Pop; likely some live music, too.)

This is a hybrid: first half is the original entry, back half is the book. Book goes a bit more into the intricacies of DB’s vocal, the song’s debt to “Stand By Me” and the difficulties Bowie had recreating “Soul Love” on stage. We also established back in the original entry that the line is “Cross AND baby” though Ronno sings “cross A baby.”

Originally posted on 27 April 2010, it’s “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. Being in love is something that breeds brute anger and jealousy, everything but love, it seems. It’s like Christianity — or any religion, for that matter.

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

“Soul Love,” sweet on its surface, sometimes interpreted as a picture of “youthful romance” (as per 1001 Greatest Albums) or as a message of 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 cold emotion. The priest kneels at the altar in bliss and in blindness. The teenagers, so besotted they believe they’re the first to ever fall in love, are just puppets of instinct (“idiot love will spark the fusion”).

It opens with Woody Woodmansey playing rapid 8ths on his closed hi-hat and a kick-rimshot-kick pattern, garnished with handclaps and conga, Bowie’s rapidly-strummed 12-string acoustic guitar (muting a strum on the third of every four strokes) and Trevor Bolder’s vaguely Latin bassline. The verses’ rhythmic skip (a bar of 2/4 pops in midway through) has a counterpart in the harmonic dislocations of the refrains, where Bowie swaps an E major for an expected E minor (“sweeping over”) and upturns a triumphant C major dominant chord (“defenseless,” “inspirations”) by cooling it to a C minor (“all I have”), celebrating the coup by singing an E-flat note.

A dissenter from the song’s schematics was Bowie’s baritone saxophone, first heard harrying things along in the second verse and then taking over for a verse, reversing the top melody and then veering off from it, following a long, sloping phrase with a sharply arcing one, not-quite-executing a two-note volley and ringing through a few rising triplets to transition the key change. And though Mick Ronson’s double-tracked guitars war against Bowie’s vocal line in the refrains, he surrenders: his coda guitar solo plays Bowie’s verse melody note for note, with Bowie soon appearing to sing him out.

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. Ronson’s 1975 country-ska remake,  “Stone Love,” was later included on reissues of Play Don’t Worry.

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

27 Responses to Reissues: Soul Love

  1. Galdo says:

    It is one of my favourites on song. It’s always fresh and I enjoy listening to it more than the rocker numbers on the album (I guess they’re the reason this song is overlooked). I quite like the version on ‘Stage’. The phrase “love is not loving” is so meaningful and I love how it becomes a key song in his life.

  2. heynongman says:

    This and Moonage Daydream are what really hooked me on Bowie. I think what made this really endure for me were the background vocals. His backing vocals were so amazing on this album and Lou Reed’s Transformer.

  3. roo99 says:

    I’ve nothing insightful to say except this has always been one of my favourite songs….this and ‘Star’ always go together for me.

  4. Matthew says:

    “idiot love will spark the fusion”
    And I always thought it was ‘idiot love will spark confusion’ which, having just listened to Ziggy, it isn’t. However checking out the 1983 version linked to above it sounds like he sings ’cause the fusion’ and on the Japan clip linked above (1978) I sure it’s ‘idiot love will cause confusion’.
    This led the obsessive in me to dig out Stage and sure enough it’s ‘idiot love will cause confusion’ again! Now i don’t feel quite so silly, just confused.
    Of course I’ll just have to listen to Stage’s fabulous version of STS now.

  5. When I first listened to Ziggy many years ago, this was such a sweet relief after the doom-bringing of Five Years. I have always loved this song and consider it one of the best songs on the album. The sense of elation in the pre-chorus (“Love is careless”) with Ronson’s electric guitar barging in always gets me.

  6. Jasmine says:

    I always thought that Bowie was singing ‘to save the slow gun’ and thought of a young guy taking a bullet and his mother having that vision at his grave! Which kind of fitted with ‘Tony went to fight in Belfast’ in Star, in my head!

    Sweeping over cross and baby – this was recorded a few months after Duncan was born, so parental love which was new to Bowie, is another form of love he can sing about.

    Bowie never got over being ‘in love’ and he sings of teenage love, religious love, parental love, he understands and likes the idea of love, but struggles with true ‘loving’ of another person. Hence he sings it as a lonely person who can’t attain it. But for Bowie read Ziggy, as he was in major alter ego mode at that point.

    That’s how I interprete Soul Love! My favourite version is from Stage.

    I can’t get over the depth of Bowie’s lyrics when he was so young and this is just another example of it, which I’ve never really thought about until now.

  7. s.t. says:

    While I happen to love the quirks and imperfections in Bowie’s work, this is a perfectly executed song.

    I had a hipster girlfriend in high school who always belittled Bowie. True to form, one day she said “I heard the Ziggy Stardust album. I like it, mainly because it really wants to be Electric Warrior.”

    I don’t really agree. Sure, T.Rex was an influence, but Bowie had a lot more drama and interesting messiness going on in his music, even with Ziggy. Yet “Soul Love” is perhaps the closest that the Ziggy album came to Bolan’s simple, cool grooves on Electric Warrior. Bolan was not as ambitious a songwriter as Bowie, but he had perfected a sound, and here Bowie channels that perfection, and even improves upon it with some major key punch.

  8. Anonymous says:

    This song always got my attention because it causes a mood change after 5 Years . Soul Love deserves love just for David’s sax.

  9. Jason Das says:

    As a youngster, this lyric plus “Modern Love” had me convinced that Bowie was an avid Christian.

    Maybe it’s not as good as “Five Years” or “Moonage Daydream” but it fits between them perfectly. The verse is lyrically intriguing and emotionally powerful, the chorus is anthemic and catchy, and the *feel* is just wonderful.

    It swings in that special way the Spiders swung. I’m glad Bowie worked with proper funky bands later, but the Spiders did have a special shuffle-and-roll thing and this song is a great showcase for it.

    It’s also a cool production, with the handclaps, backup wails, the saxophone riff (and one of Bowie’s best instrumental solos), guitar harmonics, etc. Not much else sounds like this.

  10. audiophd says:

    I love the trifecta of “Five Years”, “Soul Love” and “Moonage Daydream”…apparently so did David and/or Ken Scott, since they basically segue into each other on the album.
    “Inspirations, have I none; just to touch the flaming dove. All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving…” Wow.

  11. Nice review as always. Lovely track, an early fave of mine. Love the Stage version. Also a super version in Japan bootleg worth investigating.

  12. Stolen Guitar says:

    Always loved this song, perhaps my favourite from the album. I love the intro, straight in from Five Years, shuffling and slinking into Ronson’s barely muted guitar, which then explodes in its usual, inimitable way.

    Very under rated song from this period; always makes me think it was the album’s Golden Years, another relatively over-looked classic which only acquired its true great recognition long after its initial single release. And, as Jason Das rightly points out, not much did sound like this, which was, and still remains, applicable to Golden Years, too. And yes, his backing vocals on this, and from this period in general, were fantastic.

    I read somewhere, long ago, a recollection by some English musician whose name I can’t remember, about them first hearing a Ziggy song on the radio and being startled by how English Bowie’s voice was. Many British pop stars had, since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, aped American singing voices, though there were notable exceptions such as the Beatles, so hearing Bowie’s south London accent was a clarion call for this person to go out and do it himself. Of course, Bowie’s voice and vocal mannerisms would undergo many changes as his styles changed, but these early-ish recordings really do capture his ‘true voice’.

  13. James LaBove says:

    I used to skip over this song, but over the years it’s become one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s interesting considering the lyrics from Ziggy’s perspective: It certainly sounds like a curious, flamboyant alien studying up on earthly conceptions of love prior to his arrival (and getting the general idea of it down). Great groove, well-sequenced. Love it!

  14. Landon Brown says:

    This, the second track on Bowie’s quintessential glam rock record, is… well, not that much of a glam song. To my ear, this is the precursor for Diamond Dogs; this is proto-Young Americans; this is Bowie already growing bored with the sound he’s yet to develop.

  15. princeasbo says:

    ‘Stone cold’ is an old analogy, Shakespeare used it, e.g. ‘cold as any stone’, that has latterly transformed into an odd sort of intensifier, e.g. ‘stone love’ here and, ahem, Journey’s ‘Stone In Love.’

  16. Dr Z says:

    In that case don’t forget the optimistic and danceable Stoned Love by The Supremes.

  17. Stretsam says:

    Love ‘Soul Love’ – one of my faves on the album – along with ‘Star’ and ‘Moonage Daydream’. Love the imagery of the lyrics. And yes, I also thought it was ‘spark confusion’.

  18. Gabe says:

    I don’t know why, but this was the first song I listened to after I got the news on 1/11. No particular personal significance, but I’ve always liked it a whole lot. Terrific instrumental interplay (esp. the sax), lovely soaring vocal, an unsettling melancholy that betrays the uplifting tone—at least, I think so…

    And, as always, great write-up, Chris. I’m loving the reissues.

    • dm says:

      hmmm… dating. 1/11 because he was living in the US when it happened, or 11/1 because he’s from the UK? tough one. Doesn’t matter though, just bored at work

  19. Dr Z says:

    Soul Love also had appeal,(perhaps in name only), to many fans in the UK who were drawn to soul music, which had been enormously popular in Britain throughout the 60s and 70s, and its later cousin Northern Soul which was at or near its peak in the early 70s.

    Admittedly it’s a groove rather than an out-on-the-floor tune, but I would be very surprised to learn that (former Soul/Mod tyro) Bowie had not kept an ear to the ground.

    From memory, many fans comfortably accommodated Soul music and Bowie in their record collections.

  20. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Can anybody else hear a bit of Soul Love in I Can’t Give Everything Away? I’m not a musician, so I’d have to defer to your knowledge Chris. Are the chords at all similar?

    • col1234 says:

      slightly, in a way—both verses move from the major home chord to a minor vi chord. but they’re diff. chords (G to Em, “soul love”; F to Dm, “I can’t”). a b minor shows up in roughly the same place in both songs

  21. Tyrell says:

    Isn’t Wake Up from Arcade Fire based on Soul Love?

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