Released: 1 June 1967
David Bowie: vocals
Derek Boyes: piano
Dek Fearnley: bass guitar, vocals
John Eager: drums, vocals
Marion Constable: vocals
Unknown session musicians
One of the most significant songs on David Bowie’s 1967 debut album was ‘Silly Boy Blue’, his first expression of his burgeoning interest in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy.
The song appeared on the second side of Bowie’s debut album. On the US edition, released by Decca’s American counterpart London Records, it was erroneously titled ‘Silly Boy Blues’ on the back cover.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve felt really guilty about the continuing situation [in Tibet]. I wrote a couple of things in 1968 about this situation. One was called ‘Silly Boy Blue’ and another was called ‘Karma Man’.
BBC Radio 1
Bowie is known to have developed an interest in Tibetan Buddhism in around 1965. A source of inspiration in this time was Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years In Tibet (1952), which chronicled Tibetan culture in the period between World War Two and China’s 1950 invasion of the country.
In February 1966 Bowie told the UK music press of his desire to visit Tibet.
I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous – and it’s said they live for centuries.
As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though. At the moment I write nearly all my songs round London. No. I should say the people who live in London – and the lack of real life they have. The majority just don’t know what life is.
Melody Maker, 26 February 1966
The lyrics of ‘Silly Boy Blue’ mention the Potala Palace in the Tibetan city of Lhasa, as well as reincarnation, the concept of the overself (a self-entity above the five factors of a person’s being – form, sensations, perceptions, mental activity, and consciousness), chela (a servant or student).
Eastern Philosophy was fashionable in the mid-Sixties, but Bowie was a more dedicated student than many. In 1966 he visited the Tibet House, a small Buddhist centre in north London, to speak to one of its teachers, Chime Yong Dong Rinpoche.
I stumbled into the Buddhist Society in London when I was about seventeen. Sitting in front of me at the desk was a Tibetan lama, and he looked up and he said ‘Are you looking for me?’ He had a bad grasp of English and in fact was saying ‘Who are you looking for?’ But I needed him to say ‘You’re looking for me.’ It’s absolutely true!
So he became my friend and teacher for quite some time. His name is Chime Yong Dong Rinpoche and he now is head of [unclear; he was Curator of Ancient Tibetan Manuscripts] at the British Museum in London. This was ’65, ’66. That’s when I met him. Around that time I wrote this next song
Tibet House Benefit concert, 26 February 2001
The two men became firm friends for half a century, with Bowie often seeking advice and guidance. Bowie also introduced Rinpoche to his friend and producer/arranger Tony Visconti, who became another of his students.
I said, come in young man. Why did you come to see me? He said, I want to become a monk. I asked him, what is your talent? And he said music. I said, so then don’t become monk; you do the music. And from that day that is what he did.
The Telegraph, 22 May 2016
Bowie and his then-manager Ken Pitt unsuccessfully attempted to interest Jefferson Airplane, Judy Collins, and Big Brother and the Holding Company in recording their own versions of the song. They had more success with Billy Fury, who released it as the b-side of his March 1968 single ‘One Minute Woman’.
Bowie performed ‘Silly Boy Blue’ at the Tibet House Benefit concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall on 26 February 2001. His stellar backing band included Tony Visconti, Philip Glass, Moby, drummer Zac Alford, and the Scorchio Quartet on strings.