In the studio

A widely-bootlegged demo of ‘Silly Boy Blue’ was recorded in the summer of 1965 with Bowie’s then-band the Lower Third. It was taped at RG Jones Studios at Morden Manor in south-west London.

The demo features a completely different set of lyrics, about a teenage runaway in London who regrets his decision yet feels estranged from his past life:

Tabletop mountain is feeling the rain
People are walking down Forest Bridge Lane
A padre takes the school
One boy breaks a rule
Silly Boy Blue, Blue

Fir cones lie heavy like gold in your hand
Feeling the soft dirt, it wrinkles like sand
One boy cried that day
Another ran away
Silly Boy Blue, Blue

I wish I wish, I wish again
I had not run away
But maybe soon I’ll go back home again
They’ll take me in again
They’ll take me

La la la la la la la-la la-la
La la la la la la la-la la-la
La la la la-la
La la la la-la
Silly Boy Blue, Blue

Memories I’ve seen are all dark in the past
Feeling him growing and ageing so fast
I’ve got the mail today
Oh, someone’s passed away
Silly Boy Blue, Blue
Silly Boy Blue
Ooh Silly Boy Blue
Ooh Silly Boy Blue

‘Silly Boy Blue’ was one of a number of songs recorded on 8 and 9 December 1966 for Bowie’s debut album. The sessions took place at Decca’s Studio 2 in north London; also recorded on these days were ‘Sell Me A Coat’, ‘Little Bombardier’, and ‘Maid Of Bond Street’.

The song is unusual for containing backing vocals – most others on the album featured Bowie alone. The singers included Dek Fearnley and John Eager from Bowie’s band the Buzz, and Marion Constable – a friend of Fearnley who was a great-granddaughter of the celebrated landscape painter John Constable.

It was recorded again in early 1967 by the Riot Squad, when Bowie was briefly a member of the group. On 5 April they recorded seven instrumental versions of ‘Silly Boy Blue’, again at Decca, with a more conventional beat group arrangement.

Bowie also recorded a version of the song with just an acoustic guitar backing. This was included on the Riot Squad’s 2012 compilation The Last Chapter: Mods & Sods, and on their Toy Soldier EP in 2013.

‘Silly Boy Blue’ was recorded again by Bowie in 2000 for the unreleased album Toy, which leaked online in 2011.

I suppose I’m midway between high art and low art – I’m a mid-art populist and postmodernist Buddhist who is casually surfing his way through the chaos of the late twentieth century.
David Bowie

BBC recordings

Bowie recorded ‘Silly Boy Blue on two occasions for BBC radio, both for the Top Gear show. The first was taped on 18 December 1967 and broadcast on Christmas Eve, with Bowie singing and playing guitar with accompaniment from the Arthur Greenslade Orchestra.

This performance was released on the deluxe reissue of his debut album in 2010, along with the other songs from the session: ‘Love You Till Tuesday’, ‘In The Heat Of The Morning’, ‘When I Live My Dream’, and ‘Little Bombardier’.

The second BBC recording was made on 13 May 1968, and broadcast on 26 May. This time Bowie was backed by the Tony Visconti Orchestra – fourteen musicians including guitarist John McLaughlin and bassist Herbie Flowers. They performed five songs – ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’, ‘In The Heat Of The Morning’, ‘Karma Man’, ‘When I’m Five’, and ‘Silly Boy Blue’. All but ‘When I’m Five’ were issued on Bowie At The Beeb in September 2000. ‘Silly Boy Blue’ was also included on the 2019 box set Conversation Piece.

This second BBC recording of the song featured an elaborate Visconti arrangement, with Bowie singing “Chime, Chime, Chime” during the instrumental passage in tribute to Chime Youngdong Rinpoche.