Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: 25 November 1965; 18 October 1966; 25 February 1967; July, October 2000
Producers: David Bowie, Derek Fearnley; David Bowie, Mark Plati
Released: 2 December 1966
David Bowie: vocals
Derek Boyes: organ
Derek Fearnley: bass guitar
John Eager: drums
Chick Norton: trumpet
Unknown: tuba, oboe
David Bowie: vocals
Earl Slick: guitar
Mark Plati: bass guitar
Mike Garson: Hammond organ
Gail Ann Dorsey: clarinet
Sterling Campbell: drums
Emm Gryner: clarinet
Cuong Vu: trumpet
‘The London Boys’ was recorded three times by David Bowie. It was first released as the b-side of his 1966 single ‘Rubber Band’.
I think the first song I ever wrote – there might be others but this is the only one that sticks out – was called ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’. (breaks up laughing) That’s an illuminating little piece, isn’t it? It was about leaving home and moving up to London. ‘The London Boys’ was another one about being a mod. It was an anti-pill song; I wasn’t particularly pro the thing – after a bit.
Musician magazine, May 1983
The song was Bowie’s first on the subject of drugs. Although he would return to the topic numerous times throughout his career, he rarely sang with the same disapproval as on ‘The London Boys’.
In the studio
The first recording was on 25 November 1965, with Bowie backed by The Lower Third.
The session took place at Pye Studios in London’s Marble Arch, with Tony Hatch producing. At that time the song was titled ‘Now You’ve Met The London Boys’.
He was always writing new songs, so that [‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’] wouldn’t have been in our repertoire for that long. We’d have run through it at Regent Sound, a recording studio in Denmark Street where we did our private demos to see how it came out. It wasn’t the first song we recorded for release at Pye, though. That was ‘London Boys’.
Tony Hatch, who was our recording manager, was happy with it. But in those days things were a bit staid and they had a committee of some sort to sanction new releases, so Pye wouldn’t let Tony release it, which was a big disappointment. We had to go back in with another number.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
Although Pye rejected the song, reportedly due to the line “You tried a pill”, Bowie continued performing ‘The London Boys’ for much of the following year.
Every number in Dave’s stage act is an original that he has written. As he says. the themes is usually London kids and their lives. However, it leads to trouble.
“Several of the younger teenagers’ programmes wouldn’t play ‘Can’t Helping Thinking About Me’, because it is about leaving home. The number relates several incidents in every teenager’s life – and leaving home is something which always comes up.
“Tony Hatch and I rather wanted to do another number I had written. It goes down very well in the stage act, and lots of fans said I should have released it – but Tony and I thought the words were a bit strong.”
In what way? “Well, it tells the story of life as some teenagers saw it – but we didn’t think the lyrics were quite up many people’s street. I do it on stage though, and we’re probably keeping it for an EP or maybe an LP. Hope, hope! It’s called “Now You’ve Met The London Boys”, and mentions pills, and generally belittles the London night life scene.
“I’ve lived in London and been brought up here, and I find it’s a great subject to write songs about. And remember, with all original numbers the audiences are hearing numbers they’ve never heard before – so this makes for a varied stage act,” said David, “It’s risky, because the kids aren’t familiar with the tunes, but I’m sure it makes their musical life more interesting.”
As far as the mod thing went, I never felt we were ever a part of that. We weren’t performing the kind of material all the other bands were. When we got to the line ‘Bright light, Soho, Wardour Street’ in ‘The London Boys’, the audience would cheer. I felt that at least with ‘The London Boys’ our audience could relate to it.
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann
‘The London Boys’ was re-recorded over a year later, on 18 October 1966.
David came to my flat to discuss what should now be done about his recording career and I thought that at long last I had an opportunity to do something really constructive for him. He was clearly anxious for his future although that day Sparta Music had declared their faith in him by taking up their option on his publishing contract. He told me of ideas he had for songs and that he would particularly like to record a song that he had already recorded for Pye but had not been released. Recording contracts invariably forbid an artist to record for another company any title that has already been recorded under that contract and therefore permission had to be got from Pye, which was readily given. The song was called ‘The London Boys’ and Pye had decided against releasing it as they thought the lyrics rather risky, a decision which probably cost them any luck they would have had with David. I thought it was a remarkable song and in it David had brilliantly evoked the atmosphere of his generation and his London.
The Pitt Report
This second session took place at RG Jones Studios, in Morden Manor on London Road in Morden, south-west London. It lasted for four and a half hours, with David Bowie and Derek Fearnley co-producing.
Three songs were recorded: ‘Rubber Band’, ‘The London Boys’, and ‘The Gravedigger’, which was later re-recorded and retitled ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’.
The session was paid for by Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt, and cost £71 and three shillings.
On 27 October Bowie formally signed to Decca Records. He was paid an advance of £100 and 150 for the master tapes of ‘Rubber Band’ and ‘The London Boys’, which were agreed to be his first single. ‘The London Boys’ was registered with Bowie’s publishing company Sparta on 21 November.
Bowie planned to re-record ‘The London Boys’ for his debut album at Decca Studios on 25 February 1967, although it did not happen. During the session he worked instead on a re-recorded ‘Rubber Band’ and ‘When I Live My Dream’.
On the 25th David went to Decca’s number two studio to record ‘Rubber Band’, ‘The London Boys’ and ‘When I Live My Dream’ in stereo for inclusion on the album, it having been agreed that the album should be released in stereo and mono.
The Pitt Report
Bowie considered re-recording ‘The London Boys’ in 1973 for Pin Ups. The plan was to have half a verse of the song appearing in between each of the others, although it never came to pass.
That dates from the first Deram album. It’s about a young boy who comes up to London, gets pilled out of his head, all those things. I used to do that – get dressed up, go up to town on Friday night, see what was going on, stay for the night.
Rock magazine, 8 October 1973
Bowie rehearsed ‘The London Boys’ ahead of the 1997 BBC Radio 1 recording ChangesNowBowie, although it was not performed on the show. It was, however, performed twice in June 2000, at New York’s Roseland Ballroom and the BBC Radio Theatre in London.
We’re going to do a couple of songs that we’re going to record… and these songs were written in 65 and 66. The first one, interestingly enough, is called ‘The London Boys’. But what’s really interesting is that this is the song that I used on my BBC audition, for BBC radio. And they failed me.
This is my really rather tawdry comeuppance. It’s not at all effective, but, you know, when you’ve got the chance. “This is my song, right, and you turned down this song…” It sounds like Norman Wisdom. “You turned down my song, you did!” You don’t even know who Norman Wisdom is. Is he still alive? Where’s he live then? That way?
So this first song, the interesting thing is that I wrote them as a 17, 18 year old, to be fair, and it was about my feelings about London when I first was starting to move around there. So I feel, when I start singing them, you’ll notice that I start getting pubescent spots. You really feel it, and I blush: if you look at me long enough I’ll start blushing, and I’ll get a semi erection that will last the entire… Doctor said the pills I’m taking should keep it for the entire show, but I’ll be quite satisfied if it’s just this one song.
BBC Radio Theatre, 27 June 2000
Shortly after the live performances, Bowie and his band recorded the fourth studio version of ‘The London Boys’ for the Toy album.
We shuffled the deck for this one. We decided to play a couple of the Toy songs at a show or two to give them legs, which turned out to be the final night at Roseland and the BBC Radio Theatre. ‘The London Boys’ seemed an obvious choice, and it had come along nicely in rehearsal. We didn’t set out to replicate the original – rather to let the players provide their take on it. Sometimes that means taking an unexpected detour or two.
We were wondering who could play the melodic line that opens and closes the song, and what sort of sound would fit. Gail suggested clarinet – like make of us she started off in school band on a traditional instrument, and she had played first clarinet in the school orchestra. This sparked Emm to admit that she, too, had been a childhood clarinetist… so off they went to dust off and retool their instruments and prove to us how cool clarinet could be. They not only played the main motif at the beginning and the end, but also provided a nice arrangement throughout the song with bit of harmony. Once recorded, Cuong Vu doubled the intro and outro clarinets on muted trumpet.
AS the song is light on guitar (and Gail was otherwise indisposed) I switched to bass and Slicky provided sparse bits of feedback and the odd line for color. Mike took a turn on the Hammong B3, which provided something of a smoky atmosphere that helped bring to mind images of late-night Soho in the mid-1960s. While we could have added more to it, the sparse feeloing seemed to be what the song was asking for. Also, this is one of the only songs where there are no backing vocals – a lone voice telling the story seemed the most appropriate.
Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) book
The second studio recording of ‘The London Boys’ was released on 2 December 1966, as the b-side of David Bowie’s ‘Rubber Band’ single.
‘Rubber Band’ was released as a single in the USA in June 1967. Deram opted not to have ‘The London Boys’ on the b-side, choosing ‘There Is A Happy Land’ instead.
In June 2002 a 1:26 snippet of the 2000 re-recording was made available to BowieNet members via the enhanced CD edition of Heathen. Another 1:30 excerpt followed later in the year.
Most of the Toy album leaked online in 2011. ‘The London Boys’ was a different mix from the 2002 versions. The full album was officially released in November 2021.
In April 2022 the six-song Toy EP (You’ve Got It Made With All The Toys) was released on CD and 10″ vinyl for the annual Record Store Day. The final two tracks – ‘I Dig Everything’ and ‘The London Boys’ – were recorded live at Bowie’s show at New York’s Roseland Ballroom in June 2000.