This song is among the very first ones written by Morrissey and Johnny, in the autumn of 1982 shortly before the band's debut concert. It really took form during the rehearsal sessions at Spirit Studios in late 1982.
It was first recorded in a professional studio at the band's second recording session, at Drone Studios in Manchester in December 1982, alongside "Miserable Lie" and "What Difference Does It Make?", to be sent to EMI in the hopes of securing a record contract with them. This recording features Andy Gill on saxophone.
It was recorded again on 18 May 1983, this time for the BBC, for the band's first appearance on John Peel's programme (first broadcast on 31 May 1983), with producer Roger Pusey.
It was professionally recorded once more in July/August 1983 at London's Elephant Studios with producer Troy Tate in the sessions for the band's debut album. Unlike the rest of the latter material, it was never re-recorded with producer John Porter when he took over from Troy Tate later that year, possibly because the song was getting negative press at the time.
Versions of this song have been recorded in the studio, but none have been released. The only recordings of this song ever officially released are the Peel session and the live version listed below.
The song has been performed live 106 times by the Smiths, perhaps up to 128 times when taking into account the number of unknown setlists from the early Smiths days. This puts it among the top five most played songs by the band. It was done 34 times in 1982-1983 (perhaps even up to 50 times) before the release of the debut album. The reason why the song has been on the setlist so many times for only 45 concerts is that it was often done twice in those early days, once in the set and again as the encore. Following the release of the debut album, the song was done another 44 times (perhaps even up to 50 times) for 65 concerts given in 1984. It was the near-standard set closer for the first half of that tour. It was on the setlist almost every night at beginning of the 1985 Meat Is Murder tour, but dropped after June 12th, totalling 28 performances that year.
"It's an adult understanding of quite intimate matters." Also: "We must stress that 'Handsome Devil' is aimed entirely towards adults and has nothing to do with children, and certainly nothing to do with child molesting."
"...the message of the song is to forget the cultivation of the brain and to concentrate on the cultivation of the body. 'A boy in the bush...' is addressed to a scholar. 'There's more to life than books you know, but not much more' - that is the essence of the song. So you can just take it and stick it in an article about child-molesting and it will make absolutely perfect sense. But you can do that with anybody. You can do it with Abba."
"'Handsome Devil': It took a week or two to get my head round it. I knew I wanted to do it, but it took a while to get used to, with him singing those sort of lyrics."