Peter Sarstedt of Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) Fame Passes On
Courtesy of Ray Connolly The Daily Mail
Peter Sarstedt pictured with Anita Atke at London Heathrow Airport in 1969
Many popular songs catch the feeling of the time. That’s why they become popular. But few songs are able to freeze that moment to the extent that nearly half a century after we first heard it we can sing along to the lyrics.
That was what Peter Sarstedt, who died January 8, 2017 at age 75, achieved with his #1 smash Where Do You Go To (My Lovely). He was not quite a one-hit wonder (his follow-up, Frozen Orange Juice, also made the Top Ten), but Sarstedt’s career was defined by that No 1 song.
And what a song. Sounding unlike anything else that was around in 1969, it topped the charts all over Europe and in Australia, and was a hit even in Japan.
Just to hear that opening French-sounding accordion, playing in the then dreaded waltz-time — a rhythm your grandparents used to dance to — at the very height of the Sixties, should have condemned it to everlasting obscurity. But the very opposite happened. It touched an international nerve.
Because Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) was more than a song. It was a story, and a mystery. Who was this beautiful woman that Sarstedt was singing about? Was she real? Was she based on someone we all felt we knew, a film star such as Sophia Loren, perhaps, or Nina Van Pallandt from the singing duo Nina and Frederik? She wasn’t. Sarstedt never met either. Or was she an ex-lover who had dumped him, and was the song a litany of clues about her? Surely it couldn’t simply be a total piece of musical fiction?
Sarstedt had come up with the idea busking in Copenhagen in 1966. And, while living in a student hostel, in just a few minutes he jotted the lyrics down to create a string of images of a beautiful fantasy girl. Except that she wasn’t a complete fantasy. His girlfriend at the time (and later his first wife) was a very beautiful, blonde Danish student called Anita Atke. And, with her Danish accent, she may well have sounded a little bit to him like Marlene Dietrich.
She looked the sort of girl to give any writer inspiration — although the legacy of Sarstedt’s triumph was far from the ‘passport to riches and stardom’ most would imagine. What is striking about the song is the stream of references to glamorous people and locations which infuse it with such a flavour of adventure and sophistication.
Whether Anita danced like French ballet dancer Zizi Jeanmaire — as the girl in the song does — is unlikely, but she probably did look pretty good on the dance floor. What is even more unlikely is that her clothes were made by Parisian designer Pierre Balmain. But Sarstedt had met Anita in Paris when he’d been playing on the streets there, so the connection with Paris and her would have been firmly in his head. Sticking with his image of Paris as the city of romance it’s unlikely, but not impossible, that Anita would have lived ‘in a fancy apartment on the Boulevard Saint Michel’ — for the Sorbonne, where the girl in the song got her ‘qualifications’, is nearby on Paris’s Left Bank. Was Anita doing a summer course there when they met, we might wonder. And did she have Rolling Stones albums? Lots of other girl students in Paris would have had them, even if she hadn’t — the Stones always being somehow more chic to the French than the homelier Beatles. It was an inspired line, giving the girl a free-living, sexy allure that The Beatles never suggested.
If Danish Anita was the initial spark, by the time the song was finished, she had evolved into Marie-Claire, named after the French women’s magazine which then, as now, always had a beautiful girl on the cover. No longer a student, she had become a rich jet-setter, with a career built on her beauty. A habituee of the gossip columns with perhaps a capricious nature, she steals a painting from Picasso, whom she probably knows from holidaying in Juan-les-Pins on the Riviera where the artist lived. That, of course, would be where she wore her ‘carefully designed topless swimsuit’, showing once again what a free-spirit she was. Not every girl had the bravery to go without a bra on the beach in the Sixties.
A ‘friend of a friend’ of French singing star Sacha Distel (who, incidentally, told Sarstedt he was thrilled to be mentioned in the song), she is also given a racehorse for Christmas by the super-rich Aga Khan — ‘for a laugh’. To say this girl is well-connected would be something of an understatement. But there are always questions about her.
‘Where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in your bed,’ sang Sarstedt between the verses, relentlessly building the mystery about her. ‘Tell me the thoughts that surround you, I want to look inside your head.’
Who exactly is this girl, we now want to know. The reveal comes at the end of the song. The singer remembers her from before her fame and wealth when they were both ‘children begging in rags’ on the back streets of Naples, both ‘touched with a burning ambition’, but scarred for life by their childhood poverty. She spends her rich life trying to forget it. But he knows that ‘alone in her bed’ she can’t, because he ‘can look inside’ her head.
As a song it might have been mocked and parodied by some, but for me, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) was a brilliant piece of songwriting by Sarstedt, whose brothers Eden Kane (he changed his name) and Robin Sarstedt were also successful pop stars.
To the writer, it wasn’t ‘special’. But its portrayal of a model who drinks Napoleon brandy but never gets her lips wet could have been based on any of a number of dazzling beauties then, the models who represented a new breed of international celebrity.
When recorded, two years after it was written, it was probably improved by the decision of the record company to shorten it by around a minute because it was felt it was two verses too long for a single. (The longer version can be heard on Sarstedt’s first album.)
Peter Sarstedt — who was born in India and came to Britain with his family when he was 13 — continued to perform his best-known song for decades, and referred to it as his pension plan. Indeed, there were reports of Sarstedt earning £60,000-a-year royalties from it.
However, the song did not enable him to live like a millionaire. As he explained, his then record company, EMI Music, owned the rights — while copyright is now with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
He told one interviewer: ‘They decide whether it’s used or not. Actually they’re very jealous of it. It’s like their family silver which they keep on a shelf and will not let out — certainly not for advertising — and probably won’t until I’m dead, when the floodgates will open.’
In later years, the song was used in movie soundtracks, and Wes Anderson’s 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited earned it a new audience.
But Sarstedt was not part of the jet-set like Marie-Claire, he went, in his words, from enjoying ‘the life of a country gentleman’ in a mansion in Wiltshire to a semi in Coulsdon, Surrey, where he lived with his third wife. Until illness forced his retirement in 2010, he performed regularly. From 2013, he lived in a nursing home in Sussex.
So, in some ways the poignancy captured in the song extended to the man who wrote it.
His relationship with his inspirational muse fell apart; he never became super-rich as a result of its success; and even after he shared the Ivor Novello Award for the best song of 1969 with another classic, David Bowie’s Space Oddity,he never wrote another song that gripped the public imagination.
For years there were rumours that the subject of the song was a girl from Vienna who had later died in a fire, but then eventually Sarstedt told an interviewer: ‘I just made that up because I was under pressure to come up with an explanation. It isn’t about Sophia Loren either, although I would have thought about her because she was very famous at the time and she’s in the song in spirit.
‘Marie-Claire was meant to be a generic European girl, but if she was based on anybody, it was my Danish girlfriend. I’d been introduced to her in Paris in the summer of 1966 and it was love at first sight. She watched as I composed because I was in her room most of the time.
‘We got married in 1969 and divorced in 1974. But I still see her. We have a daughter, Anna, and son, Daniel.’ Anita went on to marry a surgeon, while she became a dentist and has now returned to live in Denmark. ‘She still claims the song is about her,’ Sarstedt said. ‘And she might be right.’
Although he sometimes talked of missed opportunities, by all accounts he was philosophical.
‘Most of my friends and colleagues have never even had a hit, never mind one of this magnitude,’ he would say.
But Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) was more than a hit. It was a story and a song that captured the hearts of generations.