For many weeks in the spring and summer of 1969, the names of Zizi Jeanmaire, the Aga Khan and Juan-les-Pins reverberated mellifluously around the British and international pop scene. They appeared in the lyrics of the chart-topping Where Do You Go to (My Lovely), written and sung by Peter Sarstedt, who has died aged 75.
Composed in waltz time, bookended by generic French-flavoured accordion phrases and with echoes of francophone chansonniers such as Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, the song told the story of one Marie Claire, who had risen from the “back streets of Naples” to join the Mediterranean jet-set. When the similarity of this back-story to that of Sophia Loren was pointed out, Sarstedt was quick to state: “I really wasn’t thinking of anyone specific.”
He was born in Delhi, one of six children of English expatriates, Albert and Coral Sarstedt. Albert was an accountant who managed a tea plantation in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal. Following his death in 1954, the family moved to south London.
The Sarstedts were a musical family and Peter, his older brother Richard, and younger siblings Clive and Lorraine, all learned the guitar. This was the era of skiffle, and the three brothers joined a group, the Fabulous Five. They played at church halls and coffee bars around the Croydon area before metamorphosing into a beat group, the Saints, with Richard Sarstedt as the featured singer. He was offered a recording contract in 1960, and after a change of name to Eden Kane, scored a No 1 hit with Well I Ask You the following year.
Peter played bass guitar in Eden Kane's backing group until, in 1965, his brother decided to move to Australia. Peter emigrated briefly to Copenhagen, where he began to write songs in a contemporary folk vein. Returning to London, he began a recording career as Peter Lincoln before reverting to his real name. In 1968 he signed to the United Artists label, but his first single, I Am a Cathedral, was unsuccessful.
He next came up with Where Do You Go to (My Lovely). Sarstedt later explained that he was following a trend for meaningful songs of more than three minutes' duration: "I wanted to write a long extended piece because I was working in folk clubs and universities."
When Sarstedt and the producer Ray Singer presented the record company with the completed track, the response was unpromising: the song was too long, it featured only three instruments, including an accordion, and no drums. Eventually, United Artists relented after cutting one verse which included the line "your body is firm and inviting". Within a few weeks of its release, Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) had topped the charts and Sarstedt's bushy hair and Zapata moustache were regularly featured on Top of the Pops.
The song stayed at No 1 for four weeks before making way for Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) went on to top the charts throughout most of Europe as well as Australia and Japan, but its cosmopolitanism failed to excite record buyers in the US, where it sold poorly.
Although it won the Ivor Novello award for best song of 1969 (shared with Space Oddity by David Bowie), Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) divided listeners at the time and has done ever since, with some finding it pretentious, if not preposterous. It inspired parodies by Roger McGough, John Otway and the Flight of the Conchords. On the other hand, the director Wes Anderson included it on the soundtrack of two films, Hotel Chevalier (2007) and The Darjeeling Limited (2012), and the British group Right Said Fred, made a comparatively respectful cover version in 2006. Sarstedt composed a follow up for his 1997 album England's Lane. The Last of the Breed (Lovely 2) described Marie Claire 20 years on and living in a London of Claridge's, Harrods and John Galliano.
The follow-up single, Frozen Orange Juice, was a Top 10 hit later in 1969, but further records were not commercially successful, although Sarstedt's compositions continued to find admirers: one reviewer described the song Beirut as "an entire novel of Eric Ambler complexities in three minutes".
From the 1970s until his retirement in 2010 when he was diagnosed with the progressive supranuclear palsy that led to his death, Sarstedt recorded more than a dozen albums and performed frequently. Among the albums was a 1973 collaboration with his brothers, Worlds Apart Together. Using the name Robin Sarstedt, his younger brother Clive had his own hit record with My Resistance Is Low in 1976, making the Sarstedts the first family with three siblings to achieve separate chart success. For some years, Peter Sarstedt was a mainstay of the Solid Silver 60s touring show alongside other veterans of the era.
Sarstedt was twice married and had two children, Anna and Daniel.
– Guardian Service