I complained about our last #1 – Amen Corner’s ‘(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice’ – having nothing for the listener to get their teeth into. It just floated along, pleasantly enough… This next #1 though, has enough meat in it for several courses.
Where Do You Go To (My Lovely), by Peter Sarstedt (his 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 26th February – 26th March 1969
It’s a ballad, in the very traditional sense. An epic song – nearly five minutes in length – that tells a story. I love a song that tells a story. A story that’s introduced by some accordions, as you picture the singer strolling alongside the Seine in winter, hands thrust deep in his pockets, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. Mais oui.
He’s rueful, thinking about a girl, as Frenchmen are wont to do. Where do you go to, My lovely, When you’re alone in your bed… Tell me the thoughts that surround you, I want to look inside your head… (Yes I do…) I love those little run-ons at the end of each verse. They add to the idea that this song is being made up on the spot, that it exists only in the singer’s head, as he walks the river banks.
He paints quite the picture of this girl. Beautiful, glamorous, diamonds and pearls in her hair, famous friends and a fancy apartment off the Boulevard St. Michel… She went to the Sorbonne, of course, and talks like Marlene Dietrich. She has Picassos, and a racehorse from the Aga Khan, and sips only the finest brandy… I’m paraphrasing, obviously. All this unfolds over several verses, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. This song really is all about the lyrics, and the voice that delivers them: full of regret but still defiant.
It’s funny too. The verse about her carefully designed topless swimsuit, for example that gives her: an even suntan, On your back, And on your legs… And then suddenly it’s menacing, when he mocks her fake laugh: a-ha-ha-ha! There’s anger too: They don’t realise where you came from, And I wonder if they really care, Or give a damn… (Note the mild swear word! The worst one so far? Two hundred and sixty seven chart-toppers in.)
Who is she, then? Who is this deceptive femme fatale? Don’t keep us in suspense any longer, Peter! We know we’re getting to the denouement when the violins come in. Turns out, the singer knew the girl as a child in Naples, when they were both begging in rags. Her name’s Marie-Clair… So look into my face, Marie-Clair, And remember just who you are, Then go and forget me forever, But I know you still bear the scar, Deep inside… (Yes, I do…) As with all the best stories, it leaves things open to interpretation. Were they childhood friends? Young lovers? Brother and sister? Did she betray him to escape their life of poverty…?
The final line, I think, gives it away. I know the thoughts that surround you, ‘Cause I can look inside your head… They are twins! And she did do something terrible to him! Maybe… The same accordions from the intro play us out, as we contemplate this bombshell. Apparently, the title character might have been inspired by the fashion magazine ‘Marie Claire’, or by the actress Sophia Lauren (who was from Naples), or by Sarstedt’s girlfriend… ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)’ both won an Ivor Novello award, and was one of John Peel’s least favourite songs. I can see why you might either love or hate this record. It’s smug, and pretentious, and wordy. Myself, I’m leaning more to the ‘love’ side.
Peter Sarstedt was, disappointingly, not French. He just wrote a very French-sounding chart topper. Don’t worry, though – there will be a genuine French #1 before the year’s out. He was British, though born and raised in India, and was the younger brother of Eden Kane, whom we met back in 1961, when he hit top spot with ‘Well I Ask You’. Which, I think, makes them the first siblings to hit #1, following on from father and daughter Frank and Nancy. The follow-up to ‘Where Do You Go…’ made #10, and that that was that for Sarstedt’s chart career. Knowing he was on to a good thing, he wrote two further instalments of the Marie-Clair story – ‘The Last of the Breed’ and ‘Farewell Marie-Clair’ before he died in 2017.