AT a time when most singers were content to tell us in general terms about how much in love they were, or alternatively how sad they were at their recent break-up, Peter Sarstedt gave us an epic romantic novel in song.
A relationship was detailed over many years, with exotic and colourful characters and locations, beginning with two children begging in rags in the back streets of Naples. The girl, Marie-Claire, grows up to become a renowned international beauty, a member of the “Jet Set”, a friend of the Aga Khan and Pablo Picasso. She left her erstwhile playmate behind physically. But emotionally? Well, that was less clear . . .
Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) was Number One for four weeks in 1969. A wistful ballad it was a marked contrast to other recent Number Ones such as Lily the Pink and Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da. With its references to Juan-les-Pins and St Moritz and its accordion accompaniment, this was exotic stuff that you might more readily expect to hear in a Parisian cafe than on Radio 1.
With his dark, good looks, droopy moustache and sad, expressive eyes, Sarstedt himself seemed both romantic and exotic. He was born in India, though he grew up in Croydon. His elder brother Richard had already topped the charts, under the name Eden Kane, with Well I Ask You in 1961 and his younger brother Robin had a Number Three with My Resistance is Low in 1976.
Only Sugar Sugar, Get Back and Honky Tonk Women sold more copies in the UK in 1969 than Where Do You Go To. It was Number One in 14 countries. Sarstedt had only one other UK Top Ten hit, Frozen Orange Juice, though he retained a loyal fan base, continued to make new records and was discovered by a new audience when Where Do You Go To was used on the soundtrack of Wes Anderson’s film The Darjeeling Limited (2007).
One of six children, Peter Eardley Sarstedt was born in Delhi, in India, in 1941, when it was still the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire. His parents were civil servants, though his father subsequently took on the management of a tea plantation and Peter was packed off to boarding school.
The family decided to move to England in the 1950s, but the father Albert Sarstedt died before the move. It was a physical and emotional upheaval for the children to find themselves fatherless in a foreign country.
The brothers embraced the music scene and Richard formed a skiffle group The Fabulous Five that included his younger siblings Peter and Robin, or Clive as he was then. But they had musical ambitions of their own and Peter’s songs owe little to skiffle or rock and roll.
He has been compared to Donovan and Cat Stevens, and there is a folk influence there, but he seemed to draw on cabaret and many other styles and genres too, an eclectic mix that divided critics.
His first three singles, including I am a Cathedral, hinted at a rich lyrical talent, but failed to chart. Then came Where Do You Go To, minus a verse that was deemed a little too sexy for the single. The narrator chronicles the rise of his friend or lover, while wondering what she thinks about in bed at night, finally concluding: “Look into my face Marie-Claire, and remember just who you are, Then go and forget me forever, but I know you still bear the scar, deep inside... because I can look inside your head.”
There was much speculation about the inspiration for the song, with some noting that Sophia Loren also rose from an impoverished Neapolitan background. Sarstedt suggested it was inspired by a girlfriend who died in a fire. However, in an interview a few years ago he said: “I made that up because I was under pressure to come up with an explanation.”
He said he was aware of Loren’s background, but added: “Marie-Claire was meant to be a generic European girl but if she was based on anybody it was my then girlfriend Anita Atke. I had been introduced by a fellow busker when Anita was studying in Paris in the summer of ’66 and it was love at first sight.”
They married in 1969, the year the song came out, and he moved to Denmark, where Anita worked in the rather unromantic occupation of dentist. They divorced five years later. It was the first of two marriages. He is also survived by two children, who survive him.
Sarstedt’s first album made the Top Ten and he had his own television show, but subsequent records, including the cheeky Take Off Your Clothes, reached only a limited audience. However it was reported in the 1990s that Where Do You Go To was earning him around £60,000 a year.
He continued to release new records up until a few years ago and also toured as part of Sixties nostalgia tours. He was diagnosed a few years ago with dementia, but it transpired that it was a degenerative brain condition called progressive supranuclear palsy.
Sarstedt recorded a sequel to Where Do You Go To in the 1990s, called The Last of the Breed, picking up on the story of Marie-Claire, now living in London, and referencing Harrods and John Galliano, and he had planned a final instalment called Farewell Marie-Claire, but ill health prevented him from finishing and recording it.